By Gregory S. Schneider,
RICHMOND — One candidate takes money from an international activist group that doesn’t disclose its sources of funding. The other takes money from Virginia’s biggest utility, which is also the top lobbyist in the state.
As Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello battle for the Democratic nomination for governor, their fundraising is emerging as an issue that defines them as much as their slim differences on policy.
Northam has called on Perriello to renounce “dark money,” just days after Perriello disclosed $230,000 in contributions from an international activist group called Avaaz, which Perriello helped found a decade ago.
As a 501c4 charity, Avaaz is not required to disclose its individual donors. According to its website, it has nearly 45 million members in 194 countries worldwide, with the greatest concentration in Brazil at nearly 9.9 million. It lists just under 2.4 million members in the United States.
The organization says it accepts no money from governments or corporations. Avaaz logged $23.4 million in contributions in 2015, according to its tax return, up from $20.1 million the year before.
Perriello co-founded Avaaz with two colleagues that had helped him start an earlier nonprofit called Res Publica, which was aimed at promoting international justice on behalf of the religious left, as Perriello told the National Catholic Reporter in 2004. One of those colleagues, Ricken Patel, a Canadian, is now Avaaz’s executive director.
Avaaz was also formed in collaboration with MoveOn.org, the Democratic online activist group that has received funding from billionaire George Soros — who is also a major Perriello campaign contributor.
Avaaz says on its website that it supports “action on pressing global, regional and national issues, from corruption and poverty to conflict and climate change.” It does this through media campaigns, lobbying efforts and organizing protest events. The organization has also drawn some international criticism for getting involved in conflicts — pushing for a no-fly zone in Libya, for instance, and for intervention in Syria.
The organization says it sets priorities through online membership polls. Among the top causes in 2016 were protecting sea life, supporting the Paris climate agreement and breaking the grip of big agribusiness companies such as Monsanto.
Though the organization spent some $400,000 to oppose President Trump’s election campaign last year, according to OpenSecrets.org, its website doesn’t reflect much participation in elections. The donation to Perriello’s campaign was the first of its kind, Avaaz spokesman Will Davies said.
“This is the first time Avaaz has ever donated to a political campaign in the U.S.,” Davies said.
Because it is not required to disclose individual donors, it’s also hard to tell whether the Avaaz money came from foreign sources, which would violate federal election law.
Emma Ruby-Sachs, the deputy director of New York-based Avaaz, said the big Perriello donation “is actually hundreds of small online donations from hundreds of Americans who are members of Avaaz that were transferred in one lump sum.”
The organization has a system to ensure the money is coming from U.S. donors, similar to methods used by other online fundraising groups, such as ActBlue, Ruby-Sachs said.
Ruby-Sachs said a huge margin of Avaaz members in the U.S. — 71 percent — voted in an online poll to support Perriello’s campaign.
She did not say how the group was able to take that poll and collect the money in time to make a $200,000 donation to Perriello on Jan. 5, the same day the former congressman stunned Virginia’s political establishment by announcing that he would compete with Northam for the nomination.
The big seed money from Avaaz was among several large donations included in Perriello’s first campaign finance disclosure, which was filed earlier this week and showed that he outraised Northam in the first three months of the year but has less cash on hand. During that time, Northam was prohibited by state law from fundraising for the 46 days the General Assembly was in session.
Perriello’s biggest donation was $500,000 in kickoff money from Sonjia Smith, a Democratic contributor from his hometown of Charlottesville.
Overall, however, Perriello’s drew far more from out of state sources than Northam — 57 percent for Perriello compared with 11 percent for Northam, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
Northam has been quick to emphasize the differences in their donor bases. After Smith published an essay in the Roanoke Times titled “I contributed $500,000 to Tom Perriello. Here’s why,” the Northam campaign jabbed back with a piece titled “I contributed $50 to Ralph Northam — here’s why,” highlighting seven of his grassroots donors.
Perriello’s campaign, which garnered a lot of national attention with an endorsement last week from Bernie Sanders, declined to comment specifically on the Avaaz contributions. Instead, a spokesman highlighted money that Northam has received from the state’s biggest utility — Dominion Power — and from the health insurer Anthem.
“Tom’s largest contributions came from people long familiar with his advocacy work on progressive causes, not from individuals or corporations with business interests before the state like Dominion or Anthem,” Perriello spokesman Ian Sams said. “So when it comes to money influencing politics, we’ll let Virginians decide which of these sources of contributions are more troubling.”
Northam reported $5,000 from Dominion executive Thomas F. Farrell II in the first quarter of this year, and took more than $20,000 from the corporation in 2016, according to VPAP.
This comes at a time when Dominion’s huge influence in Richmond is under scrutiny. More than 60 Democratic candidates in upcoming House of Delegates races have signed a pledge refusing to take money from Dominion, and Perriello has rejected the utility’s money, as well.
Northam’s campaign emphasized that 92 percent of his contributions were $100 or less, and said he isn’t influenced by big money.
“The only influence on Ralph Northam’s vote is what’s in the best interest of Virginians,” campaign spokesman David Turner said.