Dec. 2 2015 12:21 AM

Chamber should rethink its negative tactics

For East Lansing's City Council, the payback opportunity came quickly.

Angered by Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce negative advertising in the run-up to the 2015 election, the city is withdrawing from the business advocacy group.

For Mark Meadows, who was promptly named mayor after voters returned him to the Council in November following nine years away, bailing on the Chamber is no big deal. “We asked the city manager what we got for our membership. He couldn't tell us.” The annual dues were $850.

Meadows questioned whether the Chamber was relevant to the city, noting that it belonged the Lansing Area Economic Partnership and the Greater Lansing Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“We get real benefit from them,” he said.

It may seem odd that this was such a priority for the new City Council, when there are issues like the derelict blocks of property that line the entrance to the city's business district.

But clearly the Chamber's decision to promote its “pro-business” agenda in an uncharacteristically aggressive manner rankled even those candidates it endorsed for Council.

“We reacted to the negative campaigning. It's a new thing for them,” Meadows said. He knows. Like other candidates he sat for an interview with the Chamber in this election cycle and for years, either as a Council candidate or when running for the state House of Representatives, received its endorsement.

This time around, the Chamber lobbied voters to elect its self-proclaimed probusiness slate: Meadows, Shanna Draheim and Nathan Triplett. Meadows and Draheim won. Triplett, the former mayor — the Council appoints a mayor from one of its own — lost to Eric Altmann, who was tarred as anti-growth in at least two Chamberfunded direct mail advertisements.

You really have to wonder what the Chamber was thinking.

Not only were the ads out of character for the usually staid organization. They were heavy-handed; amateurish, really. Big letters with the foreboding message: “ERIK ALTMANN, WRONG FOR EAST LANSING”; a photo of the derelict Taco Bell on Grand River Avenue cited as “Erik Altmann's vision for East Lansing”; even a cartoon bubble quote popping out of an unflattering Altmann photo.

There seems to be a pattern emerging. The negative ad campaign waged in East Lansing was similar to the ads by Capitol Region Progress, the shadowy group that attacked Lansing Council candidates Jody Washington and her son, Adam Hussain.

These too were amateurish with overblown rhetoric and ominous photos. And also ineffective, at least judging by results.

One of the complaints lodged by East Lansing against the Chamber was the use of dues money to fund its attack ads. The Chamber denied this charge and, according to Meadows, said the direct mail campaign was funded with money provided by unnamed members.

It's hardly a stretch to peg these same “unnamed members” as underwriters for the sleazy Capitol Region Progress campaign? Chamber members ought to demand answers about this backdoor action and secret alliances.

For the East Lansing race there was no Capitol Region Progress to launder the money. The Chamber had to take the initiative. For the city races, there was a “nonprofit” already in place to do the job.

Attempts to discuss the Chamber's tactics with President and CEO Tim Daman were unsuccessful. But if the Chamber isn't reassessing its approach to local politics, it should.

First of all, it lost in most of the races where it endorsed. Meadows and Draheim won, but they immediately turned on the Chamber. Not much of a victory there.

In Lansing, the Chamber's endorsements went to A'Lynn Boles Robinson, Patricia Spitzley and Shelly Davis Mielock, candidates its PAC said had the “ vision and the willingness to make tough decisions to help move Lansing forward.”

Voters disagreed. They lost.

While the Chamber targeted Washington and Hussain, who dethroned Boles Robinson, it was neutral on Council incumbent Carol Wood.

To put it charitably, the Chamber didn't make many political friends during the 2015 election cycle, and there will be some awkward conversations as it seeks political support for its pro-business agenda.

At the very least it needs to sharpen its political instincts — no winners in the Lansing and stabbed in the back by the candidates it supported in East Lansing.

With their broad membership, organizations like chambers of commerce, trade associations or unions ask for trouble when they step into the political ring. While there are common interests among their members, large organizations like chambers also must deal with the fact that members' interests may diverge.

The Michigan Retailers Association, for example, supports property tax policies that help large members like Meijer who compete with small mom and pop store members selling many of the same products but without the tax advantages. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, essentially an arm of the state's Republican Party, also represents business aligned with Democratic politics.

The Lansing Chamber should take a lesson from both.