As a blistering election year consumes the Central Coast, chambers of commerce are deciding their role in the political process.
The chambers in the Tri-County area range in size from more than 1,400 members to smaller organizations of 200 and 300. These business networks advocate for local economic growth, which, for some, takes shape in the form of political endorsements.
Of the 10 largest chambers in the area, only Santa Barbara, Camarillo and Oxnard regularly endorse political candidates during the election season. San Luis Obispo, the largest chamber of commerce on the Central Coast, does not endorse political candidates.
As a result of geography, demographics and size, the chambers vary greatly in their identity. “If you’ve seen one chamber, you’ve seen one chamber” is the unofficial motto of chambers, which were founded in Marseille, France in 1599.
The San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce has a “long-held process” of not endorsing political candidates, said CEO Ermina Karim. The chamber has 1,443 members but does not see its stature as a reason to promote candidates.
Karim said the decision is tied to the organization’s core values, adding that “diversity of thought” requires many different viewpoints from many different candidates.
The chamber does not sit still during election season, however, and Karim describes the chamber as “probably the most politically engaged” institution in the area, leading a past campaign for a sales tax renewal, supporting past bond measures by Cuesta College and the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, and creating voter guides for its members.
Other chambers use their size as an advantage, supporting specific candidates in their races for public office.
This year, the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce suffered a backlash from business owners after the chamber endorsed candidate Das Williams for 1st District Santa Barbara County Supervisor. William’s voting record was thought to be far from business-friendly, but the chamber stood by its decision to support him.
The Santa Barbara chamber has approximately 1,000 members and uses a government relations committee to make its endorsement decisions. The committee is comprised of 20 voting members, something typically feasible only for larger chambers. The chamber hosts public forums prior to the committee voting, as well as Q&A and information sessions.
“We want to be an advocate for the business community,” said Ken Oplinger, CEO of the Santa Barbara chamber. “If we haven’t been involved we can’t provide input when business owners come to us for help.”
The Greater Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce, with 1,100 members, chooses each year to release a legislative agenda instead of making candidate endorsements. This year’s extensive platform lists the chamber’s positions on a number of local, state and federal issues, ranging from information security to immigration reform. The chamber says it supports the Thousand Oaks Boulevard Specific Plan, and opposes any increases to the cost of business licenses.
The Ventura Chamber of Commerce, with 650 members, is also considered a prominent economic player on the Central Coast. It uses a 12-member Political Action Committee to make its endorsements and the chamber hosts informational sessions for the community prior to announcing its decisions.
Stephanie Caldwell, CEO of the chamber, said it usually selects candidates who will “lighten the regulatory load” upon businesses and help Ventura expand its economy. The chamber is due to make its endorsements in late August.
For others, “being political is too risky,” said Gina Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce, which has 922 members. Paso Robles’ economy is concentrated in agriculture and tourism, ranging from restaurants and hotels to wineries and cattle ranches.
The chamber has endorsed legislation in the past, including the Cuesta College and San Luis Coastal Unified School District bond measures, but it does not publicly support specific candidates because of possible conflicts of interest with its members.
Smaller chambers have also been known to make endorsements. The Camarillo Chamber of Commerce, with a membership of 530, makes its endorsements through an internal decision process with its board of directors. The chamber has not yet made its endorsements for 2016.
The Oxnard Chamber of Commerce, comprised of 525 members, endorsed Dave Grau in late March for 1st District Ventura County Supervisor and on July 19 endorsed Kelly Long for 3rd District Ventura County Supervisor.
The Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, also small with a membership of 485, endorsed Bruce Porter for 3rd District Santa Barbara County Supervisor and Tony Vallejo for Goleta City Council.
Business and politics are interwoven in practice and, while advocacy is often a privilege of larger, more established organizations, even chambers that do not endorse have done their part to inform the public about this year’s election.
The Carpinteria Valley Chamber of Commerce hosts numerous educational forums for local, state, regional and national policymakers for its 350 members, and the Buellton Chamber of Commerce, with a membership of 210, also hosts forums for local politicians.
The chambers have the ability to dabble in politics when the need arises. Atascadero Chamber of Commerce CEO Linda Hendy said although her 625-member chamber does not currently do endorsements, it might begin doing them in the future.
Editor’s note: This story kicks off the Business Times’ coverage of the 2016 election, which will include analysis, Q&As and bios of candidates in select races in the Tri-Counties.
• Contact Supriya Yelimeli at [email protected]