Inspired by its activist role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, David Denham joined the United Church of Christ because he wanted to become a “troublemaking minister”. After more than 40 years leading congregations up and down the Mid-Atlantic States region, Denham and his wife Ann remain fervent troublemakers – proudly recalling their civil disobedience in standing up against corruption.
Twice the Denhams were arrested on the National Capitol steps along with 1,400 other protestors in a 2016 Democracy Spring anti-corruption rally. They were arrested yet again in the Roanoke office of their Congressman, in an attempt to pressure Rep. Goodlatte to release a bundle of draft reform bills (campaign finance, government ethics, and voting rights) he was sitting on as then Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
These draft bills were eventually released and were later passed in 2019 by the full House of Representatives as the “For the People Act” (HR – 1). Based on this experience, Denham is convinced that civil disobedience is one critical path to effect change. He credits the mass jailings of the Democracy Spring rally with generating national headlines that spurred Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md) to pressure Goodlatte to release the bills. Denham’s work is not done, however, as the Senate has deep-sixed its version of the “For the People Act”.
Denham is not just a troublemaker, he is also an organizer for social justice with a long track record of building strong alliances and effecting real change. As the head of the cross-partisan Represent Roanoke Valley/the Clean Money Squad, he has been a strong advocate for anti-corruption reform in Virginia for the past 6 years.
His latest achievement involved supporting a constitutional amendment to end gerrymandering. In partnership with the OneVirginia2021 organization, Denham reached out to the national headquarters of RepresentUS for help. Their response proved pivotal in mobilizing volunteers nationwide to contact citizens through their phone/text banks. These volunteers contacted over 70,000 Virginia voters urging them to contact their legislators and demand that they vote in favor of the amendment, and delivered petition signatures to legislators from over 3,400 RepresentUs members representing all 50 states
Denham and members of Represent Roanoke Valley and other grassroots organizations active in Virginia also joined in a lobby day in Richmond to underscore how important ending gerrymandering was to voters across the state. The amendment successfully passed in the Virginia House of Delegates and will now be placed on the ballot in November as the final step in the process. Denham explained that this effort was a huge success for the anti-corruption movement and reinforced the impact of collaboration and teamwork among the various organizations involved.
Since 2014, Denham has been a real trailblazer in raising support for anti-corruption action, initially in Roanoke and Southwestern Virginia, then expanding statewide. Starting with helping to form the first RepresentUS chapter in Virginia, Denham engaged with voters to encourage their support for model legislation called The American Anti-Corruption Act(AACA). Visiting businesses, arranging voter education tables at festivals and a range of public venues, and going door-to-door, Denham and other volunteers found that voters were very receptive to their message. Corruption concerned them and they wanted to take action. Signing pledges in support of the American Anti-Corruption Act made sense to them, given its emphasis on stopping political bribery, ending secret money, and fixing our broken elections.
Of course, having Delegate Sam Rasoul as a champion in fighting corruption had certain advantages as well. In 2014, Delegate Rasoul was the first elected Virginia official (representing the 11th District including parts of the City of Roanoke) to make a public anti-corruption commitment by signing onto the AACA. The next year, the Roanoke City Council passed an Anti-Corruption Resolution, the first jurisdiction to do so, followed by Vinton and Blacksburg.
Then in 2017, with Delegate Rasoul’s encouragement, Denham established the Clean Money Squad, a public website showcasing political leaders running in Virginia making anti-corruption commitments. During every election year, the Clean Money Squad asks candidates to pledge to sign the American Anti-Corruption Act and, initially, not to accept PAC money.
This past year 26 candidates took the pledge and 3 were elected. When asked whether not accepting PAC money hurt candidates running against opponents who did, Denham explained that candidates were indeed disadvantaged. After the 2017 elections, the Clean Money Squad dropped the ‘No PAC’ pledge. That decision was in part based on the view that there were indeed “decent PACs” that were both transparent and reform-minded. For 2019, the pledge included a commitment to say no to fossil fuel money and public utility money, which is consistent with the AACA’s position of not taking money from interests that the legislature regulates.
“[our volunteers] are knocking on doors for candidates and the first thing they bring up is fighting corruption…it’s what people want to talk about – it’s an issue that voters are concerned about…in the end, the amount of money other candidates are getting won’t matter…it is all about connecting with voters and getting them out to vote. Undoubtedly, our fundamental focus has to be on voters voting.” David Denham
How was the Clean Money Squad able to sign up so many candidates? A number of factors contributed to their ability to reach out across the state. Besides tapping their expanding network – a new RepresentUS chapter was forming in Richmond – they “piggy-backed” on the success of organizations like the partisan group Activate Virginia (focused on the lack of competitive elections and a corrupt campaign finance system) and Clean Virginia (an independent advocacy organization dedicated to fighting monopoly utility corruption in Virginia politics). Denham also credits the tech savvy of a member of RepresentUS, Rick Kenski, who developed social media messaging and a letter writing platform.
In particular, Denham underscores the “phenomenal success” of Activate Virginia in its supporting the election of 13 candidates, who changed the makeup of the legislature. [In 2017, 74 House of Delegates candidates and 2 Lieutenant Governor candidates signed Activate Virginia’s pledge to never accept contributions from Dominion Energy or Appalachian Power. Of these 76 candidates, 52 won their primary elections, and 13 won their general elections.]
Given these successful candidate pledge campaigns, I asked Denham what more it would take to enact meaningful legislation, especially given the failure in the recent Virginia General Assembly to pass any of the 10 campaign finance bills proposed, some of which didn’t even make it out of committee. His response was that the defeat of these bills “tells us that corporate money still is ruling the roost across parties, both Republicans and Democrats.”
To defeat the perverse influence of corporate money in Virginia politics, Denham stressed the need to “concentrate on identifying candidates willing to stand for anti-corruption measures, support them through the primaries and into the general election. The power of the voters is clear. We just need to be persistent. Once we get the people in place to make the change happen, the change will happen.”
“We need to concentrate on identifying candidates willing to stand for anti-corruption measures, support them through the primaries and into the general election. The power of the voters is clear. We just need to be persistent. Once we get the people in place to make the change happen, the change will happen.” David Denham
Where will this troublemaker turn next to help shake things up? Denham said that he is leading a group in Southwest Virginia in support of the Poor People’s Campaign, which he explained “is zeroed in on issues of corruption, poverty, social justice, militarism, and more.” If the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t interfere, the Campaign is organizing a march on Washington, D.C. on June 20, 2020. Denham has a bus with supporters from Roanoke going to join the thousands expected to gather on the Capitol steps. The Poor People’s Campaign, calling itself a “national call for moral revival”, represents in Denham’s view a compelling example of the need for people willing to engage in civil disobedience.