August 19, 2012

Anti-King ad upsets local chambers of commerce

By John Richardson
Staff Writer

When Dana Connors got a call from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last month letting him know the group was about to air a TV ad criticizing independent U.S. Senate candidate Angus King, the president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce knew he was in a tough spot.

And not because Connors led former Gov. King's transition team in 1995. The state chamber and the 60 local and regional chambers around the state generally try to stay out of Maine elections, partly because they have to work with whoever wins and partly to avoid alienating member businesses and their customers.

Connors, in fact, said he told the caller the ad might not be a good idea.

"You are criticizing one of our candidates," Connors recalled telling the U.S. Chamber. "I'm concerned about that because it puts us into a political position that carries a negative (tone). We're a state chamber. We live in the state every day. We're concerned about our brand."

The airing of the anti-King commercial and the endorsement of Republican Charlie Summers clearly created some tension between the national chamber and the state and local chambers in Maine. It surfaced again last week after the U.S. Chamber's political director came to the state to campaign with Summers and criticize King in person.

While the groups share the same chamber identity -- or brand -- leaders of the Maine groups have been assuring businesses and consumers here that they are separate and independent from the more political national organization.

The Portland Regional Chamber, for example, posted a statement assuring members that none of its $400 in yearly dues to the U.S. Chamber helped pay for the anti-King ad. "We do not stand with or against any candidate," CEO Godfrey Wood wrote.

Similar national ads aimed at candidates in New Hampshire and other states in 2010 led some local chambers to publicly end membership in the national group in protest. There has been no evidence of such an exodus in Maine, although there may yet be more to the story.

The U.S. Chamber spent $400,000 to air the 30-second ad on every network statewide for a couple of weeks, including during the Olympics. If the Chamber sees King's poll numbers drop as a result, it probably will spend far more before the Nov. 6 election, experts say.

Rob Engstrom, the U.S. Chamber's national political director, said during a campaign stop with Summers in Lewiston last week that the group was "encouraged by the results (and) some of the feedback from the ad."

A poll commissioned by the Summers campaign suggested that King's lead over Summers had dropped to 18 percentage points early this month from about 28 points in late June, but no independent polling has been reported to confirm that.

Engstrom did not promise more television commercials while in Maine last week, but he said the group was not pulling out of the Maine Senate race. "We're going to continue to be aggressively involved," he said.

Engstrom also defended the U.S. Chamber's political activities in Maine and elsewhere. "It's our First Amendment right to engage on behalf of our issues," he said.

Maine is one of 13 states where the U.S. Chamber is trying to elect Republicans to the Senate, and the stakes appear to be especially high here. Some national observers say it now looks even more likely that the outcome of the Maine election could determine which party controls the majority in the Senate.

Every chamber is different

Influencing control of Congress is not a traditional role for a chamber of commerce. The formation of chambers goes back more than a century as collectives of local merchants who worked together to serve and promote their communities.

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