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Clean Virginia offers endorsements, plans 8-figure spend

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Posted at 5:18 AM, Mar 29, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Clean Virginia, the advocacy group formed to counter the influence of Dominion Energy at the state Capitol, rolled out 52 legislative endorsements Tuesday and announced plans to boost its spending by nearly $700,000, with more to come, to help those mostly Democratic candidates get elected.

The pledge of $686,500 from Clean Virginia's political action committee will bring to nearly $2.5 million its total spending in this year's election cycle in support of General Assembly candidates, Justin Jones, the political director of the Charlottesville-based group said. Over the course of the cycle, Clean Virginia plans to invest "eight figures," Jones said.

"This year's election for the General Assembly is a generational opportunity to shift the landscape in the state legislature towards one that favors a people-powered government over one dominated by corporate utility interests," Brennan Gilmore, Clean Virginia's executive director, said in a statement accompanying the announcement.

Every legislative seat is on the ballot this year in an election cycle that will determine party control of the General Assembly for the last two years of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's term. Candidates are running for the first time under new maps created during the redistricting process that ended in December 2021.

Unlike in past redistricting cycles, when lawmakers controlled the process, the new maps were drawn without regard to incumbent protection. That has contributed to a flurry of retirement announcements and to what's shaping up to be a greater number of nomination contests this year than the last cycle when all seats were on the ballot, 2019.

Among the slate of Clean Virginia-endorsed candidates are the primary opponents of George Barker and Dave Marsden, both Democratic senators from northern Virginia.

Marsden, a former acting director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice who has served in the Senate since 2010, faces Heidi Drauschak, who runs a consultancy and founded CrowdLobby, a startup aimed at helping donors pool their money to hire lobbyists.

Barker has served since 2008 in the Senate, where he now wields influence on the state budget as co-chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations committee. He faces a primary challenge from Stella Pekarsky, a former teacher who co-founded an air charter company and currently serves on the Fairfax County school board.

Gilmore said Marsden and Barker had "voted for utility profits over consumers on multiple occasions" notably in 2020, when they opposed a measure that sought to restore regulatory oversight of Dominion's rates.

In an interview Tuesday, Marsden pushed back at that characterization and expressed confidence he would secure his party's nomination. Barker didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The group is also backing Lashrecse Aird, a former Democratic member of the House of Delegates, in her primary challenge against incumbent Sen. Joe Morrissey. Gilmore called Aird a "remarkable candidate" and longtime champion of the group's issues.

A spokesman for Morrissey didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

In other nomination contests, the organization is supporting current officeholders against challengers, like in the case of Sen. Chap Petersen, another northern Virginia Democrat and a frequent critic of Dominion who currently faces two primary opponents. In some cases, it is staying neutral until after the nomination is settled, including in the Charlottesville-area Senate race between Sen. Creigh Deeds and challenger Sally Hudson, who has served two terms in the House of Delegates.

Jones declined to provide specifics on how much total funding would flow to each endorsed candidate. A fuller picture of candidates' fundraising and expenditures will be available in mid-April, when finance reports covering the first quarter of this year are due.

Clean Virginia was founded in 2018 by wealthy investor and Democratic donor Michael Bills in an effort to curb the influence of Dominion, the parent company of the state's largest electric utility that is among Virginia's top political donors and has long held major sway in crafting energy legislation. Clean Virginia lobbies on energy and campaign finance-related bills and has itself become one of the biggest donors in Virginia politics. Bills gave the Clean Virginia Fund $3.8 million earlier this month, finance records show.

A spokesman for Dominion declined to comment.

Because the group overwhelmingly backs Democrats, it has been seen by the party as an important ally in general elections. But its moves in the past against incumbents in primaries have rankled some members.

This year, two Republican candidates — Sen. David Suetterlein and House candidate Chad Green — were among the group's endorsements.

Most of the General Assembly nomination contests will be settled in a state-run primary election June 20, though Republicans have opted for other nomination methods in some legislative districts. Early voting in the primaries will begin May 5.

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