Former Virginia elections commissioner Chris Piper named new head of VPAP
Chris Piper, a former Virginia elections commissioner with a long resume in state government, will be the next executive director of the Virginia Public Access Project, the nonprofit organization widely seen as an invaluable source of free information about Virginia politics.
Piper, who served as the state’s top election administrator from 2018 to 2022, will join VPAP next month to replace longtime Executive Director David Poole, a former journalist who founded the organization in 1997 and is retiring after more than 25 years in the job.
“VPAP’s mission is just near and dear to my heart,” Piper said in an interview. “I believe that knowledge is power, and informed voters are necessary for our politics. And VPAP provides so much information about Virginia politics.”
VPAP has grown to a full-time staff of eight people, with an annual budget that topped $1.2 million last year. The news of Piper’s hire was formally announced Wednesday at VPAP’s annual fundraising luncheon in Richmond.
Though set up as a nonprofit funded by donors, VPAP’s website serves as a quasi-official repository of Virginia campaign finance data, election results and analysis, ethics disclosures, and lobbying registrations, presented in a more user-friendly format that helps people avoid navigating numerous government agencies to find and parse that information on their own. The organization’s morning email newsletter, VaNews, compiles state and local journalism from a variety of outlets into a widely read digest of Virginia-specific news.
Piper’s government background put him on the other side of several public data sources that power VPAP’s website. He previously worked as the campaign finance manager for the Virginia Department of Elections before moving up the ranks to serve as election services manager and commissioner. He also did a stint as executive director of the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, which oversees lobbyist registrations and the financial disclosures political candidates are required to file listing their business interests, investments and real estate holdings.
“Every piece of my career has touched some part of what VPAP is known for,” Piper said.
Virginia lawmakers have resisted adopting tougher campaign finance rules partly because many feel a more wide-open system based on transparency works better than enacting donation limits that they say could lead to more untraceable money in state politics. The data VPAP publishes in a searchable format largely fulfills that function for the government. The nonprofit’s relationship with the elections department, Piper said, “greatly improved” how campaign finance information is made available to the public.
Piper, who most recently worked as an election administration consultant after leaving state government last year, is expected to start at VPAP on June 12. Poole will stay on in a transition period until his retirement officially takes effect June 30.
“I’ve worked with Chris Piper for two decades,” Poole said. “I am confident in his ability and his passion for the work. He is committed to transparency in government data and he deeply cares about the vital role an informed electorate plays in a free society. He is a natural fit to build on what we’ve started.”
Replacing the organization’s founder was a big challenge, said incoming VPAP board chair Abigail Farris Rogers, who served on a search committee that received about 150 applications for the position. The committee, she said, was looking for someone who could be an effective manager while also being well-versed in how journalism works and familiar with handling large quantities of data.
“We believe fully in what we are doing. The board is behind Chris,” said Rogers, a former Republican fundraiser who now works as senior vice president and chief advancement officer for YMCA of the USA. “And we’re excited for what he’s going to bring for this next chapter in VPAP’s history.”
Most of Piper’s career has been strictly nonpartisan, but his route through state government has occasionally put him at odds with Republican leaders. He was the first executive director of the state ethics council created in the aftermath of the gifts scandal that engulfed former Gov. Bob McDonnell. But GOP legislators ousted him from that position in 2016, saying they preferred to have a lawyer in the role. Former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam appointed Piper as elections commissioner two years later, and he remained in that job until Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin replaced him in early 2022.
Despite his ouster by Youngkin, Piper hasn’t leaned into partisan combat since. He publicly vouched for his Republican successor, current Elections Commissioner Susan Beals, encouraging support for her at a time when some Democratic lawmakers were eager to denounce Youngkin for casting Piper aside.
Piper said Northam’s charge to him when he took the commissioner job was to run the elections department in a “fair and nonpartisan way.” He feels he accomplished that, and he said he intends to continue that outlook at VPAP.
“I am going to protect VPAP’s fierce nonpartisan reputation with everything I have,” he said. “Because I think that it’s absolutely critical to VPAP’s success. But I also think in this day and age, we need an organization that everybody can trust.”
Rogers said she’s confident Piper’s background and reputation will be an asset.
“You have somebody who has proven that they can leave their partisanship at the door,” she said, adding that Piper will bring “fresh eyes” to the organization’s mission and work.
VPAP’s core mission won’t change, Rogers said. She noted Poole and others have been preparing for the handoff for about a year.
“David has done a really incredible job of thinking about this transition and ensuring that the organization was ready and as strong as it could be to take on this challenge,” Rogers said.
A 12-time marathon runner who grew up in Chantilly and now lives in the Richmond area, Piper said his first order of business will be to talk with staffers, board members and donors to help shape his strategy for VPAP’s future. He said he also hopes to use his multi-state network of contacts who work in elections, campaign finance, ethics compliance and journalism to explore new prospects for the organization.
“There are opportunities for VPAP to grow beyond the borders of Virginia,” Piper said. “VPAP has been a tremendous success in Virginia. Why aren’t there more VPAPs?”