Tuesday, July 03, 2001

Chamber will endorse candidates

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT MITCHELL — The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce will begin endorsing and recruiting political candidates in the 2002 elections.

        After debating the issue internally for a decade, chamber leaders finally have decided to aid candidates who have pro-business re cords and agendas, said Charlie Pangburn, a Fort Mitchell lawyer and chairman of the chamber's board of directors.

        While long active in politics through its support of issues including tax reform and construction of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, the chamber has not advocated publicly how its members should vote for candidates.

        “This is a logical step for us ... to actively support political candidates that can implement our policies and positions,” Mr. Pangburn said Monday.

        “We want to encourage business-minded people to get involved, not just as voters but also as candidates and supporters of candidates,” he said.

        Though chambers elsewhere in Kentucky are active in politics and issues, none endorses candidates, said Mike Ridenour, vice president of public affairs for the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce.

        Mr. Ridenour called the Northern Kentucky chamber's plan “a bold move.”

        “Chambers across the nation, especially large cham bers like ours, are always looking at what is the appropriate amount of interaction in the political arena,” Mr. Ridenour said.

        The chamber does not plan to get involved in every election but will target political campaigns “where we see an impact on the economic vitality and quality of life in Northern Kentucky ... we want to step forward for particular candidates.”

        Mr. Pangburn said the chamber's 40-member board unanimously approved the plan last week.

Not being political
               The Grant County Chamber of Commerce stays away from endorsing candidates because the group doesn't want to be political, said Executive Director Wade Gut man.

        “We take stands on issues that affect our membership, like workers' compensation, but we certainly do not want to become a political organization,” Mr. Gutman said Monday.

        House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, a Wilder Democrat, expressed

        a similar concern about the Northern Kentucky chamber.

        “I've never looked at the chamber as a political entity,” said Mr. Callahan, who generally has had a good relationship with chamber leaders during his 15 years in Frankfort.

        “I've always seen them as getting involved in issues, but always working within the structure of the business world,” he said. “It will be hard for me to see them getting actively involved in political campaigns.”

        State Sen. Jack Westwood, an Erlanger Republican, said he understands why the chamber wants to get involved in campaigns but wonders how the organization ultimately will be affected.

        “The chamber is a group that definitely has its finger on the pulse of what is happening in Northern Kentucky, especially with business issues.

        “But I guess I would have some consideration about how this might affect (chamber) members,” he said. “Will a member leave the chamber or would a business not join based on an endorsement of a candidate? That's something they might have to deal with.”

        Said Mr. Ridenour of the Greater Lexington Chamber: “I know the folks in the Northern Kentucky chamber. I have a lot of faith they can do this, but it will take a lot of hard work when it comes to finding unanimity on issues and ensuring the membership is on board with an endorsement,”

"A philosophical bent'
               When the chamber begins making endorsements, it certainly will raise questions about partisan politics. Though the chamber always has been a nonpartisan group, many members are Republicans and businesses interests have been a bedrock of the local GOP agenda.

        But Bob Elliston, the president of Turfway Park and a chamber member, said he anticipates endorsements going to Democrats, too, because of the process of issuing the endorsements. An oversight committee composed of members registered with both parties will interview candidates and evaluate voting records of incumbents.

        “We're not coming at this at all from a partisan standpoint,” Mr. Elliston said. “We're coming at this from a philosophical bent.”

Accomplishing the mission
               The chamber has pushed issues successfully to its members, elected officials and the public.

        It has pushed for workers' comp and tax reform in Frankfort and helped lobby for state funding for local projects that have included the $38 million Northern Kentucky Convention Center and the $40 million Northern Kentucky University Science Building.

        In 1998 the chamber released its first rankings of how state lawmakers voted on business issues during the General Assembly session.

        For now, the chamber will not form a political action committeeto raise money to make contributions to candidates. But a PAC might be formed in the future, Mr. Elliston said.

        The chamber wants to exert some of the influence and knowledge it has when it comes to electing candidates to state, county and city offices.

        With more than 1,300 members, the chamber is by far Northern Kentucky's largest business advocacy group. Mr. Elliston said because other advocacy groups with different agendas from business are backing candidates, the chamber should as well.

        “People who don't see things like we do are clearly stepping up for candidates supporting their positions,” he said. “Why shouldn't we be involved if it ultimately helps us accomplish our core mission of making Northern Kentucky a better place to do business and a better place to live?”


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