RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Donald Trump’s often contentious path to becoming the 45th president included unusual battles with major businesses like Macy’s and Amazon.
Trump mocked Macy’s financial performances after the national retailer stopped selling his clothing line after the then presidential candidate made derogatory comments about Mexicans. Trump also accused Amazon of “getting away with murder, tax wise” after accusing its CEO of other improprieties.
Now insurgent candidates in Virginia’s gubernatorial race — one of the most closely watched contests of 2017 — are employing the same combative technique.
Their target: energy giant Dominion Resources, who critics says uses its political leverage to abuse property rights and overcharge its customers for electricity.
Dominion, the biggest corporate donor in Virginia politics, said its customers are happy with its service.
Two out of four GOP primary contestants are openly hostile to Dominion and want to ban the company from making campaign donations. An insurgent Democrat is indicating he’ll make the company’s broad political influence a significant campaign talking point.
The jabs at Dominion come as Virginia’s gubernatorial race moves into the national spotlight. It is one of two states, along with New Jersey, to have scheduled gubernatorial elections in the country and Trump fans and critics want to use the contest as a referendum on the president’s first months in office.
Two GOP candidates running say Trump’s style of calling out companies by names resonated with voters, and is something they will replicate.
“Somebody has to drag these vampires into the sunlight,” said GOP candidate Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner who battled Dominion over eminent domain issues. Riggleman had a Capitol news conference Tuesday to pledge support for longshot legislation that would prohibit regulated monopolies from making campaign contributions. A Dominion subsidiary is a regulated electric utility that provides service to about two thirds of the state.
Republican Corey Stewart, a one-time Trump campaign chairman in Virginia, said if elected he would support the ban on donations from regulated monopolies as well and would look at other areas to curb the company’s political influence.
“They have virtually every member of the General Assembly in their pocket,” Stewart said.
Stewart and Riggleman are facing off against Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and state Sen. Frank Wagner, who has long been a strong supporter of Dominion.
On the Democratic side, former Congressman Tom Perriello is also making Dominion’s influence a campaign issue.
“Tom believes our political system has become too rigged in favor of big corporations and special interests and that Virginians suffer when the very politicians charged with regulating monopolies accept campaign contributions from them,” his spokesman Ian Sams said.
Perriello is competing with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the party’s establishment favorite who — like virtually every politician in the state — has received donations from Dominion. A spokesman for Northam said he is committed to making sure “we get best the deal for ratepayers.”
Both parties hold their primaries in June.
It’s unclear how much traction the candidates will get from attacking Dominion, which has massive resources to defend itself. The company currently spends millions of dollars each year on positive advertising and charitable giving, in addition to heavy spending on political campaigns and lobbying.
Said company spokesman David Botkins: “Our 2.5 million customers tell us they are very, very happy with their low rates, superb reliability, cleaner air, and an energy independent Virginia.”
But the company also has plenty of critics, ranging from property owners who say the company infringes on their rights to environmentalists who say the company is too slow to embrace renewable energy sources. Businesses and consumer groups also complain that Dominion has used its political power to set unnecessarily high electric rates.
Dominion-backed legislation limiting the State Corporation Commission’s ability to set rates is costing a typical customer $68 a year, according to one business group’s calculations. Dominion disputes those figures.
Populist-led efforts in Virginia have not had much success in previous campaign cycles. But Riggleman said Trump’s victory, along with Rep. Dave Brat’s surprise win over then U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014, showed that “maybe attacking the big boys can do pretty well.”
“I think people have had it,” Riggleman said.
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