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Chamber looks for a horse to run

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Missoula’s Chamber of Commerce and City Council haven’t always seen eye to eye. Usually, the Chamber just grins and bears it when the Council takes an “anti-business” stance, but this year may be different as the Chamber mounts an aggressive campaign to replace members of Council perceived as “anti-business” with friends of the Chamber.

“Given there [sic] past voting records on issues related to business, a number of the council people up for re-election would not be considered a friend of business,” writes Pete Pettersen in an e-mail to Chamber members.

Pettersen, a member to the Chamber’s community affairs committee, “won’t go on record” about whom, specifically, he’s referring to, but Ward 1 Councilwoman Lois Herbig is confident the Chamber’s broadside is aimed at her and other, more liberal Council members.

“I don’t know why they think I’m anti-business,” says Herbig. “I’ve done everything I can to make the downtown prosperous. That’s why I ran in the first place, to revive the downtown. But whatever their feelings are, I don’t care.”

Herbig is aware of the Chamber’s aggressive campaign, and says that she doesn’t think it’s good for Missoula.

“I think that they’ve become way too political,” she says. “They think they represent the whole business community, but they don’t.”

A month and half before the City Council filing period begins on April 28, the Chamber has already sent e-mails to its 700 members asking them to help search out and support pro-Chamber candidates. Two days after the first e-mail went out, five prospective candidates came forward.

“The reason that we’re doing it early is at the encouragement of one of our members who understands the process and has been extremely frustrated because every year we get behind in the process,” says Chamber community affairs committee chairman Jim Leiter. “The Chamber has been involved politically for many years, but never in a real organized fashion. So during the last couple of years we’ve really thought about what makes a candidate desirable to the Chamber.”

To identify candidates who match their values, the Chamber has put together its first-ever political mission statement, which defines the organization’s position on everything from education to healthcare to the corrections system. The document stresses a need for the Chamber and Chamber members to be aggressively politically active.

“I think that there’s a general feeling that this is not a tremendously business-friendly community,” says Leiter. “So there is a lot of interest in seeing people who understand business get elected.”

Ward 2 Councilman John Torma, another council member who would likely “not be considered a friend of business,” shares many of Herbig’s feelings.

“Any organization certainly has the right to engage in the political process however they feel,” says Torma. “I personally think that some of the Chamber’s key members have chosen to engage in the political process in such a way that it really polarizes political debate.”

Torma says that the Chamber defines pro-business in a certain way, but that many businesses choose not to join the Chamber because they don’t agree with the Chamber’s definitions. With 700 businesses belonging to the Chamber and another couple thousand as non-members, Torma worries that the Chamber’s political activity will leave little room for non-Chamber businesses to make meaningful contributions to political debate.

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