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Local Chapters Revolt as U.S. Chamber of Commerce Tries to Buy the Election for Republicans

The U.S. Chamber's rabidly partisan tone and top-down control are turning off some local chambers that do not want to be affiliated with right-wing politics.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has poured an unprecedented amount of money into attack ads against Democratic congressional candidates in the lead-up to the midterm elections. As the New York Times reported last week, a few of the Chamber’s largest members are the key drivers behind this year’s partisan blitz and exert outsized influence over the organization. But the U.S. Chamber’s rabidly partisan tone and top-down control are turning off some local chambers.

When asked if they were members of the U.S. Chamber, Christopher Pinto, communications vice-president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, said “Unfortunately, we are." Pinto explains that the Philadelphia Chamber joined to get free access to a piece of expensive software and does not plan to renew next year.

“We don’t believe it’s an ethical way to use the Chamber dues,” says Pinto, who regularly fields calls about the U.S. Chamber’s attack ads. “It’s upsetting and it’s frustrating, and we are absolutely not in support of it. We think there are a lot of other things the U.S. Chamber could do to make a better business climate than to run ads for Republicans and Tea Partiers.”

The U.S. Chamber’s mammoth GOP election effort follows on the heels of advertising campaigns attacking health care reform and the overhaul of financial regulations. Ironically, much of the advertising against financial reform charged that the legislation was bad for small business.

The U.S. Chamber goes beyond the bounds of a normal trade association, providing a boutique lobbying service to its wealthiest members.The Chamber’s lobbying prowess increasingly goes to the highest bidder: Prudential Financial, Dow Chemical, Goldman Sachs and the health insurance industry all gave millions to the Chamber as it fought against tighter regulation of their respective industries.

The lopsided donations, according to the Times, suggests “that the recent allegations from President Obama and others that foreign money has ended up in the chamber’s coffers miss a larger point: The chamber has had little trouble finding American companies eager to enlist it, anonymously, to fight their political battles and pay handsomely for its help.”

U.S. Chamber Watch, a labor-union backed group, has brought a complaint before the Internal Revenue Service, alleging that AIG illegally funneled millions of dollars to the U.S. Chamber through a charity.

Many state and metropolitan chambers of commerce are not members of the U.S. Chamber, but the national organization certainly profits from the mom-and-pop legitimacy local groups provide. As U.S. Chamber Watch puts it, “The national Chamber of Commerce is NOT the local organization that paid for the town’s little league jerseys.”

“We believe that chambers should be particularly careful when they’re supporting political issues, since they’re business groups, not political groups,” says Mark Jaffe, CEO of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce. “The New York Chamber doesn’t spend its members' money on political action.”

According to the Times, though the Chamber claims to represent 3 million businesses and 300,000 members, “nearly half of its $140 million in contributions in 2008 came from just 45 donors.” (According to an article in Mother Jones, the real number of business members is more like 200,000.)

For many local affiliates, the U.S. Chamber trades on their good name, and then besmirches it. Aggressive U.S. Chamber attack ads in Connecticut, Washington and New Hampshire have upset local chambers that rely on working relationships with members of both parties.

“I now have a standard e-mail saying we’re not a chapter of the U.S. Chamber that I have to send out a couple of times a week,” Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce president Timothy Hulbert told Washington Monthly.

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