(Originally published on December 7, 2010)
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is under fire from some local chambers over its hard-hitting $75 million ad campaign to elect a Republican House, with dozens of groups distancing themselves from the effort and a handful even quitting the national group in protest.
“We were getting pounded. We felt here, in central Pennsylvania, that the ads they were running were not professional ads,” said David Wise, president of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, which is considering dropping its national membership. “This was not a unifying event. It was divisive.”
More than 40 local chambers issued statements during the midterms distancing themselves from the U.S. Chamber’s campaign — including nearly every major local chamber in Iowa and New Hampshire, key states for the presidential campaign.
Other chambers plan to take the extraordinary step of ending their affiliation with the U.S. Chamber.
The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce in Pennsylvania was seriously considering dropping its affiliation with the national group after its leaders reported being inundated with angry — and sometimes profanity-laced — telephone calls from people objecting to the U.S. Chamber-backed ads, according to an official familiar with the internal discussions. On Wednesday, the Philadelphia group announced that it has decided to maintain its membership.
“We recognize value in that membership, and the services that they
At the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce in Washington, officials hope to avoid a similar discussion about nonrenewal of its membership. “What we’d prefer to do at this point is have conversations with the U.S. Chamber representatives, so we can be more respectful of each other’s constituencies,” said George Allen, senior vice president of government relations with the Seattle Chamber.
The U.S. Chamber prides itself on a take-no-prisoners approach to power in Washington. Community-based chambers generally operate in a manner that encourages bipartisanship and consensus while shunning the edgy partisanship that became the hallmark of the national office’s 2010 political strategy.
Smoothing over that friction now is important because it could carry legislative and political consequences.
Passage of business-friendly policy in the next Congress could hinge on a robust grass-roots lobbying push — with participation from local chambers, including those that still have ties to the moderate Democrats subjected to the U.S. Chamber’s firepower.
Tony Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said “it all kind of backfired in Connecticut. All of our Democratic congressmen won. Now, we have to deal with the fallout.”
Looking ahead to the 2012 elections, if more local chambers publicly declare their independence, it could undermine the power and credibility of attacks launched from the Washington office.
In Iowa, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley survived an onslaught of U.S. Chamber attack ads in part because he circulated disclaimers issued by his local chambers.
To be sure, local chambers are not abandoning the national office in droves, and some of those complaining don’t belong to the national group, according to POLITICO reporting and information assembled by U.S. Chamber Watch, an anti-Chamber
Bill Miller, the U.S. Chamber’s senior vice president for political affairs and federation relations and national political director, said 2,600 state and local chambers belong to the national body, and most have been more supportive than ever of the organization’s political operation.
In Ohio, Missouri, California and West Virginia, some local chamber leaders joined Miller on stage when he endorsed Republican candidates for federal offices. In 2008, only one did, he said.
“It was an unprecedented number of state and local chambers that came out of the place they never want to go to and supported our political efforts,” he said.
Still, some local Chamber officials say complaints about the U.S. Chamber’s ad campaign went unheeded.
Wise shared his concerns with state and national Chamber officials in a pre-election conference call with little effect. “They concluded that this may have been an effort that was worth breaking eggs [over] or worth losing members over. I’m not sure at the local level that very many of us agree with that,” he added.
Robin Comstock, president of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce in New Hampshire, said she appealed to the national organization for changes after the overheated 2008 campaign prompted some of her members to quit.
Among her requests: that the U.S. Chamber attach a disclaimer to its ads to help make voters aware that the local chamber had no role in financing them. Comstock never got a response.
In the run-up to this year’s midterms, Comstock dropped her group’s national affiliation and used Facebook and newsletters to hammer home the message that the local chamber didn’t engage in partisan politics. Comstock even refuses to accept a coffee cup with the U.S. Chamber logo for fear she will send mixed messages to her members.
“I had a lot of members really, really angry this year, but I don’t think I lost any of them. Other chambers did lose members this time,” she said. “They didn’t have the experience I had gained from last cycle.”
At the Greater Hudson Chamber of Commerce, the board voted unanimously in the midst of the $2 million U.S. Chamber attack on New Hampshire Democratic House and Senate candidates to dump its national membership.
“We got no feedback from the national organization,” said Jerry Mayotte, the group’s executive vice president. “We got positive feedback from our local membership.”
Certainly, not all locals are complaining.
Dan Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, appeared with Miller as he endorsed Republican Roy Blunt’s Senate bid.
“Everyone knows that in the last two years, it’s been a knife fight, and it has not gone well for business,” said Mehan. “The U.S. Chamber did the right thing and muscled up and helped make the election the success it was for the pro-jobs lobby.”
Mehan said a few members expressed unease with the state Chamber’s involvement in a federal race, “but easily a majority of our members want us to be involved in that way and want us to be a voice in the political arena.”
In California, Randy Gordon, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, accompanied Miller when he stumped for GOP Senate nominee Carly Fiorina, who unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Fiorina was the first federal candidate ever endorsed by the Long Beach Chamber, though the group has made bipartisan endorsements in state races, Gordon said.
Gordon decided to weigh in on the race for two reasons: Fiorina seemed to have a shot at winning and Boxer’s Chamber rating on business issues was among the worst in the Senate.
“Some of us are saying enough is enough,” Gordon said. “We need to be at a level playing field with the unions, because the unions have been doing this forever.”
Still, the U.S. Chamber is sensitive and attentive to its relations with the nation’s thousands of smaller, local chambers. In 2001, it created a program aimed specifically at easing tensions with locals during hard-fought campaign seasons.
The U.S. Chamber’s seven regional offices are available to field complaints or questions, and it hosts the Chamber of Commerce Committee of 100 twice each year, which includes some of the largest and most influential state and local chapters.
“It’s an ongoing dialogue that we value very much,” Miller said.
Based on interviews by POLITICO, Miller could get an earful when the Committee of 100 meets in Florida early next year — and not just from the small local chambers most vulnerable to a membership backlash.
“Just by the association of the name ‘Chamber,’ people unfortunately tag us with the activities of the U.S. Chamber. In some cases, we don’t like that tag,” said Allen, of the Seattle group.
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