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INTERACTIVE: Candidates and groups drop over $12 million on Facebook ad spending

In an election forecasted to have record voter turnout, political campaigns have deployed a multiplatform media blitz. Facebook is for more than likes these days, with the platform getting its share of Virginia political and issue spending to the tune of over $12.7 million in a recent three-month period, according to the social media platform. 

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By Noah Fleischman

In an election forecasted to have record voter turnout, political campaigns have deployed a multiplatform media blitz.

Facebook is for more than likes these days, with the platform getting its share of Virginia political and issue spending to the tune of over $12.7 million in a recent three-month period, according to the social media platform.

Tobe Berkovitz, an advertising professor at Boston University who has worked as a political media consultant on election campaigns, said campaigns advertise on social media for the same reasons that consumer advertising is used.

“It’s where a lot of either voters or consumers are getting their information,” Berkovitz said. “You can specifically develop messages for individuals and smaller groups and you can very tightly target who it is that you want to reach.”

Democratic groups or candidates dominated the top 10 when ranking the largest political Facebook ad spending in Virginia. Those organizations spent a combined amount over $2.4 million. That’s excluding the money Facebook and Instagram have put into political advertising.

Facebook tracks advertising spending on issues, elections and politics in its Ad Library. The data show that over a recent 90-day period, about 2,700 groups or candidates, including Facebook and Instagram, spent over $12.7 million on Facebook ads in Virginia. During a comparable period before the election last year, Facebook ad spending totaled $5.5 million, according to a previous Capital News Service report.

The most spending from Aug. 2 to Oct. 30 went toward candidates at the top of the ballot. Over $2.2 million was spent by the two fundraising committees associated with President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden’s campaign fundraising arm The Biden Victory Fund invested more than Trump’s fundraising committee. The Biden Victory Fund spent more than $1.1 million between the pages of Biden, Kamala Harris and the Democratic Party. Over $1 million was spent on candidate Biden.

Trump’s fundraising committee The Trump Make America Great Again Committee closely trailed the Biden camp. Trump’s campaign spent just shy of $1.1 million over eight Facebook pages, including the pages of Black Voices for Trump, Mike Pence and Women for Trump. Over $750,000 of that total went to Trump’s re-election campaign.

Berkovitz said social media advertising is becoming more popular because of the analytics that are available to the campaigns.

“It provides a lot of information about the people you’re trying to reach, the people you do reach, how your message is working, what types of messages do work for them and you just have a lot more data to go on,” Berkovitz said. “We’re in a world where everything is data driven now.”

Over $1.2 million was spent on contested Virginia Congressional races and a South Carolina Senate race. Democratic incumbent in the 2nd District U.S. House race, Elaine Luria’s campaign spent more than $207,000. That lands her in the No. 4 spot. Her opponent Scott Taylor’s fundraising committee spent just shy of $62,000. Taylor previously held the seat and the election is a rematch between the two candidates.

The 7th District U.S. House race accounts for more than $15.5 million spent on all media advertising during the election season, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the Democratic incumbent, spent almost $193,000 on Facebook advertising in the last 90 days. Nick Freitas, Spanberger’s Republican opponent, spent just shy of $24,000 in the same time span. Most of the money for this closely watched race has been spent on broadcast and cable TV advertising.

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner’s fundraising committee spent over $186,000 in the effort to keep his 1st District U.S. Senate seat. Daniel Gade, his Republican challenger, spent significantly less through his campaign arm, investing just under $42,000.

A South Carolina Senate race between Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and his Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison landed in the No. 8 and No. 9 slots, spending a combined amount of over $310,000. Jaime Harrison for U.S. Senate spent over $156,000. Team Graham Inc. spent just shy of $154,000.

Advocacy groups turn to the platform for the same reason as politicians. Stop Republicans, a self-described accountability campaign of the Progressive Turnout Project, made the No. 3 spot with just under $230,000 spent targeting Virginians through Facebook. The Progressive Turnout Project ranks No. 7 with $164,000 spent during the last 90 days.

The Service Employees International Union Committee on Political Education rounded out the top 10, spending just over $151,000. SEIU is a labor union representing workers in the healthcare industry, public sector and property services. The organization spent millions nationwide this election cycle to get out the vote, target infrequent voters and promote progressive candidates.

The political advertising total in Virginia is lower compared to Florida, where almost $85 million was spent in the same 90-day period. In swing state Pennsylvania just over $57 million was spent. Over $45.2 million was spent in targeted Facebook advertising in neighboring North Carolina.

Facebook isn’t oblivious to the influence its platform has. The company recently imposed a ban on new political ads from being placed leading up to Election Day.

Judi Crenshaw, who teaches public relations at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Facebook’s ban was “an effort to put the brakes on this influence and this disinformation leading up to the election.”

“I don’t know what else to call it except for an attempt,” Crenshaw said. “It’s a last minute attempt and it certainly is a very limited attempt when ads that were placed before this period of time are still allowed to run.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

Downtown

House panel kills watered-down GOP bill on retail marijuana sales

In a nod to the political reality that the Virginia General Assembly is unlikely to legalize retail sales of marijuana this session, a Republican lawmaker encouraged his colleagues to just ask the state’s Cannabis Control Authority to start drawing up rules for a retail marketplace that legislators could look at next year.

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By Graham Moomaw

In a nod to the political reality that the Virginia General Assembly is unlikely to legalize retail sales of marijuana this session, a Republican lawmaker encouraged his colleagues to just ask the state’s Cannabis Control Authority to start drawing up rules for a retail marketplace that legislators could look at next year.

Speaking before a GOP-led House of Delegates subcommittee Tuesday night, Del. Keith Hodges, R-Middlesex, said he’s never been a big fan of sanctioning recreational marijuana use. But, he added, Virginia’s refusal to allow retail marijuana sales — while making marijuana legal to grow at home and possess in small amounts — has created public safety risks from unregulated products that are more widely available than ever.

“If we do nothing, we have a problem on our hands,” Hodges said. “And we need to protect the citizens of Virginia from the illicit market.”

Greg Habeeb, a former Republican delegate turned lobbyist who represents the Virginia Cannabis Association, said the watered-down bill should be entirely uncontroversial and something even Gov. Glenn Youngkin could support, despite the administration’s reluctance to get behind legal weed sales.

“All this bill does is says the [Cannabis Control Authority], that you all have propped up and funded, should do its job of advising you guys of what a market could look like next year,” Habeeb said.

The vote on the bill was far from unanimous. It failed 5-2, with Republicans opposing it and Democrats supporting it. The same subcommittee also rejected a different Republican-sponsored bill that would have actually established a retail marijuana market rather than planning how it could be done in the future.

The Democratic-led state Senate is still working on its own marijuana sales bill, but the action in the House Tuesday evening is a strong sign the 2023 session will be another year of deadlock on the issue.

As he made a motion to block the legislation that simply asked the cannabis board to begin drafting rules for how a retail marketplace would function, Del. Chris Runion, R-Rockingham, said the bill didn’t do anything to address illegal or dangerous products currently being sold in Virginia.

“We do have several bills moving forward that address that,” Runion said. “So I think that needs to be our focus.”

Runion did not lay out a case for why the General Assembly can’t pass both bills, moving toward a retail marketplace while also cracking down on largely unregulated products like hemp-derived delta-8, which can still get users high even though it’s technically not marijuana.

The Youngkin administration is backing legislation to impose stricter regulations on businesses that sell those products, with a particular eye toward protecting children from THC-infused edibles that often come in colorful but confusingly labeled packaging.

Because the hemp regulation bills appear to be moving forward in the Senate, there’s still a chance advocates could try to tie the two issues together. The Youngkin administration has pushed back against that approach.

“The decision on whether to legalize retail sales and whether to clean up harmful hemp products hopefully should be considered separately,” Parker Slaybaugh, chief deputy secretary of agriculture and forestry, told lawmakers at a committee hearing.

Numerous representatives from the cannabis industry have insisted the two topics can’t be separated, arguing the state’s problem with unregulated intoxicating products is a direct result of lawmakers’ failure to set up a state-sanctioned market with safer, legal products.

A lobbyist for Jushi, a company that has one of Virginia’s few licenses to sell medical cannabis but also sells recreational products in states that allow them, emphasized that nothing in the scaled-back, one-page Hodges bill would cause any new dispensaries to open.

“We do things incrementally in Virginia,” said Jushi representative Hunter Jamerson. “I think this is that incremental approach.”

The status of two hemp regulation bills in the House was unclear as of Wednesday afternoon, when both were surprisingly voted down 11-9 in the Courts of Justice Committee. The committee is not yet done with its meetings, so the legislation could still be revived for another vote.

Linking the marijuana and hemp bills together could force the two sides to negotiate a deal later in the session. However, it could also raise the possibility of failure on both fronts if Democrats refuse to support standalone hemp legislation and Republicans insist on blocking retail weed sales.

On the Senate side, the major cannabis bills are pending in the Finance and Appropriations Committee, which is set to meet Thursday. At the urging of progressive activists, the Senate marijuana bill was amended to give Virginians incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses an opportunity to have their sentences reconsidered by the courts. Some Democrats have insisted on that provision, which supporters see as a matter of fairness to Black communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition.

The crossover deadline for each chamber to finish work on its own bills is Tuesday.

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County of Henrico

Solar panel system proposed for two-acre site at closed Springfield Road Landfill

Under a proposal set for consideration by the Board of Supervisors, BrightSuite, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, would design, install and maintain a 349-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system on about 2 acres at the closed Springfield Road Landfill, 10600 Fords Country Lane in western Henrico.

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Henrico County is poised to become the first locality in the region and one of the first in Virginia to have solar panels installed at a closed landfill, which would generate reduced-cost, renewable energy to power a nearby sewage pump station.

Under a proposal set for consideration by the Board of Supervisors, BrightSuite, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, would design, install and maintain a 349-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system on about 2 acres at the closed Springfield Road Landfill, 10600 Fords Country Lane in western Henrico.

In addition to leasing the site for $1 per year, Henrico would purchase the electricity generated by the solar array to provide up to 100% of the power needed to operate the Allen’s Branch Sewage Pump Station. By allowing the county to receive a lower rate, the arrangement would save taxpayers an estimated $600,000 to $700,000 on electricity costs over the 30-year lease term. If approved, the system would likely become operational by spring 2025.

“Installing solar panels at the closed Springfield Road Landfill makes sense in every respect,” said Supervisor Tommy M. Branin, whose Three Chopt District includes the landfill. “It benefits the environment by capturing renewable energy from the sun and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. It creates a good use for land that cannot be developed. It also serves taxpayers, because we’ll pay nothing to build or operate the system, and we’ll buy electricity at a discount. I applaud BrightSuite for partnering with us to advance Henrico’s Go Green initiative while also continuing to protect the landfill’s liner systems and environment.”

At the Board of Supervisors retreat last January, Branin urged officials with the county and Dominion Energy to investigate ways to use the Springfield Road Landfill as a potential site for solar panels. The proposed partnership would be Dominion Energy’s first landfill project with a locality in the region. While solar panel systems have been installed at capped landfills in other states, officials said they are aware of only several other places in Virginia – including in Fairfax and Albemarle counties – where solar panels may be placed at a landfill.

“Henrico’s proposed agreement with BrightSuite underscores our county’s commitment to being a leader on the environment,” County Manager John A. Vithoulkas said. “I applaud the Board of Supervisors for continuing to challenge and inspire us to innovate and do more in this realm. Solar power is a significant part of our future, and it delivers great value for our taxpayers.”

“We are excited to partner with Henrico County on this innovative solar project at the Springfield Road Landfill, the first of its kind in the region between a locality and Dominion Energy,” said Joe Woomer, Dominion Energy’s vice president of new business and customer solutions. “This project closely aligns with Dominion Energy’s vision of becoming the most sustainable energy company in the country, while helping the county grow its use of renewable energy and enhance its environmental stewardship.”

Dominion Energy, through BrightSuite, provides sustainable energy solutions for homes and businesses. With nearly 25 megawatts of rooftop and ground-mounted solar systems in operation, BrightSuite is one of the top solar providers in the Commonwealth.

The 191-acre Springfield Road Landfill operated as a municipal landfill from the late 1960s to 2014. It currently serves as one of the county’s two public use areas, which receive household and yard waste as well as recyclables for transport offsite. Since 2010, a four-megawatt generator has captured methane gas produced by the landfill and converted it into electricity that is exported to the utility grid for sale.

The Springfield Road Landfill would become Henrico’s seventh county-owned site with a solar photovoltaic system. Through the county’s partnership with BrightSuite, rooftop solar systems have been installed at the Public Safety Building, Highland Springs High School, Holladay Elementary School and J.R. Tucker High School. The county also has solar systems at the Libbie Mill Library and Mental Health East Center.

Similar systems are planned at the Division of Recreation & Parks’ administration building, Fairfield Area Library and five schools: Glen Allen High, Holman Middle, Colonial Trail Elementary, Harvie Elementary and Kaechele Elementary. In addition, a ground-mounted system is under design for the James River Juvenile Detention Center campus. With each system, Henrico pays no capital or ongoing maintenance costs, and it buys electricity at negotiated rates that are competitive with those available through utility grid systems.

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Downtown

Sunshine bills would streamline public records process

Two Virginia General Assembly bills seeking to strengthen the state’s Freedom of Information Act will advance to the House calendar. 

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By Gabriela de Camargo Gonçalves

Two Virginia General Assembly bills seeking to strengthen the state’s Freedom of Information Act will advance to the House calendar.

Virginia FOIA laws, also known as sunshine laws, require public institutions to disclose public records, and provide access to government meetings unless an exemption applies.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, introduced House Bill 2006 and HB 2007, which reported out of a committee on Thursday.

Government agencies can charge to provide public records. HB 2006 asks for such charges to have an electronic payment option. HB 2007 proposes that a public body state on its website how it assesses fees.

“I am for better or worse — and God, it seems like worse sometimes — absolutely hellbent on being the voice, if there can be no other, who is going to strongly, passionately support an accessible, strong Freedom of Information Act, as opposed to a restricted one that has so many exemptions,” Roem said.

Roem encountered FOIAs in her more than 10 years as a journalist before going into public office. She recalled several deterrents to access public records requests. A constituent drove 40 minutes across the county to deliver a physical check to have a request fulfilled, Roem said.

“The current version more resembles a block of legislative Swiss cheese, than it does the law of the code of Virginia,” Roem said.

Roem introduced FOIA legislation in prior sessions that did not advance, such as proposals to create a FOIA ombudsman — a designated authority — in the attorney general’s office, establish a cap on hourly billing charges to fulfill records requests and to allow some free FOIA requests, with conditions.

“The point of the Freedom of Information Act is for the public to find out what the hell is going on with its government,” Roem said. “For reporters to be able to perform their most essential duties, which is watchdog of the government.”

Fewer people are using traditional forms of payment, so the proposed bills are a “step forward with the times,” Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, stated in an email interview.

“If local governments are already using electronic means for various public transactions, like paying taxes via an electronic check or paying a recycling invoice by credit card, then they should use those systems to accept payment for FOIA requests,” Rhyne stated.

This will help citizens who are “often blindsided” by the costs associated with sunshine laws, according to Rhyne.

“I support both of these bills, both of which are trying to chip away at the way in which the increasing costs of FOIA requests are putting government information out of the reach of the taxpayer,” Rhyne stated.

The methods of getting information are “crucially important in this time.” There is less media coverage on the government in some parts of the state, according to Dina Weinstein, president of the Virginia Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“We need to know this information and making it inaccessible is not democratic,” Weinstein said.

A fee used to be an exception for a FOIA requester, but it is increasingly becoming the rule, said Tom Nash, the Virginia proxy for the nonprofit MuckRock. The organization aims to make government more transparent and helps file FOIA requests, according to its website.

“It’s important for people to keep in mind that when government agencies ask us to pay for FOIA requests, essentially, we are paying for the same information twice,” Nash said. “Because we’ve already been paying government officials to do the work that they do, and part of that work is making documents.”

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