CHARLOTTESVILLE — Hedge fund manager Michael Bills was the top individual donor to Gov. Ralph Northam’s election campaign, but he’s disappointed with the scandal-plagued Democrat and looking to back new candidates — young, progressive, maybe even a black woman for governor.
After years behind the scenes, Bills is raising his profile with an unusual effort based on a single issue: breaking up the political influence of Dominion Energy. He expects to give millions to candidates who agree to shun donations from the state’s biggest utility and top corporate donor.
With the state’s top Democrats stung by controversy during a crucial election year, Bills and his money may be more influential than ever.
“It’s an opportunity for everybody. We’re trying to be helpful and generous,” said Bills, 61, during an interview at the offices of his Bluestem Asset Management overlooking Charlottesville’s downtown pedestrian mall.
[Anti-Dominion group claims customers pay too much for electricity]
In 2017, Bills formed the nonprofit Clean Virginia to carry out his mission of fighting Dominion’s influence over state politics. The Richmond-based utility has long been a generous giver to politicians on both sides of the aisle. It employs former lawmakers and takes an active role in state government; last year, Dominion helped shape a major rewrite of Virginia’s utility regulations that gave the monopoly much more latitude to invest in future projects with less government review of its profits.
[The giant company that could: How Dominion turned scorn into a big payday]
Bills said he came up with a unique way to take on the utility after analyzing its political donations and finding that the company averages about $1,800 per legislator.
“I said, wait a minute, I could give some amount of money to subsidize that” if candidates agreed not to accept donations from Dominion, he said. In the past year, Bills has given $410,000 to Virginia political causes — more money than Dominion’s $370,000 in the same period, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
His unusual approach has turbocharged an issue that first gained traction during Virginia’s 2017 House of Delegates races, when a handful of Democrats said they would not take Dominion money.
This year, with all 140 seats in the legislature up for reelection, 27 incumbent delegates have taken the pledge so far, along with four senators — mostly Democrats, though one Republican in each chamber has signed up.
An additional 32 candidates running for House seats have sworn off Dominion money, along with 13 Senate candidates.
Dominion declined to comment for this report, but in the past, it has defended its political giving as evenhanded and accused Bills of requiring recipients to do as he says to get his money. Some on the right have even speculated that there is Russian influence behind the anti-Dominion push.
Bills says he is just a concerned citizen who has the money to draw attention to something he cares about. He and his wife, Sonjia Smith, have been generous donors for years — almost always to Democrats, sometimes at odds with one another. Smith drew attention for backing Tom Perriello in his bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2017, while Bills went big for Northam.
His father was a career Air Force officer who settled in Hampton while Bills was in high school. After graduating from Hampton High — where he met his future wife — Bills got an economics degree at the University of Virginia and then an MBA at Columbia University.
He spent several years at Goldman Sachs in New York before returning to Charlottesville more than 25 years ago. He started Bluestem, which manages more than $1.1 billion in investor funds, and serves as its chief investment officer.
Bills has been active in environmental groups — he’s a trustee of the Environmental Defense Fund; served for a time as chief investment officer of U-Va.’s endowment; and teaches at the university’s school of commerce. He also helped found U-Va.’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, which has provided civics training to many officeholders around Virginia and which has given him a window into new generations of politicos.
Bills, who donated about $500,000 to help Northam in 2017, said he had become disappointed by the governor even before last month’s scandal over a racist photo in Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook.
Last fall, Northam replaced two members of the State Air Pollution Control Board while they were deliberating a permit for a controversial natural gas pipeline being built by Dominion. Bills said he called the governor to complain that it looked like interference. That was the last time they talked.
[‘Ugly episode:’ Northam allies slam his decision to alter board before Dominion vote]
Once the photo emerged, showing one person in blackface and another wearing Ku Klux Klan garb, Bills put out a statement urging Northam to resign.
Now, Bills sees the scandal as a chance to help new leaders. He said he traveled recently to California and the District to talk with national donors and make sure they would still take part in this year’s races in Virginia — the only state in 2019 where the parties are in a competitive fight over control of the legislature. Bills also wants to make sure national donors avoid candidates who take Dominion money.
“I am trying to make it anathema to do that,” he said.
That has put Bills on the outs with some establishment Democrats. His group has used ads to pressure the minority leaders of both chambers of the legislature: Sen. Richard L. Saslaw and Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, both Fairfax Democrats.
But it’s time, he said, for a new approach to politics — and for women and people of color to lead the way.
“It’s an opportunity for those new leaders to assert themselves,” Bills said. “There’s a lot of really dynamic, exciting new blood. New blood coming will be good for Virginia. It will reflect more the modern world and less of the cronyism of the old way.”