MINDEN —A candidate for West Virginia House of Delegates is pledging to support the strictest campaign finance legislation in the nation, and more than 50 other candidates in Mountain State races have pledged their support, too.
The bill, which a group of legislators are expected to introduce in Charleston in January, aims to break the "cycle of legalized corruption" in U.S. government that was identified in a 2014 study by researchers from Princeton University and Northwestern University, which found that from 2009 to 2014, the 200 most politically active companies in the U.S. spent $5.8 billion influencing the government with lobbying and campaign contributions.
Those same companies got $4.4 trillion in taxpayer support — earning a return of 750 times their investment, the study found.
Selina Vickers, who is running for the District 32 seat, has pledged not to accept any corporate money. On Thursday, she and other candidates met with residents in Minden, a contaminated Fayette County neighborhood where a large number of residents report cancers, to pledge support for campaign finance reform.
The bill is part of West Virginia Can't Wait, which aims to win a "people's government" in West Virginia.
Standing with a mountain silhouetted in the background and a burned-out lot and flood-damaged home behind her, Vickers said that, if elected, she wants to pass the "end of buying elections" in the state.
"We have elected representatives that are so arrogant and smug that they won't even meet with their constituents," she said. "They won't take time to listen to them, either during their legislative session, or when they come home.
"But, they're fine with meeting with people who agree with them and who give them the large campaign contributions.
"What about everyone else?"
Under the "West Virginia Can't Wait to End the Buying of Elections" plan, lobbyists would be charged a fee. The fee would fund public elections in all state races, and out-of-state lobbyists would pay the "lion's share."
The plan caps self-funding by all candidates at $1,000 and requires all candidates and lawmakers to submit income tax filings and to post their donor lists publicly in their offices and on legislature websites.
"How would that be?" Vickers asked on Thursday. "You show up to ask your legislator to help you because your water is poisoned, only to see that a sign on their door showing how much money they've taken from the company doing the poisoning.
"That would be helpful to know, wouldn't it?"
The plan also calls for a lifetime ban on lobbyists becoming legislators. And it would make it illegal for a legislator to serve as a lobbyist.
"This is not only legal now, it happens," noted Vickers. "
Vickers cited a 2014 study by professors from Princeton University and Northwestern University which aimed to answer the question, "Does the government represent the people?"
The study found that public opinion has "near zero" impact on U.S. law.
"Corruption is legal," researchers wrote.
According to the study, only money influences the government of Americans.
"While the opinions of the bottom 90 percent of income earners in America have a 'statistically non-significant impact,' economic elites, business interests, and people who can afford lobbyists still carry major influence," researchers noted. "As the cost of winning elections explodes, politicians of both political parties become ever more dependent on the tiny slice of the population who can bankroll their campaigns."
The study found that to win a Senate seat in 2014, candidates had to raise $14,351 every single day.
"Just .05 percent of Americans donate more than $10,000 in any election, so it’s perfectly clear who candidates will turn to first, and who they’re indebted to when they win," researchers wrote. "In return for campaign donations, elected officials pass laws that are good for their mega-donors, and bad for the rest of us."
Vickers said the proposed changes to campaign finance would put West Virginia at the forefront of campaign reform in the nation.
Annetta Coffman, 45, also spoke in favor of Vickers' plan.
Coffman grew up in Minden, home to a Superfund site that was placed on the United States Department of Environmental Protection (EPA) National Priorities List due to contamination by the carcinogen PCB. A large number of Minden residents and former residents report cancers and other illnesses, which they believe is due to PCB exposure.
EPA officials botched clean-up efforts repeatedly in Minden since the 1980s. The agency added Minden to NPL after a public outcry from residents and politicians, once the information was published by local and national media outlets.
Minden properties have also been targeted for arson, with around 68 properties being burned down in the past 10 years. No arrests have been made.
Coffman was forced to abandon her home when a recent flood caused extensive damage, including black mold. She now rents in Oak Hill.
She believes that campaign finance changes will encourage politicians to take seriously the concerns of those who do not live in privileged neighborhoods.
"My location is just one of many where people were affected," she said. "It's Minden.
"People don't take us serious. We've been called crazy, that we should just shut up, because we're going to make the issues worse.
"But you can't make it worse, unless you stay silent," she added. "That's why I've always been vocal about Minden.
"That's why I'll always be vocal about Minden."
She added that many residents of Minden are educated, intelligent people but that they are ignored because they live in a poorer community. She said that residents of Page in Fayette County, who recently marched because their drinking water is brown, are facing a similar situation in which their needs are being ignored.
"I think, in richer communities, it'd be like, 'Let's run a fresh water line to these people. Let's get this done,' but because people are poor...they're put on the back burner.
"It's not right," said Coffman. "It's absolutely not fair, and it's time that ends."
Vickers said that if residents of Minden had had more money, local and state politicians would have taken their concerns more seriously.
Under the proposed campaign finance changes, the average citizen would have as much influence in government as billionaires and corporations.
Vickers said the goal is for everyone's concerns to be heard, equally.
"Big corporations and wealthy donors, even people who don't live in West Virginia, are allowed to give thousands of dollars to a candidate, write a bill that they want, make an appointment and hand it to them and have a good possibility of getting it passed," said Vickers. "Do you think the people in this community could do that.
"If they could've done it, the industrial waste would have been cleaned up and long gone, or they would've been bought out and living somewhere else."
Citizen and Fayette COunty native Jean Evansmore said that she had first heard of Minden's PCB plight when she lived in Rhode Island in the 1980s. When she moved back in the 1990s, she said, the people of Minden were still fighting federal, state and local officials for help with environmental contamination and illnesses.
Vickers was joined by Mary Ann Claytor, a certified public accountant (CPA), who is running for the West Virginia Auditor's position, and Hilary Turner, who is running against Republican incumbent Carol Miller for the U.S. House District 3 seat.
Both Claytor and Turner voiced support for the West Virginia Can't Wait campaign finance reform bill.
In the past two years, WV Can’t Wait has recruited 101 candidates to run for office, with each committing to reject corporate donations, to never hide from a debate and to never cross a picket line.