Chamber political role a perilous path, advisors warn
By Scott Blake
As the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce ponders wading into the deeper political waters of campaign finance and endorsements, advisors are cautioning members to consider the potential drawbacks in addition to the anticipated benefits.
The quest for more political clout has chamber leaders thinking of creating a political action committee or similar organization affiliated with the chamber.
However, advisors say, as Miami's oldest and largest business organization with about 5,000 members, the chamber should be mindful that supporting certain candidates and issues with endorsements and contributions could backfire.
They said it potentially could result in the loss of members or financial and political support from those with opposing views.
"You have to think about the potential impact on membership and dues," Robert Levy, a government and public relations specialist, said last week at a session during the chamber's annual goals conference.
"Don't think there aren't consequences all the way down the road," he added.
Two such divisive issues that were hotly debated by chambers members in the past were efforts to ratify a federal Equal Rights Amendment for women and state legislation to expand gambling, most recently played out in last year's proposal calling for destination casino resorts in South Florida.
Mr. Levy said the chamber decided many years ago to oppose the women's Equal Rights Amendment, while the chamber last year gave conditional support to destination casino resorts. Ultimately, the Equal Rights Amendment, although approved by Congress in 1972, failed to get support from at least the 38 states needed to ratify the measure, and the casino resort legislation died in committee in last winter's Florida legislative session.
Meanwhile, other chambers of commerce in Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville already have established PACs or similar committees to play a more potent role in politics, said Ric Katz, a public affairs specialist who also provided advice at last week's session.
"Other parts of the state laugh at South Florida because we don't have our act together," Mr. Katz said. "They laugh because they know they control the votes…"
He laid out three options to level the political playing field with other large metro area chambers:
nCreating a political committee: This would be the strongest option. A political committee has the power to support or oppose candidates, issues and political parties. It can make independent expenditures and offer "electioneering" communications, and sponsor constitutional initiative petitions.
nCreating a committee of continuous existence: It is permitted to make contributions to candidates, committees and political parties but cannot make independent expenditures or election-related communications.
nCreating an electioneering communications organization: Its activities are limited to making expenditures for election-related communications or accepting contributions for that purpose. However, it cannot "expressly" advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, but can make appeals to vote for or against a candidate.
Mr. Katz said such committees would operate separately from the chamber, although they could have "interlocking" boards of directors.
He suggested that, with the help of such committees, the Greater Miami chamber could form stronger alliances with the state's other large metro chambers.
"With Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa" teamed with Miami, he added, "if we have the [legislative] delegations [from those areas] voting together, we could rule the Legislature."
Other options to consider, Mr. Levy noted, would be whether any of the aforementioned committees would participate in federal, state and local political matters, or limit their focus to one or two levels of government.
Ana Sotorrio, chairwoman of the chamber's Political Outreach Committee, part of the Governmental Affairs Group, said the chamber has stepped up its political advocacy efforts in recent years.
That has included more so-called "fly-ins" of chamber representatives to meet with federal and state elected officials and their staffs in Washington, DC, and Tallahassee. It also has included taking "straw polls" of chamber members on key issues, as well as hosting forums to discuss and debate issues.
"We're here to explore the next level of advocacy," Ms. Sotorrio said about PACs and similar committees at the goals session.
After the session, she said the chamber is likely to revisit the issue in a forum this summer. However, she added, such proposals would have to be approved by several chamber committees or boards before being final — a process that probably would last until sometime next year.
Chamber member and economist J. Antonio Villamil, dean of business at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, said some concerns need to be addressed before moving forward with the idea.
"I'm afraid of the unintended consequences," Mr. Villamil said during the session. "It's important to understand what are the pitfalls and benefits."
For example, he added, "If you support a candidate and he [later] goes on and says he wants to open up [trade] with Cuba, then you've got a problem for the chamber."
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