Send up a flare! Print pictures on milk cartons. Sound the Amber Alert. Once again the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce is missing in action.
Conservatives and moderates are sending brave soldiers to the front in the current county board campaign. (Vote Tuesday, April 1.) These are candidates who believe that:
- Employers are not the enemy
- People who build housing are the solution, not the problem
- The human environment is as important as the natural environment
- Low taxes are themselves a positive economic program
These are people with families and day jobs who spend weekends and evenings slipping on the ice, going door-to-door, peddling their pitiful little palm cards, hoping every fifth door will open so they can squeak out a 10-second message in between "cute doggie," and "down boy." These brave souls are taking withering fire from Kathleen Falk, from the teachers union, from the government employees union, from the Sierra Club and a host of other special interests.
When they look behind them, they would like to see someone bringing up the rear, maintaining their support lines. Where or where is the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce?
Well, it turns out that the Chamber is making plans to get involved in county issues -- that is the good news -- but too late for this pivotal election, which is Tuesday, April 1. That is the very frustrating bad news.
Backwards reels the mind
Four and one-half years ago. I wrote an op ed in the Wisconsin State Journal warning that the new chamber president Jennifer Alexander would be as ineffectual as her predecessor, Bob Brennan -- "More nice hair. Same toothy smile. Better legs." -- unless she made the Chamber a player in the local political process.
That morning, Mark Bugher called me at work, warned me that Jennifer Alexander was his "protégé" -- my considered response was: "So?" -- then raised the unholy specter of sexism (the "better legs" thing), to which I cheerfully pleaded nolo contendere and 20/20 eyesight. So far, so good. An hour later Jennifer herself called and, my guard up, discombobulated me completely by asking me to lunch to pick my brain. (She may have found more sustenance in her salad.)
Now let me set the time: It is October, 2003: Austin King had come out with their Madison-only minimum wage ordinance, the latest indignity to hit employers (and employees). Mandatory health city-only health insurance coverage and the inclusionary zoning fiasco served notice that Progressive Dane was in charge. Brennan had neglected local politics to reap the whirlwind. I wrote:
Few in city government speak business as their native tongue.
A few months later, Jennifer invited your faithful blogger, then serving the greater good on the Dane County Board, and colleague Eileen Bruskewitz to the Chamber offices to talk to the soon-to-be-reconstituted government affairs committee. I remember Jennifer, Jim Imhoff of First Weber Realty, and Mark Bugher being there but I'm missing one or two others. I was in the midst of my sixth campaign and was beaten to a pulp by the process. Eileen and I were trying to encourage the chamber to assert itself in local elections.
I was my usual, eloquent self: "Open your checkbooks, gentlemen."
To her credit, Jennifer Alexander sprung into action to beat back the sick leave proposal. Indeed, the Chamber put an oar in the water for the 2007 Spring municipal elections, with pretty fair results.
But not the 2008 County Board elections?
- No position on the Regional Transit Authority?
- Nothing to say about the Fair Housing Ordinance?
- Public protection, jails, ankle bracelets -- any interest?
Turns out, however, the Chamber has taken a stalwart position (PDF) on the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission. But who knew?
The question is posed
I put the question to Bugher, now board chairman of the Chamber. I told him he's got some pretty sharp people. If they need help on getting up to speed on the issues, I have some names. I e-mailed:
So it frustrates people like me -- believe me, I am not alone in this matter -- that your organization would take a pass on these elections. When you do that you leave the field to the John Hendricks, the Al Matanos and other Progressive Danes and their fellow travelers. I would like to know why the Chamber is shirking its responsibility.
Until the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce steps up the plate, I propose to delete the first word, "Greater" and substitute the word "Lesser."
Here is Mark's response (I asked for something on the record):
From: (Mark Bugher)
Subject: Re: Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce
Date: March 24, 2008 12:33:12 PM CDT
To: (David Blaska)
David; we are moving the GMCC towards very active involvement in county issues. We have so ordained with approval of our public policy plan. As for me I am a creature of the county board having served for a time in Eau Claire so please don't suggest I am not interested.
Did I suggest? BTW: you will just have to trust me that I truly "am not alone in this matter." And our next witness verified that the Chamber has received some goodly "incoming" on their sideline-watching.
The lovely Delora Newton
Delora Newton is Executive Vice President of GMCC and an old friend. She told me she sympathized with my beef but pleaded poverty, with only 1.5 staff available for all public policy issues. (I would have thought the Chamber would have deeper pockets than Progressive Dane.) But the Chamber's caution is also a matter of style. Delora said the Chamber feels it must win credibility (PDF) before it can make waves. That involved Delora sitting through interminable meetings and public hearings. She relates:
It took us a long time to gain credibility at the city of Madison level. We had to show we could gain on policy issues before we could recruit candidates. The idea was to build relationships at the city council level. We were successful, 9 of the 11 people we endorsed got elected.
She said the Chamber's board of directors did a big, first-ever public policy retreat in January. "We asked where should be going next. Should we looking at county board meetings?"
Short answer: Yes.
"We got that plan approved last Thursday. We will start attending meetings," Delora promised. "The city council has gotten a lot more responsible because the Chamber has been involved. That is why we don't want to rush in willy-nilly. We have been successful at the City of Madison level because we built relationships with the moderates."
Then why the disrespect?
Good news, so far as it goes. But I still detect an unseemly level of timidity.
Object lesson: What was Mark Bugher's reward for all those years of "bearding" Dave Cieslewicz as the mayor's in-house "moderate businessman," to be trotted out whenever the mayor took in-coming for being anti-business? ("Look, here's Mark Bugher. How can I be anti-business. Mark, look at the camera.")
Comes time to appoint a community/economic development director last September, Bugher and his Economic Development Commission make a recommendation. That is, after all, their field of expertise. Mayor Cieslewicz blows off Bugher and his committee without even a head's up and names a Progressive Dane apparatchik, Bill Clingan.
Mark took some calcium and very publicly handed the mayor his resignation.
Quiz time, class: What do you think taught Mayor Dave not to screw with business next time?
- Four and one-half years of faithful service, or
- A very public "Up yours, fella!"?
Stay tuned, kids!
More on the Chamber pot-boiler soon. Set your alarm clocks! Stock up on Maalox!