Ken Plum: Earning the Public’s Trust

Ken Plum: Earning the Public’s Trust

After 50 years in public service to Virginia as a teacher, as the Fairfax County Public Schools Supervisor, and as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates for 44 years, Delegate Ken Plum, is retiring. Plum has worked tirelessly through the highs and lows of crafting public policy in our Commonwealth to make life better for all Virginians. 

One of Plum’s most steadfast and transformative efforts came to fruition during the 2020 General Assembly. In 2020 Virginia approved a constitutional amendment to improve Virginia’s redistricting process. As always, redrawing our voting lines was difficult, but in 2021 our final maps became clearly fairer.  With voting districts now representing real communities rather than political interests, we should see faster and better progress toward many solutions that Plum championed in transportation, criminal justice, gun safety, and public school funding.

I’m sure that Plum would agree that anytime we can improve our democratic process, everyday citizens strengthen their influence in state government. This is critical to ensure that our public policies balance the interests of all Virginians and ensure that everyone has an equal voice. Next steps in strengthening Virginia’s democracy are proper election reforms to address the outsized influence of money in our elections and investing in ethics guardrails for our legislators.

Today, Virginia finds itself among the worst-performing states in the union when it comes to transparency and accountability to its citizens. This assessment comes from the non-partisan group, Coalition for Integrity, which ranked Virginia practically at the bottom -- in 46th place. Their report notes that Virginia’s campaign finance laws were among the weakest in the country, and that Virginia is one of only five states with no campaign finance limits. These problems are compounded by a lack of regulatory authority in the Department of Elections to enforce existing laws. Meanwhile, our ethics agencies, which are supposed to ensure that no interest comes before the public interest, are routinely undermined by their lack of power to investigate reports of wrongdoing by legislators or to impose sanctions. Ethics agency staff can be dismissed without cause, which itself is an ethics violation.   

After witnessing one of the most expensive and tumultuous elections in Virginia’s history, citizens are asking for commonsense campaign finance bills to get our legislature back on track. We need limits on campaign donations, possibly coupled with public financing of elections. This would allow the best and the brightest candidates, of all walks of life, to run against opponents who are funded by special interests. According to a 2021 Wason Center poll, 88% of Virginians support disclosure of dark money advertising and 73% support reasonable restrictions on personal use of campaign funds. These citizen values should also be included in any reform measure.

Campaign finance reforms, along with long-needed ethics reforms, have been proposed for decades, both in Governor Wilder’s 1994 “Commission Report on Campaign Finance Reform” as well as an “Integrity and Public Confidence” report commissioned by Governor McAuliffe in 2014. Both commissions recommended key policy reforms critical to building public trust. Currently, the Virginia Ethics Advisory Council is simply pointing out the boundaries of our ethics laws and telling legislators how they can avoid penalties for accepting gifts. As it stands, our rules are opaque, and legislators can submit inaccurate, incomplete financial disclosure statements without risk of penalty. We need ethical standards and a commission with some real regulatory power to hold legislators accountable to the rules – and the Virginians they were elected to represent.  

In recognition of Ken Plum’s remarkable commitment to good governance, we hope that during the 2024 legislative session Virginia can pass laws that will build public trust in Virginia’s governing institutions. Other states have implemented needed reforms and improved their transparency and accountability to voters. Now is the time to follow Ken Plum’s example by establishing similar commonsense and enforceable campaign finance and ethics laws in Virginia.