Former PAC Rejector Elaine Luria Is Now Taking Checks From Raytheon and Rolls-Royce
In her first ever run for office in 2018, Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria had a sharp diagnosis of what ailed U.S. policy making: the toxic influence of campaign contributions from powerful industries.
“There are many obstacles to cutting prescription drug costs, and I think that’s because the leadership in Congress who is there to vote on this and bring this legislation to the floor, they’re accepting thousands if not millions of dollars from prescription drug companies,” Luria said in a debate held shortly before the midterm elections. “A key tenet in my campaign is that I am not accepting any corporate PAC contributions. Not from prescription drug companies, not from oil companies, not from health care companies, not from private prisons, not from anyone who can influence my vote when I go to Washington.”
Luria was one of 85 Democratic candidates that cycle who took the “No Corporate PAC Money” pledge, a stance that they would not accept checks that corporations send far and wide to congressional candidates through their PACs. The pledge held its appeal in the 2020 cycle, with virtually every Democratic presidential candidate signing on and more congressional candidates, even though as a practical matter contributions from corporate PACs are often a small share of Democratic candidates’ fundraising hauls, and there are gigantic loopholes that render the pledge mostly symbolic.
Luria, who had previously served for two decades as a Navy officer, won her House race in 2018 with 51.05% of the vote in Virginia’s Second Congressional District, home to eight major military bases. Right after the 2018 election, corporate lobbyists teased their plans to reach the 32 pledge-signing members with campaign donations anyway. To make things even easier for them, Luria was one of six Democratic members who had signed the pledge yet received money from a shell PAC that was funded by corporate PACs, in addition to taking corporate PAC money through PACs like that of the New Democrat Coalition.
Throughout last year, Luria’s compliance with the No Corporate PAC Money pledge was in limbo—the reform group organizing the pledge, End Citizens United (ECU), listed Luria as a pledge signer in its scorecards, though Luria was not endorsed by ECU in March, and after the election ECU said she had broken the pledge. During her campaign, Luria was mentioned as a past pledge signer in an August 2020 fact check by Politifact.
A Sludge review of Luria’s pre-election campaign receipts showed that she had quietly stopped observing the pledge in September, accepting donations from the PAC of a law firm. Luria evaded questions from End Citizens United and local reporters for weeks about whether she was still observing the pledge she had taken “so coastal Virginians will know that I represent them and no one else.”
After Luria won reelection in November, her campaign finance disclosure for the final quarter of 2020 showed she had accepted more corporate PAC donations.
Finally just this weekend, Luria’s campaign confirmed what had been clear from her ducking the question over the past few months: “She did not take the pledge in 2020,” campaign manager Kate Fegley emailed public media outlet VPM. The acknowledgement comes after raking in corporate PAC contributions after the election from the PACs of Altria and Google, as well as from the PACs of defense contractors BAE Systems, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Rolls-Royce North America. The $34,000 in contributions from corporate PACs was put towards retiring Luria’s campaign debt, Roll Call reported last week. Other corporate PACs that gave to Luria in the fourth quarter include those affiliated with Aflac, Comcast, iHeartMedia, corporate law firm McGuireWoods, and Ernst & Young. The PAC of Virginia-based IT company Serco, which disclosed contributing $2,000 to Luria on Nov. 18, appears in Luria’s year-end campaign disclosure with the date of Dec. 9, after the post-general FEC filing deadline.
Last week, Luria was elected to be vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee, which wields control over the defense budget. Luria will now be making decisions with the peace of mind that comes from having companies like Rolls-Royce, which makes billions in annual revenue from aerospace, marine, and nuclear technology contracts under the committee’s jurisdiction, help wipe out her reelection debt. Luria told The Virginian-Pilot that a top priority for the committee will be expanding the base of industries that build and maintain Navy ships, which her congressional neighbor and fellow committee member Republican Rep. Rob Wittman said would mean an increased role for private contractors.
When The Virginian-Pilot reached Luria’s staff last week to ask why Luria had dropped the pledge, Fegley’s response tried to confuse matters. “We’ve always taken ideological PAC money, association PAC money, and labor PAC money. All of our reports show that. The new element is corporate employee pooled money. All these PAC funds come from individual small dollar contributions from employees,” Fegley wrote.
This answer is grimly amusing: campaign finance laws prohibit corporations from making donations to federal candidates, instead requiring them to donate through separate segregated funds of pooled donations from executives and employees (aka PACs). Virginians can fairly wonder if Luria, who in 2018 said she was “committed to living her value of reforming campaign finance laws,” could have addressed the press questions herself, rather than tasking her campaign manager with issuing a misleading non-response.
In her first campaign, Luria wrote disapprovingly on Facebook about a former congressman, whose office had a saying: “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”
“This kind of pay-to-play governance is unacceptable, that’s why I’ve pledged to reject corporate PAC donations,” Luria wrote.
One of her post-election contributions came from the PAC of nuclear weapons contractor BWX Technologies, which spent nearly $1.4 million in lobbying from 2019-2020, on topics including the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and “Matters relating to shipbuilding, naval reactors, space and national security.” Luria contributors Comcast, Boeing, and Raytheon are among the top spenders on federal lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and General Dynamics is no slouch, with over $10 million spent on lobbying last year.
While the congresswoman won’t speak directly to Virginia press on the issue, she apparently still holds some belief in the corrosive influence of campaign dollars from industries with heavy lobbying presences on the Hill, as she is still a signer of the No Fossil Fuel Money PAC that bars large donations from PACs or executives in the fossil fuel industry. Luria joined in specifying that she would not accept any funding from major Virginia power company Dominion Energy. In the previous Congress, Luria was one of four co-chairs of the New Democrat Coalition Climate Change Task Force which claims to be working on meeting the climate goals set out in the Paris Agreement. The U.S. military is the largest pollution emitter in the world, and the largest consumer of oil, according to a 2019 report from Brown University’s Watson Institute on the Costs of War.
In her first term, in under two years in Congress, Luria dropped what she had called a “key tenet” by taking contributions from the PACs of weapons contractors that will lobby her committee for defense budget dollars. Last summer, Luria voted with a majority of House Democrats to not adopt an amendment that would have reduced the Pentagon’s budget by 10%, joining Republicans in shooting down the proposal by a vote of 324-93.
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