September 16, 2004 in Business

U.S. Chamber action alienates Main Street

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review
 
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The Voters Education Committee got an expensive lesson Tuesday. Maybe.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce front group bought $1.4 million worth of advertisements attacking Deborah Senn in the Democratic primary for Washington attorney general. She won, whether despite or because of the national chamber’s stealth campaign we may never know.

Wednesday, a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform, which put up the advertising money, said the group had nothing to add to previous statements defending its activity.

“The primary is over and a lot of what took place is history,” said institute Vice President Sean McBride.

Over, but not forgotten. The U.S. Chamber’s spending, and the effort to conceal its source, has mightily provoked the local and state chapters it purports to represent. The chambers of commerce in Spokane and Seattle, together with the Association of Washington Business, were drafting a letter to U.S. Chamber President Thomas Donahue suggesting headquarters butt out of state politics.

Don Brunell is the president of AWB, the national chamber’s state-level affiliate.

“Some of our members are ready to tell the national chamber to go stick it,” he said after two days of contending with the uprising. Brunell, like other state business leaders, had no idea what the U.S. Chamber was up to.

Brunell says he trusts the judgment of the national chamber where national issues are concerned, and its right to endorse candidates for national office. Intervention at the state level is another matter.

“They don’t have to deal with the attorney general of the state of Washington, but we do,” Brunell says, adding that the AWB draws the same line when it comes to intervening in local issues and races.

Brunell says a letter would be just the start.

“Given the gravity of what they did, they ought to come out here and face all the chambers,” he says.

Although Brunell and Seattle Chamber President Steve Leahy were doing most of the work on the letter, the Spokane Regional Chamber’s executive committee was the instigator. After a Monday meeting, the group said the letter should express “disdain” for the U.S. Chamber’s actions and failure to alert state and local officials to what it was up to.

“Our Chamber knew nothing about this and does not condone negative advertising of any kind,” it said in an e-mail to board members. “We don’t endorse candidates! We don’t engage in partisan political activity! We don’t agree with negative ads and attempts to circumvent the public disclosure process.”

Chamber President Rich Hadley said Spokane was prepared to send its own letter if the AWB and other chambers did not sign on. But he added that Washington is not alone in its concern over meddling from the District of Columbia.

“I think they’ll be hearing from other corners of the country,” he said.

Still, Hadley was unwilling to go as far as former Chamber Chairman Chris Marr, who says the local organization should divorce itself from the national group if it does not change its ways.

He has tired of the national chamber weighing in on issues and political races in the name of all its chapters, and all their members. Negative ads like those run by the U.S. Chamber are undermining the democratic process, he says.

“Technically, they’re saying they speak for me,” says Marr, the managing partner of the Foothills Automotive Group. As the operator of three car dealerships, Marr crossed swords with the national chamber when it sided with automobile manufacturers who opposed the easing of a requirement that disputes between a dealer and car maker be arbitrated. Chamber opposition blocked a Senate vote on the measure.

“Wall Street and Main Street have different takes on public policy,” Marr says.

He says Spokane and the Spokane chamber have found that a non-dogmatic, non-partisan approach to resolving community issues gets results. Witness the success securing state funds for local construction projects, he says, and the progress made addressing concerns about the Spokane aquifer by cooperating with the Lands Council.

The U.S. Chamber has invested in about 25 races so far this fall, with a focus on judicial and attorney general contests. Buying the favor of judges and legal authorities who represent consumers is more efficient than trying to finance a majority of legislators. Take, for example, the 2002 state senate contest between Jim West and Laurie Dolan, which cost $735,000.

The new tactics are cynical, but no more cynical than a campaign of negative advertising from a group unwilling to make known its identity.

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