Politics and business
There’s no such thing as politics as usual at the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.
That’s because the chamber’s involvement in politics has evolved over time, and continues to do so, even to the dismay of some of its own members.
Though the chamber has long lobbied local and state lawmakers about specific laws they consider good or bad for business, only in the past eight years has it endorsed candidates for public office. But it’s the chamber’s recent political activity beyond that, such as financially backing those endorsed candidates and actively campaigning on their behalf — and creating a secretive group to do so — that has many in the Grand Valley wondering if the chamber has gone too far.
The chamber’s leaders, including President and Chief Executive Officer Diane Schwenke and current board President Michael Burke, don’t think so, saying getting involved in electing so-called business-friendly candidates to public office is a natural progression of the group’s core mission, part of which is to work to ensure a business-friendly climate.
“The thought process around all of this is that in order to be effective in the political arena, you need to have a business agenda that really does look at what’s necessary to create jobs, you need to be articulate on the issues, and you need to have elected officials who understand those principles,” Schwenke said. “We have a saying in chamber work that when you see one chamber, you’ve seen one chamber. There’s not like an industry standard when it’s OK to do this. Each chamber reacts to the community that it’s in.”
Under federal tax laws, nonprofit organizations such as chambers of commerce are limited in how much they can focus on political activity. That’s at least partly why the chamber formed a special nonprofit, Western Colorado Business Alliance.
That group is registered with the IRS as a nonprofit political group, which means it can engage in “educational” activity, but not actively endorse, contribute to or coordinate with actual candidates.
What that means is the group can’t work hand-in-hand with a candidate or put out advertisements that ask voters to cast their ballots for a specific person. It can, however, run ads extolling the merits of a particular candidate or offer negative ads denouncing that candidate’s opponent.
The designation also means the group doesn’t have to disclose who’s giving it money and what it spends it on.
That’s exactly what happened earlier this year when the chamber endorsed, and the alliance spent money on, four candidates for the Grand Junction City Council, three of whom were elected.
That didn’t sit well with some folks in town. When one of those candidates was arrested on a domestic violence charge a few days after his election, a charge to which he later pleaded guilty, an effort sprung up to oust him from the council.
That council member, Rick Brainard, along with newly elected councilors Marty Chazen and Phyllis Norris, all were endorsed by the chamber and backed by the business alliance.
Along with Grand Junction Mayor Sam Susuras, another chamber endorsee from a previous election, their detractors now call them the “chambermades.” They control four of the seven council seats.
Two efforts have emerged from all this. One is a fledgling attempt to force a recall election of Brainard, and the other is an effort to get the chamber to stay out of politics, or at least limit involvement.
“I created the Rein In the Chamber (Facebook) list for people to just talk about chamber issues and to share ideas that we can do to reduce the chamber’s power in the valley,” said local resident Anne Landman, who also is founder of Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers. “They’ve just really stepped out of their bounds. They’ve just taken on this bullying tone that’s just so nasty. It gives you an idea of what’s going on inside the chamber.”
While the chamber’s endorsement and the ensuing alliance backing of Brainard crossed a line for some folks, the chamber’s refusal to review its position on him as it had promised to do has lit a fuse under local residents such as Landman, who, along with others, are calling on chamber members to leave the organization and for consumers to boycott those who don’t.
Landman created the spinoff Facebook page from one demanding that Brainard resign so both could focus on their individual efforts. Currently, it has 75 members.
Marilyn Charlesworth is one of them. The manager of Woven Designs, 537 Main St., said the chamber’s decision to wait on whether it would reconsider its support of Brainard until there is a recall election, if there is a recall election, was the final straw.
Like the handful of other businesses that left the chamber, Charlesworth said that decision was a slap in the face to all domestic violence victims.
“We’re a woman-run business and we are not going to do business with the chamber when they will not denounce Rick Brainard,” she said. “We’re not uneducated. We can see the little-boys’ club, and now the majority of our City Council are ‘chambermades,’ as we call them. Yeah, it started with Brainard, but it’s mushroomed. There are so many groups that have jumped into this. It’s the small-business chamber members who are going to get hurt by this, that’s why we’re telling them to jump out, get your name off that (chamber membership) list.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by other business owners, including Paul Knaysi, owner of Pablo’s Pizza, 319 Main St., who said he dropped his chamber membership because of the Brainard issue specifically, but also because of the chamber’s political entanglements in general.
Knaysi said he feared the boycott of chamber members would cost him business.
“I feel like the chamber really should be promoting business and educating candidates and people who are running our city and county government on some of the policies that help business, instead of trying to promote certain candidates they feel might be more pro-business,” Knaysi said. “Nobody’s anti-business. Any candidate or elected official can be very positive toward business, they just need to be educated about what’s good for business.”
Rock Cesario, owner of Triple Play Records, 530 Main St., was one of the businesses Charlesworth and Landman approached, but he’s never been a member even though the chamber routinely conducts membership drives.
In fact, in the 25 years he’s been in business, he’s never been asked to join, Cesario said, speculating that the peace flag he occasionally flies in front of the business may have something to do with it.
“You’ve got to try to remain neutral when you’re behind the counter of your business,” he said. “It seems to me that politics is less about doing right by the people and more about sticking it to the other party. Both parties are guilty.”
It’s exactly these kinds of situations that have led chambers in other parts of the state to steer clear of politics, the directors of those chambers said.
According to chamber directors in comparable cities in the state, such as Montrose, Glenwood Springs and Pueblo, none endorses candidates, much less financially backs them. And they would never consider creating a shadowy fundraising arm to get candidates elected, they said.
The directors said it’s not unusual for chambers to lobby elected officials about pending new laws or government regulations. But to back candidates, business-friendly or not, has a way of biting back, said Rod Slyoff, director of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce.
“We do not endorse candidates so we can work with all sides of the fence to try to make sure that our members aren’t facing more taxes, more regulations, more red tape,” Slyoff said. “I’m real careful. I don’t even attend any fundraisers for any candidates and haven’t for 20 years. If I just show up, whether I give any money or not, then people will say the chamber supports this person. If the candidate (a chamber) supported loses and the other one wins, you sometimes don’t have a lot of support on your pro-business issues. I’m always a little surprised when chambers do that.”
Jennifer Sopsic, director of the Montrose Area Chamber of Commerce, said her organization prefers to join regional groups to lobby on its behalf.
Endorsing candidates and then financially backing them is not something her chamber would even consider, she said.
“There are many chambers who take that step to become more political,” she said. “It can be risky business and it can get a little sticky.”
According to the 2011 990 reports that chambers must file with the IRS each year to maintain their nonprofit status, the most recent ones available, the Grand Junction chamber spent about $74,000 on its lobbying activities, which Schwenke said pays for staff time spent on lobbying, including her own.
Of the similar reports filed for the same year by six other chambers of comparable size in the state, only Montrose listed any amount spent on lobbying. That chamber spent about $2,000 in 2011.
The difficulty in determining what proposed new laws to support or oppose isn’t as clear cut as siding with measures that are supposedly good or bad for business, the directors said. Sometimes, a measure may be bad for one industry but good for another.
Take Senate Bill 252, for example.
That’s a bill, which became law at the start of this month, that doubled the 10 percent renewable energy standard rural electric associations must meet by 2020. Because of heavy lobbying, led by Colorado’s largest associations elsewhere in the state, the Grand Junction chamber came out against it even though no resident in the county will be negatively impacted by it.
The county’s only power association, Grand Valley Power, gets its electricity from Xcel Energy, which already must obtain 30 percent of its power from renewable sources.
Schwenke said while the law doesn’t impact Mesa County residents, others in the region, such as Delta, Montrose and Garfield counties, would be affected. For that reason, and because of the chamber’s general stance against increased government mandates, the board’s government affairs committee chose to oppose the bill.
“We are a trade area, and the residents of Delta and Montrose and the surrounding areas that do have REAs will be impacted,” she said, adding that none of the renewable energy companies who are chamber members expressed an opinion on the measure.
Still, that decision didn’t sit well with chamber members who are in the renewable energy business.
While Heidi Ihske, co-owner of High Noon Solar, 569 S. Westgate Drive, and Darin Carei, president of Atlasta Solar Center, 1111 S. Seventh St., praised the chamber’s general support of renewable energy, and the jobs they provide, they said its decision to oppose that new law seemed to imply the chamber still is mired in the fossil-fuel era.
“It’s frustrating when something like this happens, especially when the explanation doesn’t necessarily reflect what we see as reality, but the chamber has done a lot for local businesses here in energy efficiency even though their goals tend to lean toward oil and gas more than renewable energy,” Ihske said.
“As we weigh all the things that the chamber does from a local perspective and then look at the effects of their lobbying, particularly for Senate Bill 252, the things they do well, I would continue to support them,” Carei added. “But I would hope in the future, though, if there’s anything of this nature that has an effect on their dues-paying constituents that they would poll us. We did not get a call from the chamber saying, ‘Why is this good or not?’ Who would be better to know than us? The chamber does a lot of good things, but politics is not their strong suit.”
A similar thing happened last year when the Colorado Legislature considered, but eventually killed, a bill that would have allowed a video lottery casino to open in the valley.
Even though about 80 percent of Coloradans — 78.5 percent in Mesa County — rejected allowing such casinos in the state in a 2003 ballot question, Schwenke went to Denver during that session to argue for it, saying the city wanted the jobs and economic development it would generate.
The measure created an outpouring of sentiment against it from local residents, even months after the proposal was dead.
Schwenke said the chamber takes its cues on what to support and what to oppose not from the residents at large, but its own members.
“We aren’t here to be responsible to the community at large so much as we are to be responsible to our members,” she said. “They’re the ones who fund our organization, and they’re the ones that we respond to and they’re the ones that we work on behalf of. We do a lot of other things outside of the political arena. This chamber has a pretty long history of being politically involved.”
Like the Brainard matter, the recent local ballot question calling on the city to rezone land along the Colorado River owned by Brady Trucking also created some bad blood with the chamber.
Environmentalists and recreationalists opposed the project, saying the days of allowing such industrial development along the nation’s riverfronts have long passed and arguing that the land could serve economic development interests in a less industrial manner.
Their efforts failed when city residents voted to allow the rezoning, ending a five-year battle over the matter.
The chamber was an early supporter of the rezoning, much to the dismay of Grand Junction attorney Harry Griff.
When the issue first came up, the law firm he works for, Griff Larson Laiche & Wright, 422 White Ave., was a chamber member, and Griff was representing opponents of the rezoning.
Griff, a chamber member for 25 years before dropping out several years ago, said he’s positive the chamber’s decision had more to do with politics than economic development.
As a result, he said they don’t always listen to both sides of an issue.
“My concern with the chamber is that over the past several years it has been a very, very exclusionary group, whereas I believe that a quasi-public entity like the chamber should be bending over backwards to be inclusive and be listening to both sides before they make their decision,” he said. “I was a member for 25 years, and they knew that I was one of the proponents of (the rezoning) but they never gave me the courtesy of meeting with their board before they took a position. They just listened to one side. They sat down with Brady Trucking, which was a new business to the valley.”
That was the catalyst that got Griff’s law firm to leave the chamber, but it wasn’t the only reason.
When Rich Lopez came to Grand Junction from Greeley, he started talking to others in the Hispanic community about why they weren’t members of the local chamber.
Politics was the answer.
As a result, Lopez rejected an offer by Schwenke to be affiliated with the chamber before he and several Hispanic business owners in town decided to create the Western Colorado Latino Chamber.
When Lopez approaches businesses to join the Latino chamber, whether they’re Hispanic-owned or not, he makes clear it doesn’t engage in politics and remains separate from the larger chamber.
“I’m trying to separate the two because I don’t think it’s good business,” he said. “The role of a chamber is to promote business, whether it’s Latino or otherwise. Politics splits the membership. I am being inclusive. Getting involved in politics creates a lot of problems within the membership.”
Has any of this had an impact on the chamber’s decision to get more political?
Yes, says Schwenke, but only to the point where it hopes to be more effective at it.
“We have found that our members for the most part ... want us to be active and involved in this arena,” she said. “Probably it would have been better to have formed that Western Colorado Business Alliance a little sooner. If we had had maybe a year or so under our belt with that organization and a bit more separation with the chamber and our roles more clearly defined, I think that might have been a little more helpful.
“But otherwise, when you take a look at the fact that the Brady issue was overwhelmingly supported by this community and that we had three out of four of our endorsed candidates took public office, this was a successful election cycle.”