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Chamber's repositioning: Ahead of the curve, or recipe for disaster?

After stepping into the political arena in the battles over the linkage fee, Barrio Logan community plan, mayoral election of Kevin Faulconer and the District 6 City Council race, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce made it official last week: It’s refocusing its efforts based on feedback from members who want the chamber to take a more active role in politics and policy advocacy.

While the San Diego Regional Chamber isn’t the first to make this trajectory change, there’s a real difference of opinion as to whether it’s a smart, far-sighted move, or one bound to end in a possibly destructive schism.

“They are part of a growing trend of chamber engagement in the political process,” said Dick Castner, executive director of the Western Regional Office of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is quite political itself, locally so by endorsing Democratic Rep. Scott Peters in the 52nd Congressional race.

“And we welcome it certainly at the U.S. Chamber -- we’re very active politically and we like chambers to get involved on behalf of candidates they feel will best benefit their members,” Castner said.

“I would say San Diego is still pretty much at the front of it -- yes, some chambers have been very active politically for years, but not many,” he said.

Castner pointed to the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce and the San Jose/Silicon Valley Chamber as examples of the early entrants into the ultrapolitical sphere, a process that began and has been picking up steam over the last 10 years.

Roger Niello, president of the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce, said his organization has always been active in policy issues and political endorsements, but agreed that it has significantly ramped up those efforts in the last few years.

“It is true that we have become, I would say, more active, in the sense that we have actively worked to form relationships and coalitions with others -- in particular with the U.S. Chamber as well as the state chamber, and other business groups and like-minded groups that operate in political campaigns,” Niello said. “And through that we have developed significantly more resources in the last couple of years, so we’ve been more active and more effective in that fashion.”

But that’s what has Steven Erie, professor of political science at University of California at San Diego and admittedly not a huge fan of the San Diego Chamber’s president, former Mayor Jerry Sanders, worried -- chambers are becoming increasingly partisan (read Republican) entities, disenfranchising their more left-leaning members.

“Local chambers of commerce, almost in every single major city, have seen a sharp decline in their power and influence over the last 20 to 30 years as new industries have emerged,” Erie said. “For example, high tech -- the chamber does a poor job representing high tech, so increasingly, chambers have a downtown agenda because that’s where, in a sense, they draw their membership and stakeholders.”

Erie said he sees the San Diego Chamber’s repositioning as an effort to reassert some of that waning power in a vacuous political landscape after the downfall of Bob Filner left Kevin Faulconer in the mayoral seat.

With Sanders and the chamber taking advantage of their close ties to Faulconer, and his possible gubernatorial run in 2016, meaning he likely won’t do anything too controversial while in office, Erie said, this is looking a lot like Sanders’ third term as mayor -- “I call it the downtown reconquista,” he said.

“Chambers normally shy away from endorsing candidates because what that does is it produces schisms in their ranks, and there will be real defections -- unfortunately, it will probably become the Republican Downtown Club,” Erie said. “Once the chamber starts endorsing one party’s candidates and not another’s, you’ll probably see a schism and members of the opposite party walking away.”

Cara Clarke, senior director of communications for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, said her organization has been involved in policy and political activism in an intentional way for about 20 years but made it an extremely high priority over the last three. She said the chamber tries to minimize any alienation problems by staying nonpartisan and vetting each candidate as an individual, based on his or her merits.

“We are a nonpartisan organization -- we are policy-driven, not partisan-driven, so we have very good relations across the aisle at all levels of government,” Clarke said. “Second of all, we have a government affairs committee made up of a wide variety of chamber members from a variety of industries, and they are the ones that set government policy and endorsements. A full-time professional staff manages everything and is our day-to-day advocate, but when it comes to endorsements and making political decisions, it’s a group of volunteers who really set that agenda, so members have some confidence that our positions are well thought out.”

Sanders acknowledged that although the San Diego Chamber is also nonpartisan, this alienation was a risk, but said surveys the chamber conducted of its membership were clear that this is what local businesses want.

“In the surveys that we did we found, almost to a business, they were very concerned about the political environment and the advocacy side, and that’s the reason we’re making the move to let them know we’re going to be very strong, very aggressive and we’ll use the political clout we have to help out,” Sanders said.

Local political consultant Tom Shepard took the opposite view of Erie, saying that the chamber’s more active role and financial backing of policy initiatives and candidates through their Political Action Committee will finally balance out the Labor community, which recognized the value of taking a hard stance earlier on.

“I think it’s healthy for the process for all stakeholder groups to be participating on a relatively level playing field,” Shepard said. “For a number of years in San Diego that has not been the case -- the business community has not been well-organized. Individual leaders have played active roles, but as a group they’ve not been actively involved, largely to the detriment of their interests.

“Back when district elections were first approved in San Diego in 1988, organized labor was really the first stakeholder group to figure out how to take advantage of that process, and as a result they dominated city council elections for a number of years with their candidates.”

Erie said to him it doesn’t look like it’s so much about equalizing power as regaining it.

“This is a contested city -- a once-red city trending purple, and Republicans see a chance to turn it around. They’re getting aid and comfort from the national chamber, which is essentially aligned with the Republican Party.

“The chamber in San Diego has never been known for long-term vision. This is a very short-sighted move, and could be counterproductive. … I think they’re feeling their oats right now. Pride goeth before the fall, and this might be a classic case of overreach.”

* Related article: SD Chamber on sidelines in 52nd race

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