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Local chamber weighs split from national organization

By Patricia Daddona

Publication: The Day

Published October 23. 2010 4:00AM
Greater Mystic group questions the use of funds by U.S. Chamber of Commerce in political arena

The Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce is considering breaking off ties to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, questioning the national organization's use of millions of corporate dollars this election season to lobby and advertise on national issues.

Chamber Executive Director Tricia Cunningham said that while the local 470-member organization values the programs offered by the national chamber, it is discussing whether to break with the Washington, D.C.-based group, though it currently is a dues-paying member.

On Friday, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Chamber, which does not have to disclose the source of donations, has used money from large corporate donors to help influence the fall election campaign and has become a well-financed critic of the Obama administration.

"At a recent board meeting," Cunningham said, "we did have a conversation about the U.S. Chamber after learning of their recent political advertisements, and we are evaluating our relationship with the organization. We do not necessarily condone or support the views of the U.S. Chamber."

That lack of transparency can be confusing, said Cunningham. "Because we are a small local chamber, sometimes people assume our views would be the same" as the national chamber, when they're not, she said, adding, "But we're happy to clarify that."

She said current dues to the national chamber are about $400 annually.

The region's largest chamber organization, the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut in Waterford, says it broke off its relationship with the U.S. Chamber last year, in part because the national organization's politics differ so markedly from the local chamber's approach. It also didn't believe it was getting sufficient value for its membership dues, which were about $1,200 a year.

Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the regional chamber, wrote a letter last year to his chamber committees and the public explaining the distinction between the political stances promoted by the national chamber and the Eastern chamber's own practices, which differ substantially. A version of the letter was published last November in The Day.

"When it comes to setting political priorities, the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut bases its agenda on the business interests of Connecticut and particularly the eastern region - not the dictates of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce," Sheridan wrote.

"As the local chamber enters the planning process for our next state legislative session in Hartford, it is critically important for the eastern Connecticut business community to recognize that we are promoting no agenda other than the one appropriate for our region and state," the letter reads.

The U.S. Chamber never consulted the local chamber on its legislative agenda, nor did the local chamber participate in promoting it, Sheridan wrote.

Sheridan said the U.S. Chamber is missing an opportunity, particularly with the large sums of millions in contributions as described in the New York Times story, to inform the public on controversial issues rather than slant a political message.

"My issue with the national chamber is their willingness to take a very narrow slice of a piece of complicated legislation - and it's generally the most negative spin they're taking, like health care, when we all know that the health-care system is broken - and claim that the sky is falling, instead of using the money to educate people," Sheridan said.

While other chambers in the region, including the Old Saybrook and the Westerly-Pawcatuck chambers, ended their relationships years ago with the U.S. Chamber, they did not do so because of the U.S. Chamber's politicizing of some issues, their leaders said. However, they do say their chambers strive to function in a nonpartisan way.

Rudi Hauser Jr., president of the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce, said his group's members have not voiced any objections about the U.S. Chamber.

"What the U.S. Chamber focuses on, national interests, is quite a bit different than what we're focused on," Hauser said. "We're focused on local issues and tourism. In general, most people realize there is a difference between the U.S. Chamber and the local chamber, and that their missions are not always the same."

The Greater Mystic, Eastern, Old Saybrook and Westerly-Pawcatuck chambers do not have political action committees, or PACS, their leaders said, but they do try to educate and influence state legislators on issues of importance to their members after researching democratically member views.

"We do take positions on state issues ... that affect small business," said Sheridan. "We're very active in that regard, but only after we solicit our membership and get a sense of what they're looking for. Every one of these (lawmakers) in Hartford is equally important when it comes to local business."

The Greater Mystic Chamber does not need to renew its affiliation with the U.S. Chamber until early next year, Cunningham said. Until then, the local chamber continues to participate in the Eastern chamber's annual state legislative agenda, she said.

Sheridan said the agenda for the coming legislative season is already in the works.

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