"The Chamber of Commerce runs this town," a Salem City Councilor said to me in a moment of candor at a social event. I hear this frequently.
The Salem Area Chamber of Commerce is highly political. Photos I took last Sunday at the Chamber's office on Commercial Street NE tell the tale.
Mayor candidate Chuck Bennett has been endorsed by the Chamber. Bennett, a lobbyist, is running against Carole Smith, a businesswoman.
Here's what strikes me as weird -- and unhealthy for this town -- about the Salem Chamber of Commerce's hyper-political activism.
(1) Many Chambers of Commerce aren't political. A recent issue of Salem Weekly had a great piece on this subject, "Different chambers, different approaches."
“The Ashland Chamber of Commerce plays an important part in bringing the community together,” says Pam Marsh, city councilor in Ashland, OR. For the last 30 years, although the Ashland chamber coordinates community issues forums and hosts a discussion series to introduce all candidates to local people, it does not endorse candidates at any level, and does not provide funding for any candidate with a PAC.
“Avoiding politics really enables our Chamber to reach out to every part of the community,” Marsh says.
In Salem, the Salem Area chamber of Commerce endorses candidates and funds their campaigns through its Create Jobs PAC. Advocacy is emphasized at the local, regional and state level, with prominent links on the organization’s website to its PAC, to its positions on policy matters and to current openings on City of Salem boards and commissions, bodies the chamber encourages members to apply for.
The Salem Chamber of Commerce has made a choice to be overtly political in a polarizing right-wing way. But why should it be assumed that businesses in this town are better served by conservatives rather than liberals?
Alex Kohan left some interesting comments on the Salem Weekly story. One said, "Since 2008 the Chamber of Commerce has given money to 17 candidates, of those 15 have been Republicans." Well, even if one assumes the Chamber should be political (which I don't), does this make sense?
Which gets me to...
(2) Democratic leaders tend to be better for the economy. Today the Statesman Journal reported that Oregon unemployment hit a record low in March, 4.5%.
State employment economist Nick Beleiciks said in a release that the jobless rate shows the Oregon labor market is "stronger than it's been in decades." Beleiciks said people are "flocking to Oregon's labor force."
Oregon has a Democratic Governor and Dem majorities in both the state Senate and House. If liberals have been good for the state economy, why does the Salem Chamber of Commerce only favor conservatives for Mayor and City Council?
Likewise, on the national level the economy does much better when a Democrat is president.
“The U.S. economy not only grows faster, according to real GDP and other measures, during Democratic versus Republican presidencies, it also produces more jobs, lowers the unemployment rate, generates higher corporate profits and investment, and turns in higher stock market returns. Indeed, it outperforms under almost all standard macroeconomic metrics.”
So another question is, if liberals have been good for the national economy, why does the Salem Chamber of Commerce favor conservatives for Mayor and City Council?
(3) Salem is a liberal-leaning town. Businesses want customers/clients. Period. I've never been told by a Salem business owner, "We don't serve Democrats."
So it's hard for me to understand why businesses that are members of the Salem Chamber of Commerce are OK with the Chamber taking political positions that not only are at odds with what is arguably good for this town's economy, as noted in (2) above, but also go against the political leanings of a majority of Salem's citizens.
Yes, Salem leans liberal. Check out my post about how Salem voted in the 2012 presidential election, "Salem, Oregon is more liberal than many people think."
Six of the eight wards went for Obama, two of them (wards 1 & 2) overwhelmingly. Only two wards, 4 and 8, cast a majority of votes for Romney. Yet even in conservative-leaning South Salem and West Salem, Obama got 46% and 48% respectively.
Yet the Salem Chamber of Commerce is dead-set against people in a liberal-leaning town electing -- oh, the horror! -- liberals.
Here's what the Chamber said in their March 2016 announcement where they endorsed Bennett, Bednarz, and Kailuweit.
It is important not to become complacent. There is still a small, but vocal, group who would like to see Salem return to the way things were 20 years ago. We believe that agenda will take Salem in the wrong direction. The livelihood of businesses and the livability of our community is dependent upon electing the right people to local government.
Hmmmm. I guess the Chamber is referring to the Mayor Roger Gertenrich and Mayor Mike Swaim era, 1994-2002.
I wasn't following Salem city politics very closely back then.
From what I hear, the liberal voters of Salem elected liberals to be Mayor and a majority of the City Council. Then the Chamber of Commerce rose up and said Can't have that!, which led to the Chamber throwing around its money and influence to elect conservative candidates.
Well, I found a statement by Swaim from 1998, when he decided to run for re-election. His vision doesn't sound at all like it would "take Salem in the wrong direction," as today's Chamber of Commerce leadership considers. Decide for yourself:
Download Community Values - Making Choices for Livability by Mike Swaim
I feel like the divisiveness and polarization in Salem would be much reduced if the Chamber wasn't so committed to pushing a right-wing political agenda.
I come from a very business-oriented family. Growing up, I never got the impression that business was all about politics. Business was about making money by providing products and services to people.
Here's part of another Salem Weekly comment from Alex Kohan which expresses nicely how I feel:
As far as I am concerned, the Salem Chamber should act like the Ashland Chamber. They should remove themselves from politics, stop buying city elections along with their friends the Salem Realtors and the Homeowners Association. I would have zero problem with the Chamber if they actually worked to make Salem a better place instead of just buying elections, pushing their Republican agenda and trying to gain benefits for the small elite of Salem residents.
Update: Googling another subject related to the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, I came across a 2011 PDF file of the "Create Jobs PAC & Salem Chamber Endorsement Process." Interesting reading, if you're into this sort of political stuff.
Download Create Jobs PAC
The Create Jobs PAC board makes a recommendation to the Chamber's board about which candidates to endorse. Then the Chamber board votes on the endorsements.
Peculiar factoid -- in the questionnaire that goes to candidates, there's this statement: "The Salem Area Chamber of Commerce is made up of over 1,200 businesses located in the Clackamas County area."
Salem is in Marion County. Does the Chamber of Commerce know this? Or does it really have lots of members in Clackamas County?