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Tom West: Chamber's political presence grows

Four or five years ago, while serving as chair of a Chamber of Commerce in southern Minnesota, I attended a seminar on Chamber issues in the Twin Cities. Among the speakers was a woman from Albuquerque, N.M., who talked about how active her Chamb...

Four or five years ago, while serving as chair of a Chamber of Commerce in southern Minnesota, I attended a seminar on Chamber issues in the Twin Cities. Among the speakers was a woman from Albuquerque, N.M., who talked about how active her Chamber was in city government. She said her Chamber even endorsed candidates for public office.
On the ride home, I suggested to our Chamber president that perhaps we should endorse candidates, too. He almost had a coronary. We can't do that, he said. It will weaken support for the Chamber, and we will lose members.
That Chamber was much smaller than the one in Duluth, and like most Chambers and communities in southern Minnesota, most of its business was done by consensus. Controversy was not something that anybody embraced, and so the matter was dropped.
However, I have been thinking about that seminar in recent weeks because of the brouhaha that developed over the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce's participation in this year's city elections. The Chamber has been endorsing candidates for office for four years, but this was the first year that it went so far as to produce TV ads attacking the record of a candidate. The lone incumbent in the City Council races, Greg Gilbert, caught the Chamber's wrath.
It is unsurprising that the Chamber became an issue, even though the Chamber did nothing that has not been done all across this nation for many years. Everyone complains that attack ads are the bane of American politics, but most campaigns use them because polling shows that significant numbers of votes will switch as a result.
In fact, the thinking of most campaigns, regardless of party or ideology, is twofold. First, drive up the name recognition and positive poll ratings of your candidate. Second, drive up the negative poll ratings of the other candidate.
It sounds simple, but it isn't that easy because the two sides are countering what each other does. In the case of attack ads, they are particularly tricky because they depend not only on what is said but when they appear.
For example, the most devastating single attack ad ever delivered was the Willie Horton ad that sealed the fate of Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. Dukakis had granted him a weekend furlough from prison, and Horton had proceeded to assault a man and rape his wife. Republicans said that Dukakis was just another Massachusetts liberal who was soft on crime.
The ad worked because at the time the message was delivered, Dukakis was still a relative newcomer on the national scene. The ad helped define Dukakis' image for many voters before they knew much else about him.
An attack ad that failed occurred in the 1996 Senate campaign between former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz and incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone. Boschwitz ran an ad that portrayed Wellstone as a stoned 1960s hippy. Wellstone was a 1960s campus radical -- and kept that image all the way through the 1970s -- but Boschwitz was at least six years too late with his ad.
By 1996, Wellstone's image around the state was fairly well fixed. To most Minnesotans, he wasn't a hippy anymore or even a radical. He was the guy who, whenever the flood rivers rose, or the crop prices tanked or the mines closed, always showed up to hold your hand and tell you he was on your side.
Wellstone easily won a second term.
So it was with Gilbert. Love him or hate him, most of his constituents know him. A few Chamber ads aren't going to change what people think, unless they present new information of which voters were unaware. The ads offered fair comment on Gilbert's record, but they didn't offer anything new. Gilbert won.
What was surprising in the aftermath, however, is that Gilbert's supporters could not let bygones be bygones. They became sore winners. A campaign was started to strip the Chamber of the memberships of public officials paid for by tax dollars.
This was not the smartest political move ever made. First, Chamber membership dues were not used to fund campaign ads. That money comes from the Chamber's political action committee, which raises money on its own. Dues money is used to promote business and job development. Dropping one's dues is tantamount to opposing economic development in the Twin Ports. We already have five food shelves in the area. With that kind of thinking, we may soon need a sixth.
Second, it puts public officials in an untenable position to drop out of the Chamber without a workable alternative to support business. Calls for sustainable development and measured growth are almost laughable given the current climate. The 30-year population exodus stopped during the 1990s, but Duluth still grew less than almost any other community its size.
Far from becoming another Boise, local business interests are facing vocal opposition on many different fronts. Little wonder they are fighting hard to elect city councilors who will lend them a kind ear.
It may be worthy to argue about whether tax dollars should be spent on Chamber dues, Rotary dues, or any kind of private nonprofit dues. However, the public officials who left the Chamber did not do so out of concern for the public treasury; they left for political reasons alone.
The Chamber exec from Albuquerque said she and her board were unapologetic about being an advocate for business. If they didn't do it, she said, no one else would.
The same could be said of Duluth.
Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by phone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at tom.west@duluth.com

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