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Business interests form Duluth PAC

Rob Stenberg

A political action committee espousing a pro-business agenda arrived on the local political scene this week with the launch of an entity dubbed Duluth BizPAC.

Rob Stenberg, president of the newly formed organization, noted that the city has been without a business-oriented political action committee for more than a decade now, as the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce pulled the plug on its own PAC called Duluth First in 2005.

"There's just a void for the business community to have a political voice and to try to influence people who are more pro-job and pro-business to run for public office," said Stenberg, a former city council president who now operates a local sales and leadership academy.

Filling the 'void'

David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, said local chamber members were some of the first in the state to form a PAC when they launched Duluth First in 1997. But over time, many came to question the wisdom of continuing to endorse candidates and campaign on their behalf.

Describing the former PAC's dynamics, Ross said: "There was an enthusiastic, engaged but small group of individuals that I think had an inordinately powerful voice within the chamber, and I don't think they were fully representative of our very diverse membership."

When the chamber looked deeper, he said it found that more members were leaving the organization than were joining it due to PAC activities.

"We determined that the political action committee was bringing as much controversy and concern to the chamber as it was value, so we discontinued it. And we determined at that time that we would bring value to our members by apprising them of public policy issues that impact them, educating them regarding decisions that were being made on an elected official level and informing them of the candidates' stances on issues that were impacting the business community," Ross said.

Even though the chamber discontinued its own PAC, Ross said he wishes Duluth BizPAC nothing but success.

"If they can bring more of a business perspective to elected officials and candidates who then ultimately are successful at being elected, we applaud that, and we would view them as an ally," Ross said.

Stenberg said he fully understands the Chamber's decision to discontinue its PAC but still sees the value of an independent voice for local business interests.

Rocky start

Duluth BizPAC first emerged this spring out of a small group of business leaders deeply concerned about the Duluth City Council's efforts to craft and adapt an earned sick and safe time, requiring local employers to provide paid time off to workers. Stenberg wasn't initially involved but he said the original nucleus of the group included Jim Caesar, Tracy Lundeen, Brian Maki and Al Hodnik.

"These four gentlemen figured there's got to be a role, a voice for business politically, so we can change and have people running for office that understand business, understand business situations and understand what it's like to be in business," Stenberg said.

An April letter written on behalf of the nascent PAC opposed the emerging earned sick and safe time policy and took local officials to task, saying: "The Duluth City Council operates with the presumption that regular people cannot think without government assistance. The Duluth BizPAC disagrees with this premise."

At-Large City Councilor Barb Russ took issue with the tone of the letter written by Duluth BizPAC's attorney, J.D. Feriancek, saying, "Name-calling and vendettas do nothing to advance the interests of anyone."

She also wrote to Feriancek: "I have met with many of your clients, and they are the biggest babies I have ever seen."

Meanwhile, Ross said said Duluth Chamber members continued to work with the city council to make the final earned sick and safe time policy that ultimately was adopted less burdensome and "more palatable."

He said he believes that approach was most productive but acknowledged some members of the business community felt the chamber should have taken a harder line of opposition.

Next chapter

Duluth BizPAC also has weighed in against tax increases, greater regulation of tobacco and e-cigarette products and the lifting of restrictions on panhandling and sleeping in vehicles.

"Those are the issues we've waded into and that we will continue to watch and we will continue to present thoughts, ideas on how we can solve some of the issues facing the city of Duluth without having to tax people," Stenberg said.

He pointed to Duluth's relatively stagnant population and talked about the need to attract growth.

"Business people are generally innovative. They're problem solvers. They come up with different types of solutions for different types of issues. Let's tap into that. Let's not have business be an afterthought when we're starting to talk about all of these policies facing the city of Duluth and these tax issues," Stenberg said.

City Council President Noah Hobbs said he has received correspondence from Duluth BizPAC that often contain demands, but he noted: "They've not requested to meet with me, and the letters seem a little angry."

Nevertheless, Hobbs said he welcomes the opportunity to talk with members of the group, saying: "My door is always open. I've worked well with members of the business community, and I recognize that responsible business leaders have a lot to bring to the table."

In spite of some early friction with the group, Russ said she also remains open to working with Duluth BizPAC.

"I don't have any objection to them organizing and coming up with positions on issues, whether it's our issue or theirs," she said. "And I think we should talk about stuff, because sometimes we all get stuck in our own way of thinking about things, and maybe somebody else has another good idea and we need to listen to that."

Duluth BizPAC went public this week, launching some radio ads in support of candidate Jim Booth, who is running against incumbent St. Louis County Commissioner Frank Jewell.

At present, Stenberg said the organization is working with about $20,000 in its coffers and a membership of 70 business leaders. He expects the PAC to grow as more people learn about it, and toward that end, the organization has launched a website:

Duluth News Tribune staff writer Brady Slater contributed to this story.