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Chambers of commerce take bigger role in politics

May 30, 2011

Chambers of commerce in Indiana are increasingly making politics their business.

After years of advocating pro-business positions, many chambers are taking the next step and issuing endorsements in hopes of ensuring business-friendly mayors get elected. The political action committee for the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce is backing that up with regular annual donations of $10,000 to mayoral candidates.

"I think you have to have the right people driving the bus, and chambers realize that for the sake of Indiana's economy and the business future you've got to have the right elected officials," said Shelli Williams, president of the Indiana Chamber Executives Association, which offers professional development for chamber executives and staff around the state.

The chambers in Evansville and Terre Haute issued their first mayoral endorsements during general elections four years ago, while the chamber in South Bend gave its first mayoral endorsement in the May primary. One Southern Indiana endorsed candidates for the first time last year in legislative races and in the 9th Congressional District.

Tonya Fischer, the chamber's vice president of investor and government relations, believes it will probably endorse mayoral candidates in November.

"The only way to make a difference is to step out there and endorse candidates and try to change public officeholders to where they are pro-business," she said.

Jeff Rea, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County, said his organization decided that after years of advocating issues such as improving U.S. 31 and school reform, supporting positions wasn't enough.

"We feel like we need solid leadership to implement those key issues," the former Mishawaka mayor said. "So part of our public policy reach has jumped. Not because we want to be involved in politics, but because we do think we need good, solid people in leadership."

Some larger chambers, such as the Greater Indianapolis and Fort Wayne chambers, have been giving mayoral endorsements for more than 10 years. Other chambers are doing so now because members are telling them that is what they want, said Ben Taylor, executive director of the Great Lakes Region of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Taylor said the political involvement usually starts with chambers getting involved in issues and moves forward.

"The natural progression is holding elected officials accountable for how they vote," he said.

Some, though, still don't want to get involved.

"Our board just feels, keep above the fray," said Dave Ryan, executive director of the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, which serves Hammond, East Chicago and northwest Indiana. "You never know what's going to happen where, and it's better to be apolitical in those situations. That's the way we do it."

The chamber in Terre Haute endorsed a mayoral candidate for the first time four years ago, but president Rod Henry doesn't think it will do so again anytime soon. Henry said some members thought the chamber gained credibility by backing Democratic Mayor Kevin Burke, who lost by 110 votes But others in the close-knit community disagreed.

"Over the last several years we talked about it, and we just basically said let's stay away from that," he said. "We have focused ourselves more so since then on issues and public policy versus endorsements."

The larger a local chamber is, the more likely it is to be involved in advocating issues and endorsements, said Jeff Brantley, vice president of political affairs for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Smaller chambers tend to be more social and focused more on community relations, he said.

"Certainly there is more interest within the business community now of being more involved in politics and being supportive," Brantley said.

The state chamber has been endorsing candidates in legislative races since the 1980s, but it gave its first gubernatorial endorsement four years ago when it backed Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, Brantley said.

Brian Vargus, a professor of political science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, questions the value of the endorsements.

"Chamber endorsements are like newspaper endorsements. A lot of people don't even read it," he said. "There's no data to show they make a big difference."

He said a better way to make a difference is for chambers to support candidates by donations through their political action committees.

Many of the chambers said their endorsements didn't come with any cash donations. The Greater Indianapolis Chamber, though, has been backing its endorsements through its political action committee, the Business Advocacy Committee. The committee gave $10,000 four years ago to incumbent Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson, who lost, then gave $5,000 to the man who beat him, Mayor Greg Ballard, the next year. It gave Ballard $10,000 in 2009 and again in 2010.

The committee also gave Daniels $25,000 in 2007, including $5,000 earmarked for the Governor's Ball. He received another $10,000 in 2008.

The Fort Wayne chamber's PAC, the Greater Fort Wayne Business Political Action, gave $250 to Mayor Tom Henry's campaign in 2007 and gave an additional $1,500 to City Council candidates. Last year it donated $2,200 to legislative and school board candidates.

"It's the money," Vargus said. "That's where some things can really be done because they can coordinate giving a lot more through the chamber."

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