After Mary Ann Barnes was installed as chair of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday evening, one of her first acts was to ask for donations to the chamber's political action committee, which has become a powerful force in local election campaigns.
Barnes asked the 1,000 or so attendees at the meeting to use pledge cards and envelopes at their tables to contribute to the PAC, which raised more than $196,000 last year and more than $118,000 during the first three weeks of this year, for a total of nearly $315,000, although most of that money has already been spent on local political races.
"The PAC has been so important to us in 2013 and continuing into 2014 in getting the right candidates into office and getting our voice out there on important business issues," said Barnes, executive director of Kaiser Permanente Hospital in San Diego.
From the beginning of January 2013 through the end of January 2014, the PAC contributed $160,000 to Kevin Faulconer's successful mayoral campaign as well as $54,750 to a referendum to overturn a recently passed ordinance to increase the so-called "linkage fee" that developers are required to pay for affordable housing.
Thanks to the funding from the chamber as well as large development and real estate companies, the opponents of the linkage fee gathered enough signatures to place a referendum on the June 3 ballot.
"We need you now more than ever," Faulconer told the gathering, as he conducted the swearing-in of the chamber's new board members.
Faulconer, together with Interim Mayor Todd Gloria and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, was also given the chamber's first award for "Moving San Diego Forward," referring to their role in ousting Bob Filner from the mayor's office last year — an action that was vocally supported by the chamber.
Although the chamber has had a strong voice on policy issues throughout its 143-year existence, it stepped up its political contributions and lobbying activity since former Mayor Jerry Sanders took the helm as CEO last year.
Over the past 13 months, the chamber and its top executives contributed $100,000 directly to the Faulconer campaign as well as allocating $100,000 to the PAC.
Other heavy contributors included the top executives at Sudberry Properties, which gave $53,000 to the PAC as well as $30,750 to the Faulconer campaign and its independent support groups; $30,000 came from Cox Communications; $20,000 from the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and $10,000 each from Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX), Sunroad Asset Management, Colorado-based emergency-services provider EMS Management and Sempra Energy (NYSE: SRE), including $3,500 from Mike Niggli, chief executive of Sempra subsidiary San Diego Gas & Electric, who just ended his term as chair of the chamber.
Niggli and other Sempra executives also contributed nearly $13,000 directly to Faulconer.
Mark Leslie, who heads the PAC, credits Niggli with directing the chamber to "issues-specific campaigns."
Besides supporting the Faulconer campaign and the linkage-fee referendum, the chamber has also backed a referendum sponsored by local shipyards to overturn the San Diego City Council's zoning plan for Barrio Logan. In December, the chamber also hired a Sacramento lobbying firm, Rose & Kindel/Grayling, to represent its interests in the capital.
Barnes said she intends to expand the chamber's focus on political issues.
"The chamber is going to be the voice for businesses in a political way," she said in a video that was aired during Tuesday night's meeting. "We're going to be loud for businesses in Sacramento. We're going to be loud for what is right for San Diego and our businesses in Washington, D.C. We're going to be the go-to organization from a policy perspective."
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