What happens when a member, board member, or chamber staff member runs for political office?
How should the chamber support them?
What happens if they win?
Here’s everything you’ve been afraid to ask … but should really know.
The old phrase of “politics making for strange bedfellows” certainly can be true for a pro-business organization like the chamber. It’s not uncommon for the people involved in the chamber to want to run for office. After all, they are usually deeply involved in the community.
But it can certainly complicate things, can’t it?
What happens with opponents and issues? What ethics are involved?
In this article, we’ll cover what options the chamber has when someone announces their candidacy and how things should be handled for the smoothest time.
Where the Problems Begin with Member or Staff Candidacy
If the political process has never touched your chamber doorstep, you may be wondering what the big deal is. Isn’t political involvement a good thing? After all, doesn’t a pro-business organization want pro-business candidates?
Things get complicated quickly.
This question has been a hot topic in the chamber pros group and in chambers in general.
First, before we get into the complexities of running, let’s assume you’re wondering about the role of someone who already has the office.
Should You Allow Candidates to Be Chamber Members?
In many cases, these candidates who become elected officials are also business owners and that gives them to right to be a part of the chamber. But what are other chambers doing to handle this touchy situation?
Jason Camis, President of the Gardner Edgerton Chamber in Kansas says, “For some reason, ours (members) have never asked us to… We provide courtesy memberships to our state legislators while they are in office, so I’d be inclined to say, we wouldn’t let them market their own personal re-election events. If they wanted to join the chamber as a business member and pay regular dues, we would allow it and provide the same services that other members get.”
Jason Zara, former Executive Director of the Chino Valley and Brawley Chambers adds, “Most of our local candidates joined the Chamber as individual members. They attended all of our events, provided door prizes for our mixers, etc. Any event that was open to the public could be listed on our website, but our candidates tended more toward networking than marketing anyway.”
Individual vs. Business Memberships
One way some chambers avoid the self-promotion issue is by limiting the types of memberships that candidates and
The Coastal Alabama Business Chamber allows candidates to be members and attend events. However, they are not joining as businesses, but rather, as individual members. This gives the chamber the ability to ask that they comply with their “no promotion” policy. Only businesses can take advantage of their marketing opportunities, not individual members.
The chamber reports that most of the time they comply. Sometimes a new candidate (first-time candidates mostly) will push the envelope. Then chamber leadership explains to them that they don’t want to jeopardize their reputation by appearing to be for or against specific candidates.
With regard to introducing them at meetings, etc., if it is a specifically candidate-oriented meeting, (like a candidate forum), the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber recognizes them as a candidate and they can bring their literature and campaign information.
However, for a normal chamber meeting like a breakfast, etc., they do not recognize them. If an incumbent is in attendance, they will recognize them as being an incumbent, (because they recognize elected officials like the mayor) but they do not make any introductions about being a candidate for re-election. Sometimes that upsets the incumbent candidates, but the chamber remains firm and fair on their policy and enforces it across the board.
Many chamber pros explained that candidates and officials can join the Chamber but not as business members. This allows the chamber to restrict them from certain promotional opportunities like e-blasts that could be mistaken for an endorsement.
The key in any of these limitations is to make sure the policy is applied across the board to every chamber member, board member, or staffer. When enforcement of this policy becomes sporadic, problems occur.
What Do You Do When Chamber Staff Runs for Office?
It’s easy to say that no chamber resources should be used by anyone running for office but often the lines between candidacy and chamber leadership become blurred.
For instance, if the chamber president is conducting a ribbon cutting of a prominent economic development project where the press is involved, a question about candidacy may arise. It also may give a competitive advantage to the president as people will see and read about their involvement and may associate those actions as a mayoral thing to do, casting them in a role because of their chamber involvement.
For this reason, and to avoid the appearance of impropriety many chambers require someone employed by the chamber to step down when they choose to run for office. The reasons for this include:
- it’s difficult to keep chamber life and political life separate. For instance, a chamber executive director running for office may have difficulty separating his work as
EDfrom his work as a candidate. From a networking perspective, it would be hard to perform chamber duties and interact with people without them inquiring about your run.
- the temptation behind using chamber lists and administrative components for the benefit of your candidacy is present. Even if you don’t do those things the appearance of impropriety can also be a problem.
- it appears to be a tacit endorsement. After all, how could the chamber not endorse their president/CEO? If they didn’t give an endorsement, it would look like they didn’t have faith in them, and yet by doing so, it looks like a forced endorsement. It is hard on all sides.
Some chambers insist that the leader take a leave of absence instead of stepping down permanently.
Navigating Non-Traditional Situations
Sometimes there are shades of gray when it comes to chamber employment. What happens when the chamber is lead by someone (or someone is working for the chamber) who isn’t an official chamber employee like in the case of a consultant, interim president, or even an intern?
In these cases, it is extremely important that your policies are stipulated in their hiring or work agreements. Otherwise, they may claim that since they are not an official, permanent part of the staff that your policies do not apply to them.
Another problem crops up when the chamber is very involved in a pro-business political agenda. When they are a strong lobbying force locally and on the state level, this can present even larger problems because the chamber can’t claim they’re not politically involved.
The Lakeland Chamber of Commerce has had a few local chamber CEOs run for office and win or even hire elected officials. According to President Corey Skeates, “It seems to be the more ‘political’ chambers (in terms of being a more policy-minded organization) or those looking to use the influence that the elected position brings to their organization in terms of encouraging some of their larger donors into the fold.”
It’s also important to consider that it’s not always the employee running for office that can pose difficulties. Consider what your policies would be if a spouse, child, sibling, best friend, or other close relation ran for office.
Getting Onboard with Candidates and Elected Officials
Some chambers support political involvement on every level. Teri Edwards, Executive Director of the Twin City Chamber in Ohio shared, “I was on council for 6 years and was mayor for 2 years. I felt it was a good fit because it gave a close working relationship to the government and aided in economic development.”
Consider These Additions to Your Bylaws to Address Chamber People, Political Office and the Election Process
Going into the election cycle, reviewing your bylaws to be clear on political candidacy protocol would be advisable. Having something in writing before an issue comes up will help avoid any personal issues.
Look into the following things and work to make them clear before an issue comes up:
- Should someone running for office and in leadership (volunteer or otherwise) give up their position with the chamber upon announcement? Or should they have to take a leave of absence?
- Will volunteer leaders (like board leadership) be treated differently than paid chamber staff?
- Should temporary staff of the chamber (like consultants, interns, or interim leaders) be treated any differently than other staff?
- What is the protocol if a close family member is running for office? What constitutes a “close” family member?
Arecandidates and elected officials given the same rights as members or do they receive special designations like calling them an individual membership? That means they aren’t eligible for e-blasts or other marketing assistance.
- If you endorse candidates currently and don’t have a rubric, consider creating one so the candidates know exactly how endorsements work.
Bottom Line: Resign or Not
As is the case for most chamber situations involving political office, requiring candidates to resign might be the right move for your chamber. However, it doesn’t have to be. As long as you have written protocol that you follow in every case and are specific about what will happen if someone breaks the rules you’ve set, you’ll be able to navigate the slippery situations.
While there are many difficulties in representing an elected office and the chamber, it is possible to do both. But expectations must be clearly defined and lines
But when it’s done well, both entities can benefit from the pro-business atmosphere.