Chamber of Commerce groups diverge on Democrats' business policies

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 22, 2012 

When members of the Charlotte Chamber gather at the U.S. Treasury Department this afternoon, they'll talk economic policy with Obama administration officials — only a few months before the president is renominated in Charlotte for a second term.

Meanwhile, a block away, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is orchestrating a $10 million media attack on what it sees as the Democrats' anti-business policies.

The tale of the two chambers reflects some businesses' ongoing tension with President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders. It also reflects the administration's efforts to ease that tension, especially in key electoral states such as North Carolina.

"Their relations remain tense with the business community but they're better than they were a year and a half ago," said Henry Olsen, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "The administration is trying to show that they're listening to business concerns and ... trying to identify areas where they can actually make common cause."

This month, the U.S. Chamber launched a $10 million "voter education" ad campaign backing 20 mostly Republican congressional candidates across the country, though none in the Carolinas. In 2010, no outside group spent more on such ads than the Chamber's $33 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. "For us it is not about the party," said U.S. Chamber spokesman Bryan Goettel. "It's about where the candidate or member of Congress stands on issues critical to the business community."

But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee responded to the new ads in a fundraising appeal. Executive Director Guy Cecil called it "a major piece of their plan to defeat President Obama and execute a complete GOP takeover of government."

Hands-off on politics

The U.S. Chamber ads are running in 12 congressional districts and eight states with U.S. Senate races. Some criticize Democrats who backed the president's health care law. Others tout Republicans who support the Keystone pipeline, which the Obama administration opposed.

Charlotte Chamber officials take pains to distance themselves from such ads.

While their dues go to the national organization, they aren't used for ads, Goettel said. And Chamber leaders in Charlotte, the site of the September convention that will renominate the president, say they take a hands-off approach to politics.

"This Chamber of Commerce does not get engaged politically," said Natalie English, senior vice president of public policy.

Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan said the relationship between the groups can be confusing, even for members. His group is a member of the U.S. Chamber, just as individual businesses are members of the local chamber.

"Our focus is much less on broader federal political issues than Charlotte-centric issues," Morgan said.

Charlotte as job creator

But today more than 40 Charlotte business leaders will discuss macro-economics with the commerce and finance officials. The visit is part of a series of conversations the White House is hosting with community leaders from across the country.

Last month, Triangle business leaders visited the White House to talk about economic opportunities. Last week it was Pittsburgh's business community and on Friday, it's Boston's turn.

A White House official said today's visit is not part of any political effort and that Charlotte is a major economic engine that has shown creative ways to create jobs in a difficult economy that the administration can learn from.

A majority of Charlotte Chamber members who attended a recent retreat identified themselves as Republicans. Only a third were Democrats.

But Morgan said members generally agree on one thing: Hosting this year's Democratic National Convention is a good thing.

"Our membership has been wildly supportive of Charlotte hosting the convention," Morgan said. "Our purpose is to help make sure the convention is successful and to maximize the economic opportunity."

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