MONTPELIER - Several Vermont businesses and nonprofit institutions have cancelled their memberships in the Vermont Chamber of Commerce over the organization's support of a "pro-business" political action committee, or PAC, aimed at defeating mostly Democratic legislative candidates in the November election.
At least half a dozen Chamber members, including some of Vermont's biggest employers, have withdrawn from the statewide business-advocacy group. Among them are Fletcher Allen Health Care, the University of Vermont, Norwich University, the Vermont Student Assistance Corp., the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges and NRG Systems of Hinesburg. Meanwhile, other Chamber members have distanced themselves from the PAC and/or denied prior knowledge of its activities.
The PAC, known as the Vermont Business Coalition, has come under criticism since its formation two months ago. At an August 24 press conference, VBC identified 57 legislative candidates - 56 Democrats and one Progressive - as having what the VBC considers a "sub-par voting record" on business-related issues.
VBC is composed of 14 business and trade associations, including the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. VBC Director Joe Sinagra, of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont, denies that the coalition is "targeting" specific candidates. Rather, the PAC is working to help candidates who support lowering taxes on the business community, according to Sinagra.
"We're not 'going after' anyone," Sinagra says. "We're not doing any negative campaigning or anything like that. We're trying to take the high road."
Sinagra won't identify who VBC is supporting, but he claims the list includes both Democrats and Republicans, though no Progressives or Independents. Asked why he won't name the recipient candidates, he says it's because of the "stigma" attached to being labeled pro-business in the state.
"Unfortunately, 'business' has become a dirty word in Vermont, and a lot of these candidates might unfairly be targeted if they're perceived as pro-business," Sinagra says. The names will become public information on October 25 when campaign fundraising reports are filed with the Vermont Secretary of State's office.
Regardless of who's getting VBC's money, some members of the Vermont Chamber clearly are uncomfortable with the appearance of meddling in partisan politics. Fletcher Allen spokesperson Mike Noble says the state's largest hospital - and its second-largest employer - pulled out of the Chamber because federal law prohibits nonprofit organizations from engaging in political activities. That decision had nothing to do with which candidates or political parties VBC is endorsing, Noble points out.
Karen Meyer, UVM's vice president for state and federal relations, says that the university - Vermont's third-largest employer - also decided to distance itself from the Chamber because it didn't want to risk its nonprofit status with the IRS. She says the decision was not influenced by the fact that three of the 57 lawmakers on VBC's bad-for-business list are UVM trustees.
The nature and tone of VBC's campaign has troubled some members. VSAC, which had belonged to the Vermont Chamber of Commerce since 2002, left the ranks because it, too, is a nonprofit agency. But according to spokesperson Irene Racz, VSAC's board also found certain aspects of the PAC "troubling." Specifically, the board questioned the accuracy of VBC's data and the votes it used to challenge lawmakers' pro-business credentials.
"This is not the way Vermont does business," Racz says about VBC's legislative scorecard. "We're all one degree of separation here."
Other members of the Chamber say they will continue supporting the organization, despite the recent dustup. Jo Bradley is executive director of the Vermont Economic Development Authority, a quasi-public agency that reports annually to the governor.
"VEDA is a member of the Vermont Chamber for very good reasons," Bradley says. "We're an apolitical body and we don't get involved in these kinds of discussions." When asked to clarify VEDA's position vis-à-vis political activities, Bradley said, "You have my statement," and hung up the phone.
Duane Marsh is president of the 1600-member Vermont Chamber of Commerce. He won't comment on which or how many businesses have resigned from his organization over this brouhaha, except to say, "We've had some gains and some losses, but it's been about break-even up to this point."
Marsh explains that the Chamber's decision to join the VBC was made by him, in consultation with other VBC members. He adds that the issue wasn't discussed beforehand with the Chamber's government affairs committee. Marsh admits that the move has caused consternation among some Chamber members. Nevertheless, he remains committed to VBC's long-term goals.
"The problem is, this whole thing got off the issues and onto individuals," Marsh says. "It's not about Democrats, Republicans or Progressives. It's about, will you do the things that will help make Vermont become a stronger and sounder economy so that we can provide jobs for people?"
But some longtime Democrats aren't buying Marsh's rationale. Chuck Lacy is a prominent Vermont businessman, filmmaker and husband of House Speaker Gaye Symington (D-Jericho). Lacy is highly critical of VBC's pro-business scorecard, saying its narrow focus ignores many of the other issues vitally important to Vermont businesses, such as promoting the creative economy, expanding broadband coverage, lowering airfares and improving higher education. This PAC, Lacy says, exposes the Chamber's "right-wing agenda."
"Some organizations that claim to be nonpartisan have a real decision to make," Lacy adds. "For a member of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce to say that it's not involved in this campaign is absolutely false. They're involved because Duane Marsh says they're involved."
Lacy denies that he's just doing the dirty work for Symington and other Democrats and insists his wife didn't know that he was calling local businesses to gauge their level of support or opposition to the VBC. As he puts it, "I've been making cookies for 10 years. This just put me over the edge because they're basically labeling Democrats as anti-business."
But Sinagra, who says he doesn't know Lacy, counters that his organization's support of some candidates is comparable to the support organized labor gives to pro-union candidates. "It's no different from the Vermont NEA endorsing Bernie Sanders," Sinagra says. "Does every school teacher in Vermont support Bernie Sanders? No. Do all of our members support all of the candidates we'll be backing? No."