By Zayida Baker

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce does not necessarily represent local chambers and often acts against their wishes. Its relationship with freshman Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., has reflected this pattern from the beginning of his political career.

In the fall of 2010, shortly after Southerland won the Republican primary to challenge Democrat incumbent Rep. Allen Boyd, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed Boyd. Asked to comment in an interview with Tea Party Patriots, Southerland said plainly, “They bet on the wrong horse,” and appeared to smart a bit from the memory.

The chamber’s choice was especially surprising because in 2007, only a few years before, Southerland had served as chairman of the Bay County Chamber of Commerce.

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ This is the first article in a two-part series on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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Southerland continued, “I don’t think that the United States Chamber of Commerce represents small business.”

Nor does Carol Roberts, current president and CEO of the Bay County Chamber, which is 85 percent small businesses. Like Southerland, the Bay Chamber has a somewhat complicated history with the U.S. Chamber.

Though their similar names often confuse the public and sometimes even their own members, the national and local chambers of commerce have no formalized relationship and no mandatory affiliation. Local chambers’ membership in the national body is voluntary, and neither controls the other. In fact, said Roberts, the Bay Chamber let its national-level membership expire about five or six years ago because “The U.S. Chamber started taking positions and forming opinions that we didn’t necessarily agree with.”

“The U.S. Chamber’s adoption of a ‘star’ ranking system for its accreditation of chambers,” she said, “fosters rivalry among local chambers” and strays from the “original intent to improve and provide a system for local chambers to evaluate themselves internally and externally.” Some of the U.S. Chamber’s candidate endorsements further alienated the Bay Chamber.

According to Roberts, Southerland was on the board of directors when it decided not to renew its membership in the U.S. Chamber.

Perhaps the U.S. Chamber settled this score when it backed Boyd over Southerland despite Boyd’s record. In 2010, the year of its endorsement, Boyd earned only 38 points out of 100 on the national chamber’s scorecard. His lifetime rating was “68.”

Beyond that, Boyd was vulnerable with conservatives and business interests, including the U.S. Chamber itself, for having recently supported cap and trade, ObamaCare, and Dodd-Frank, all of which were on the chamber’s scorecard.

Southerland campaigned against these measures and government overreach generally.

Given this background, Roberts recalled that her group’s members “were kind of shocked” that the U.S. Chamber endorsed Boyd despite everything. “Once again, we received some criticism [from those] thinking it was us.” She pointed out that the Bay Chamber does not endorse candidates. “No matter who wins, we still have to have a relationship with them.”

The U.S. Chamber, which endorses candidates, seems also not to reach out to everyone once the election is over. Southerland described its relationship with him: “I guess we’re in the same neighborhood, but I don’t rely on them, and they don’t rely on me. They’ve obviously supported many different pieces of legislation that I have not supported, so I find myself oftentimes on a different side of the fence.”

One such issue was the summer’s debt-ceiling deal, which Southerland voted against.

On June 13, at an Atlanta Rotary Club dinner, U.S. Chamber President Tom Donohue threatened House freshmen who would vote against the debt deal, “We’ll get rid of you.”

Although Donohue later disclaimed it as a joke, Southerland said repeatedly, “I take him at his word.”

Slade O’Brien, director of the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, sided with Southerland: “We applauded the people that voted against the debt deal.” O’Brien thinks that the U.S. Chamber’s aggressive support for raising the debt ceiling reflects the “philosophy of ‘too big to fail,’” which saps smaller businesses and other taxpayers so that the government can bail out big businesses.

The U.S. Chamber also supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the 2009 stimulus.

For Southerland, Donohue’s barb reflects the chamber’s cronyism with national players: “The Chamber of Commerce would rather align itself with bigger businesses than small businesses. I am a product of small business . . . I will always come down on issues [in ways] that are favorable for small businesses, and if the United States Chamber and their leadership choose to oppose members such as myself who are looking out for small business, well, they’ll have to live with that.”

He conceded that “Their leadership has to make their decisions in the best interest of their organization,” whatever that interest may be.

Derrell Day is host of Panama City’s morning show on Talk Radio 101.1 FM and president of the nonpartisan group Bay Patriots, which he founded with Southerland in early 2008 to educate the public on the Constitution. He said of the U.S. Chamber’s endorsement, “That one kind of left me . . . slack-jawed.”

Day added, “There is a group of businessmen who prefer to have a cozy relationship between government and business. They had a known with Allen Boyd. They did not have a known with Steve Southerland. The worst thing you can do to business is present it with unpredictability. They would much rather deal with something that they could predict—and I just don’t think they knew what they could predict with Steve Southerland, and [he] is not someone that can be swayed by stuff that perhaps Allen Boyd may be swayed by.”

The U.S. Chamber ignored multiple requests for comment on this story.

Read the second part of the series here.

You may wish to contact
Rep. Southerland: (202) 225-5235
U.S. Chamber of Commerce: (202) 659-6000

Zayida Baker covers Rep. Steve Southerland and Sen. Bill Nelson for Tea Party Patriots’ Government Accountability Project. She can be reached at zayida.baker@tppjournalism.org.