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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.

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Earlier this month, the Greater Hudson Chamber of Commerce in New Hampshire disaffiliated from the U.S. Chamber. Executive vice-president Jerry Mayotte told the Nashua Telegraph, “We didn’t like the fact that the U.S. Chamber was supporting particular candidates. We don’t think it’s good business practice to do so.”

The nearby Souhegan Valley Chamber of Commerce has never been a member, telling the Telegraph, “We cover a very large area, and in our towns, there is a broad range of political viewpoints.”

"It's a matter of practicality," Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce executive director Dan Bookham told the Free Press, a Midcoast Maine newspaper. "We have a diverse membership of 600 people, from Tea-Partiers to Marxists. It would just cause disruptions and arguments in the business community."

Stranger still, many people mistakenly believe the U.S. Chamber is a government entity, bolstering the group’s anodyne prestige.

Some state and local affiliates certainly do share the U.S. Chamber’s partisan posture. According to the Free Press, the president of the Maine Chamber of Commerce has been invited to join the U.S. Chamber’s Committee of 100, a powerful policymaking group. But like the U.S. Chamber’s board of directors, large multi-national corporations and powerful trade associations dominate the Committee. Kentucky and Mobile, Alabama are the only local chambers currently represented on the governance bodies.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce prides itself on being “one of four state chambers of commerce accredited by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.” And it echoes the national group’s conservative fervor. Earlier this month, it donated $5.4 million to the Republican Governor’s Association. (Like the U.S. Chamber, the Michigan Chamber does not make its membership list public. It would be interesting to know if auto companies, on the receiving end of billions in federal government dollars, are members.)

But for many local chambers, the attack ads are nothing but a branding headache. Like Republican mayors and governors, local chambers tend to be more attuned to the pragmatics of local policy-making than their national counterparts.

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce does not speak for the thousands of chambers around the country,” says Pinto, whose chamber must regularly interact with Philadelphians from both major parties. “My boss, who is the CEO, is a former Republican state senator. I’m the number two guy here: they hired a Democratic VP for communications. You’re speaking to him. We’re too non-partisan and non-political to deal with this nonsense.”

Once upon a time, the U.S. Chamber was similarly dispassionate. According to an article in the Washington Monthly, it was Thomas Donohue, a former trucking lobbyist who took over in 1997, who retooled the organization as a political animal in the service of the Chamber’s biggest donors.

For big business, “a large part of what the Chamber sells is political cover...a friend who will do the dirty work.”

In the 1990s, the U.S. Chamber had collaborated with Bill Clinton on his administration’s health care reform efforts, angering the GOP. Donahue brought the U.S. Chamber back into the fold--and more firmly so than ever before. For the past decade, the U.S. Chamber has, like Fox News, increasingly become an extension of the Republican Party. According to the Monthly, the U.S. Chamber rents its rooftop to Fox News for its White House remote broadcasts.

Unlike the U.S. Chamber, local chambers tend to be controlled more by small businesses.

“This is just suspect,” says Pinto. “The whole activity of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is suspect, and their motives are suspect, and their donors are suspect. My donors are not suspect: my donors are Sabrina’s Cafe and Isgro's Bakery. Our 5,000 members are concerned about trash and crime. That’s the stuff we have to deal with on a daily basis.”

 
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