By Parker Hardy and Chris Johnson
At the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, we have been surprised by the debate that has surfaced after we established Progress PAC last month.
Why? Because political activity by this Chamber and others is nothing new. And political action committees, or PACs, are quite common tools for chambers and for other organizations that wish to exercise their rights to participate in the political process. Progress PAC was established to build transparency for the Chamber’s political engagement. It is not funded by Chamber membership investments or dues. Furthermore, city economic development marketing funds, which cannot be used for Chamber operations, certainly cannot and will not be applied to Progress PAC. Reporting requirements for all PACs will demonstrate that financial transparency.
Good chambers have been politically engaged for decades. And our chamber has been engaged in pro-business political activity since our founding in 1949—even before the City of Oak Ridge was incorporated.
PACs are nothing new, either. There are more than 600 political action committees in Tennessee, PACs representing all kinds of interests—environmental groups, trade associations associated with the real estate and hospitality industries, bankers, accountants, retailers, and more. Organizations with PACs listed with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance include household names like the Sierra Club, Tennessee Professional Firefighters, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Tennessee Business Roundtable, the American Kennel Club, Tennesseans for Bicycling, and Tennessee Natural Resources Development. PACs registered in Anderson County include the Democratic Executive Committee, the Democratic Women’s Club, the Republican Executive Committee, Future of Oak Ridge, and Voters for Honesty and Civility in Government. In addition, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Chambers in Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis have PACs.
Progress PAC is a multi-candidate PAC unaffiliated with any political party that is focused only on elections to the Oak Ridge Board of Education and Oak Ridge City Council. It is registered with the election commissions in both Roane and Anderson Counties and its funds are maintained separately from the Chamber’s.
While federal law allows 501(c)6 chambers of commerce to endorse candidates for elected office, we have never taken steps to do so. Our membership is large and diverse, and our members invest in the Chamber to support our programs. By establishing Progress PAC, we created a vehicle that is not funded by Chamber membership dues. Instead, consistent with Tennessee election law, individuals or corporations may make contributions directly to the PAC. And, though the Chamber’s Board has appointed the Progress PAC members—which include prominent business leaders as well as a former mayor and school board chairman—that committee operates autonomously. The Chamber’s Board does not participate in Progress PAC’s review of candidates, nor may it approve or disapprove of the candidates that Progress PAC may or may not choose to support.
Our mission statement brands the Oak Ridge Chamber as a recognized business voice and charges us to lead in advocacy for quality growth, to mobilize business and community leadership in order to assure this city’s economic vitality. Progress PAC was created to support that vision.
The Oak Ridge Chamber’s 2014 program of work commits the Chamber to “focus resources and influence toward election of leadership that is pro-growth, pro-business, and pro-chamber.” Progress PAC is a means to accomplish that.
The Chamber has started Progress PAC because our top local legislative priorities include support for the “Keys to College and Career Readiness” that have been articulated by our school board, support for their drive to become the premier STEM school district in the nation so that we will have a stronger workforce and talent pool, adequate school funding, and support of the Basic Education Program. Our agenda includes encouraging the Oak Ridge City Council, the Oak Ridge Board of Education, and the senior leadership of both to work together. Our platform includes the revitalization of shopping centers, the mitigation of challenges associated with legacy housing, the implementation of Oak Ridge’s land bank initiatives, infrastructure improvements and construction of speculative buildings in local business parks, improvements to our local rowing venue, and implementation of form-based and mixed use zoning.
These issues are important to Oak Ridge’s economic climate and to our city’s future. The Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce created Progress PAC to identify and support candidates who support that vision and those priorities.
Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce
Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce