Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Is fear over a ‘Chamber candidate’ for Tacoma City Council warranted?

It’s not easy being the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce.

OK, I take it back. It’s easier being the Chamber than, say, a single mom struggling to support a family on minimum wage. (Zing!)

But still.

These days, “Chamber” has become a dirty word in many circles.

Yes, the 1,700-member Chamber, representing businesses in Tacoma and throughout the county, has taken a lot of grief lately. One need only remember back to last week, and the contentious, four-plus-hour City Council meeting on minimum wage, to get a taste. Commenters in favor of raising the minimum wage, one after another, strode to the podium to decry the Chamber’s influence on local politics.

As the narrative goes, the Chamber and City Council are in cahoots. Detractors paint a picture of Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Chamber CEO Tom Pierson as secret BFFs, stopping just short of suggesting the two spend time sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.

First comes love, then comes collusion, then comes a $12 wage proposal as a ballot measure.

Of course, the way the minimum wage drama has played out hasn’t helped this perception. It wasn’t until Pierson and the Chamber sent a letter to the mayor asking for an alternative to the 15 Now Tacoma proposal that the Council saw fit to take up the matter. After months of nothing, they jumped into action.

Suspicious.

And even after a majority of the Council’s handpicked task force endorsed a plan that eventually would have raised Tacoma’s minimum wage to $15, the mayor pushed forward with the more Chamber-friendly $12 approach.

Curious.

In other words, for anyone inclined to subscribe to a Chamber conspiracy theory, it’s not hard to make the pieces fit.

But (cue the ESPN “30 for 30” voice): What if I told you the Chamber doesn’t feel particularly well represented by our current City Council?

As hard as it might be for some to fathom, that’s very much the case. While Pierson credits most on the Council (read: everyone but Anders Ibsen) with at least being willing to listen and consider the Chamber’s point of view, he says the current Council is lacking in real-world business experience.

“When you look at the Council … who signs the front side of the check?” Pierson told me this week, suggesting that there isn’t a lot of understanding of what it takes to run a local business.

“I think the Council has tried to be as business-friendly as they can, but without that experience it’s hard for them to understand truly what that’s like,” he continued, choosing his words carefully.

Since Pierson’s arrival four years ago, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber has taken a more active approach in local politics. As he tells it, that’s one of the main reasons the Chamber hired him.

And you don’t have to recall very far back to find examples of this activity. In 2013, the Chamber took a hands-on approach to foiling Prop 1, which would have raised money to fix Tacoma’s streets via an increased earnings tax on utilities. And that same year the Chamber came out hard against what it called a “Cadillac” paid-sick-leave proposal, which was eventually watered down and passed in 2014.

That’s just a sample.

So perhaps it’s only natural that, with three City Council races for the taking this year, there’s fear in liberal circles over the specter of a “Chamber candidate.”

Nowhere is that more true than in Tacoma’s 1st District, where incumbent Ibsen drew not one but two last-minute challengers: John Hines and Tara Doyle-Enneking. Both entered the fray on the last day of filing week, and both have now received financial contributions from the Tacoma Pierce County Business PAC, a political action committee that, while technically separate from the chamber, has strong ties to it.

Meanwhile, in the District 3 race, three candidates — Keith Blocker, Valentine Smith and Kris Blondin — have been benefactors of Tacoma Pierce County Business PAC cash.

“Unfortunately,” Ibsen wrote in an email to supporters shortly after Hines entered the race, “corporate lobbying groups and their status quo political allies … have rallied behind a challenger in my race.”

That’s a solid campaign tactic, and given the cuss-worthy view of corporate lobbying groups — and the Chamber — it might well be a winning strategy.

But, even as someone in support of the most liberal causes recently undertaken by the Council — including raising the minimum wage and paid sick leave — I also have to wonder if having a member specifically interested in representing businesses would be as scary as many suggest.

Is “business-owner,” by definition, a partisan position?

Scary, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder.

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