PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — The primary race for a state House seat that for years has gone uncontested, has now surpassed $1 million in fundraising.
Three candidates are vying to be Democrats’ choice to head to Richmond this coming winter to represent the people of Virginia’s 79th House of Delegates district: Incumbent Del. Steve Heretick, Nadarius Clark and Dante Walston.
While the candidates themselves say they are running because of a difference in political ideology, it’s the stakeholders funding their campaigns that are even more at odds.
Heretick, 61, has represented the district — which includes parts of Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Norfolk — since 2016 when he beat out longtime incumbent Johnny Joannou for the Democratic nomination.
He describes himself as a moderate who is pro-business. While he was an early supporter of legalizing marijuana in Virginia, he has sided with Republicans on issues having to do with banning assault weapons and allowing localities to relocate Confederate monuments.
He has raised more than $460,000 so far this campaign, an amount more than his fundraising total for his previous state campaigns combined.
And yet he still has been outraised.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this one,” Heretick said.
Clark — a Portsmouth native and first-time political candidate who has worked for political campaigns in the past — has raised more than $500,000, the majority of which comes from the Commonwealth Forward PAC.
Clark has accepted nearly $330,000 from the political action committee that says it “supports candidates for the Virginia General Assembly who stand up to corporate influence and fight for racial, environmental, and economic justice,” according to its website. Clark is one of three statewide candidates they’ve endorsed.
Commonwealth Forward has set up a website to bash Heretick, calling out his voting record, the ongoing federal lawsuit accusing him of participating in a scheme as an attorney and his Dominion Energy campaign contributions.
Commonwealth Forward has received nearly $1 million in donations from Clean Virginia PAC, according to campaign finance reports. Clean Virginia PAC’s sole contributor in 2021 is Charlottesville Billionaire Michael Bills — a vocal critic of Dominion Energy.
The power company is a longtime stalwart in Virginia politics and a major source of corporate campaign donations. Bills, who manages a $1.5 billion investment fund, wants the state to ban regulated monopolies like Dominion from being able to give donations to politicians that have the power to regulate them.
The power company has given Heretick $120,000 this campaign cycle. He said he is being punished for not going along with Bills’ plan.
“I represent the people of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake, not some hedge fund manager from Charlottesville. I’ve declined to take his money, I’ve declined to take his pledge,” Heretick said. “Dominion Power has never asked me to cast a vote in any direction ever, and I would never take advice like that.”
Still, Heretick doesn’t think the government should place limits on how many donations a political campaign can accept. Clark and Walston– who tout more progressive outlooks — are in favor of the limits.
“I already pledged to not take money from corporations and that is exactly what I plan to do. That’s another reason a lot of PACs and a lot of green initiatives have been supporting me,” Clark said, adding that he also outraised Heretick in small donations.
Walston — a vessel coordinator at the Port of Virginia who ran for Portsmouth City Council last year and lost — has only raised just over $17,000, which happens to be the yearly salary of a delegate.
“I’m very principled on not being bought out,” Walston said. “And unfortunately, you got a young guy that’s being bought out in one direction. And then you have an incumbent who has been bought out in another direction.”
But why is it this race in Hampton Roads seeing such a spending spree?
While neither Clean Energy Virginia nor Commonwealth Forward responded to 10 On Your Side’s request for comment, Dominion Energy released a statement on why it had donated heavily to Heretick.
“Our contributions are both transparent and bipartisan. The CIA-Zicklin rankings place us in the top tier for transparency. Our employees and customers want, deserve and expect to have a voice as part of the public policy and political process,” said Rayhan Daudani, media relations manager for Dominion Energy.
Dr. Ben Melusky, a political scientist at Old Dominion University, thinks it has to do with what is likely to happen regardless in November.
“They figure the seat is a safe Democrat hold,” Melusky said. “So, Commonwealth Forward and Clean Virginia don’t have to worry about that and can push for an upgrade on someone more favorable to their interests… I think it’s a fight between PACs more than anything else. It just happens to be taking the shape in the 79th primary.”