The U.S. Chamber of Commerce decision to encourage more political involvement from local chambers has drawn criticism from Democrats who fear the action is arbitrary and will decrease their chances of being elected in predominantly Republican states like Utah.
A letter by John L. Clendenin, executive committee chairman of the U.S. Chamber in Washington, D.C., says: "I am writing to ask your personal assistance in an effort vital to the future of our nation. You know that business needs to be involved in legislative action."The letter has been criticized by Democrats who are seeking re-election, including Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, who last year received the lowest rating given by the national chamber.
Francine Giani, Gov. Norm Bangerter's press secretary, said that Gov. Norm Bangerter believes citizens should become involved in the political process and run for office. However, as to whether promoting political participation should be the function of the chamber of commerce, Giani said, "That's a decision that their (national) board will have to make."
However, U.S. Chamber political affairs director Ted Manness said the organizations should "promote legislative action on behalf of chambers and chamber members involved in the political and legislative process.
"We encourage that (political participation) very strongly," he said. "It's not viewed as Democratic or Republican. It's viewed as pro-business and pro-labor. We support candidates based on their support of American businesses, but to be totally honest, 90 percent of the candidates we support are Republican, but that's because of voting records. We try to be very non-partisan."
Maness said voting records have also helped the U.S. Chamber and local chambers choose candidates for endorsement. On issues that interest the chambers, he said, the average Republican lawmaker votes in favor 85 percent of the time and the average Democratic lawmaker votes in favor 45 percent of the time.
Last year, the U.S. Chamber rated Sens. Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch, 88 percent and 91 percent, respectively. Reps. James V. Hansen and Howard C. Nielsen also received ratings above 90 percent. Owens, on the other hand, received a 30 percent rating in 1989.
Owen's press secretary Art Kingdom said, "National biases have a tendency to show through. It's not that they create, but they select votes which historically show Republicans very strong and Democrats very weak on certain issues.
"Utah, being conservative and very dependent on its thriving economy, is sensitive to what the chambers of commerce will say. They're (the ratings) an artificial and somewhat inaccurate way of determining a candidate's ability to serve, (but) it's their business to express themselves and express issues they feel are important. Owens has taken a number of positions that are historically Republican."
Kingdom said Owens endorsed the balanced-budget amendment and the line-item veto for the President, both of which were favored by Republicans.
Wilford R. Black Jr., D-Salt Lake, said he doesn't believe the action will effect him because local chambers don't rate, but rather they endorse local candidates. "I don't think they should rate (candidates). I don't think we vote against small businesses. I think the Democratic Party has done a lot to further the business community."
On the other hand, Hatch's press secretary Paul Smith said, "The chamber represents small business across the nation and the voice of the people on many, many issues. So when the chamber rates Senator Hatch as one of the highest, it's because he speaks for what the people want, and he's been behind small businesses and what they need to grow. Liberalism doesn't go hand in hand with small business."
Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats were solidly behind the increase in minimum wage and family-leave time, which small businesses opposed because of the effect they feared both proposals would have on them economically, Smith said.