By Kirk Ross
Anyone can start a chamber of commerce. And as Aaron Nelson, president and CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, points out, many people have â€“ there are about 30 of them in the Triangle alone.
But itâ€™s not a local group that concerns Nelson and others; itâ€™s the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest chamber of them all and a lobbying behemoth that has gone toe-to-toe with the Obama administration over climate change, health care reform and other issues.
â€œLately, [the U.S. chamber] has more often frustrated than pleased us,â€ Nelson said in a recent interview.
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro chamber is a dues-paying member of the U.S. chamber, a long-running relationship that Nelson says allows access to the national chamberâ€™s professional development programs. He emphasized that those dues do not go to support the lobbying and policy programs of the national group.
Tita Freeman, the U.S. chamberâ€™s vice president of communication, said she couldnâ€™t confirm thatâ€™s the case. It would depend, she said, on whether the dues go directly to the professional development foundation.
Although not familiar with the specifics of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro chamberâ€™s concerns, Freeman said they are similar to those of other chambers around the country that have objected to some of the organizationâ€™s stands.
Chambers in San Francisco and Seattle recently distanced themselves from the national chamber, and several companies, including Apple and Pacific Gas and Electric, withdrew their membership over a dispute over the chamberâ€™s stand on greenhouse gas emissions.
â€œThe chamber works on hundreds of issues,â€ Freeman said. â€œWeâ€™re never going to have 100 percent of our members agreeing on everything.â€
The U.S. chamber works through consensus, she said, and any member organization is welcome to weigh in on the issues. The U.S. chamber, she said, also has been targeted by groups such as Moveon.org.
â€œThereâ€™s a lot of misinformation out there about our positions,â€ Freeman said. She said the organization supports controlling greenhouse emissions but not through the means spelled out recently in legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Nelson said concerns about the relationship between the two chambers were raised two years ago after the U.S. chamber sponsored robo-calls in this area in support of the candidacy of Republican Elizabeth Dole in her race for U.S. Senate against Democrat Kay Hagan. Hagan won heavily Democratic Orange County with 70 percent of the vote. The robo-calls prompted a slew of email complaints to the local chamber.
Calls made by the U.S. chamber in support of candidates, Nelson said, are not often clear about which chamber is calling.
With the U.S. chamberâ€™s rising profile in opposition to a public option in the recent health care reform debate, more complaints to the locals have been lodged. Nelson has occasionally tried to point out the difference between the national and local groups, and last month he and his board of directors took the unusual step of including a note about it in its annual membership reminder.
â€œLately, the U.S. chamber has taken positions on health care and gas emissions that are getting lots of publicity, and we wanted to be clear about the relationship between our organizations,â€ Joanne Fiore, chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro chamberâ€™s board of directors said in a recent email response to The Citizen. â€œWe are a separate, autonomous organization and set our own agenda with our own local membersâ€™ needs in mind.â€
Nelson said he and the board have become increasingly comfortable with distancing themselves from the national organization.
â€œWe want to make that real clear to everybody,â€ he said.
Thereâ€™s been no formal split as yet, he said, but local officials recently sent at least one indication of their displeasure. When dues time recently rolled around, Nelson said, instead of the usual check for about $600 he wrote one out for $1.