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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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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.

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.”

The U.S. Chamber’s increasing conservatism has alienated members before. In 2009, its energetic denial of climate change prompted Apple to disaffiliate. Nike and Johnson & Johnson wrote letters of protest. As the U.S. Chamber’s profile gets higher and its rhetoric uglier, more local chambers and members may decide to send their dues money elsewhere.

“This is the backbone of their credibility,” says U.S. Chamber Watch spokesperson Christy Setzer. ”They traffic off the good name of these local businesses and local chambers. But will it stop them from pursuing right-wing policies? I don’t imagine that it will. The U.S. Chamber has essentially become an extension of the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party.”

Companies and organizations interested in a more traditional trade association will be an increasingly awkward fit at the U.S. Chamber. For example, the American Public Transit Association (APTA), which represents public transit agencies nationwide, sits on the group’s Committee of 100. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) are all APTA members and thus indirectly represented by the U.S. Chamber.

“Transportation is a bipartisan issue,” says APTA spokesperson Virginia Miller, who was not sure how much the organization paid in annual dues to the U.S. Chamber. “So we work with different organizations to move the transportation agenda forward.”

The MTA, SEPTA and the WMATA did not respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. Chamber does not seem to mind alienating local chambers of commerce. A major opponent of campaign finance reform, the U.S. Chamber operates much like the post-Citizen’s United political system: one dollar, one vote.

“The truth be told is that the American political system is a pay-to-play system,” says Jaffe. “The only thing we require is disclosure: who’s behind the issues advocated by the U.S. Chamber? Who’s influencing their voice? Is it good for planet earth, good for small business? Or is it only good for one company that’s paying a lot of money to influence it?”

Daniel Denvir is a journalist in Philadelphia.
 
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