Eggs and PAC’n

Eggs and PAC’n 
Portland Chamber may form political action committee; members object

By Chris Busby

Some members of the Portland Regional Chambers of Commerce are pushing to change the bylaws of the business-advocacy organization to allow one of its members, the Portland Community Chamber, to form and fund a political action committee, or PAC. The move is drawing criticism from other Chamber members, who are concerned such political activity could divide the non-partisan organization and make it more difficult to retain or attract members.

The Portland Regional Chamber is the umbrella organization for Chambers of Commerce in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook and several towns in the area. With over 1,400 member-businesses, the group is the state’s largest pro-business organization. Its Eggs & Issues breakfast lectures are among its most popular and recognized events. 

The Portland Community Chamber’s board voted nearly unanimously to form a PAC several weeks ago. Board members of the larger regional organization almost voted on the bylaw change during a special session held Sept. 13, but were persuaded to postpone action until the board’s regular meeting on Sept. 27. 

New board member John Gallagher, Executive Director of the Westbrook Housing Authority, said fewer than half of the Portland Regional Chamber’s 29 board members were present at that special session. An opponent of the change, Gallagher said those present agreed to postpone the vote when he pointed out the group lacked a quorum and proponents realized the vote could be challenged by other members on that basis.

Godfrey Wood, the Portland Regional Chamber’s Chief Executive Officer, said he supports changing the Chamber’s bylaws to allow a Portland Community Chamber PAC. “Members expect us to take positions on issues that affect their business,” said Wood. A PAC would be “a natural outgrowth of that,” he said.

PACs make contributions to political campaigns and often pay for political advertising supporting particular candidates and issues. The Portland Chamber’s PAC would have its own board of officers and directors, and would make funding decisions based on its board’s decisions, not the larger board of the Portland Regional Chamber, said Wood.

Chip Harris, President of the Portland Community Chamber, did not return a call seeking comment today. 

Gallagher said this set-up concerns him, as it could create a situation in which a small group of Chamber members make political decisions in the Chamber’s name that do not reflect the interests or politics of other members. “In my opinion, it’s a bad idea,” said Gallagher. “We want to be inclusive, not exclusive.” 

Wood acknowledged a Chamber PAC could be divisive, but stressed that the PAC would make its funding decisions based on a candidate’s stance and record on business issues, not their political party. 

The idea of creating a PAC brought swift criticism from Chamber member PDT Architects, a Portland firm whose principals sent a letter to Wood and Chamber board members on Sept. 5 objecting to the idea “in the strongest terms.” 

“We understand your argument that in order to promote business, you feel you need to promote certain candidates and policies,” the letter read. “We differ, believing business owners are not so unanimous on which candidates and policies are best for our community.” 

The formation of a Chamber PAC “will divide the community and alienate members,” the letter continues. “We would like to preserve the Chamber’s welcoming atmosphere by keeping the bylaws non-partisan and limiting the Chamber to an advisory and educational role in political matters.”

The board of the People’s Regional Opportunity Program (PROP) unanimously voted to oppose the formation of a Chamber PAC last week. In a letter sent to Wood today, the non-profit social service organization’s Executive Director, Grant Lee, wrote that his board believes a PAC “will lead to polarization within the broader community and within the Chamber itself, [setting up] an environment that is win-lose, divisive and exclusive.”

In an interview today, Lee said PROP may be compelled to leave the Chamber after over 20 years of membership if a PAC is approved. Not only is PROP opposed to a PAC, but because it gets nearly all its funding from government sources, and such funds cannot be used for partisan political activities, PROP may not have enough “unrestricted funds” to pay for its Chamber membership, Lee said.

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