Consider Virginia’s dark ages of campaign finance disclosure. The state was one of the dozen or so with no limits on the amount of money a person or a corporation could give to a candidate. Oh, wait, it still is. But, back in the dark ages, defined here as before 1997 or the pre-Virginia Public Access Project era, those financial disclosures were paper-only, could run to the hundreds of pages, and were stashed in the state agency file cabinets. So, one would have to travel to Richmond to search through reams of paper to find out who was donating what to whom — making deciphering trends a Herculean task.
In 1995, two newspapers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Virginian-Pilot, had built electronic databases of campaign finance information.
“After that, the papers got together and said, ‘This is great stuff, but it’s killed us. It’s bigger than any one paper. Let’s get a group together,’ ” says David Poole, VPAP’s executive director, who at the time was the Roanoke Times’ state political reporter. Five newspapers joined forces. Poole took a leave of absence in late 1996 to build a searchable database, and “that’s when this dim light bulb went off over my head and I thought, ‘Hey, maybe I can turn this into a public resource.”
Which is exactly what he has done. Poole founded VPAP as a nonpartisan nonprofit in 1997 and has since turned it into a motherlode of campaign finance information about legislators and lobbyists, with page links, infographics and maps galore. Now, it’s rolling out “All Politics is Local,” which will see its official launch next month, just in time for the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries.
“We are trying to become the Zillow of Virginia politics,” Poole says. “Plug in your address and you can see where you vote, who your representatives are, what bills they’ve introduced, who donated to them, what’s on the ballot where you vote. You can see who is donating from your ZIP code and news clippings from your locality.”
Really, the only thing VPAP doesn’t do is deliver election-night pizza.
We’ve just wrapped up state legislative elections and as we enter this presidential election year, here’s to VPAP, champion of transparency in politics and our Richmonder of the Month.