Sunday, July 08, 2001

N.Ky. chamber to enter war zone

        Ever watch one of those summer thriller flicks with names like I Know What You Did Last Week in Ludlow and A Teen-ager is About to Walk into a Room Where You and Everybody Else Knows the Slasher is Hiding?

        It's a dark house, a stormy night and the teen knows the slasher is out there, waiting to pounce. But still, he or she enters and gets whacked.

        I felt that way last week when four of the top leaders from the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce — Steve Stevens, Bob Elliston, Charlie Pangburn and John Cain — described how they and the rest of the chamber were, politically speaking, about to walk into that room.

        The chamber has made the unusual decision to begin endorsing candidates in political races. Why don't members just go pick sides in Northern Ireland?

Already acrimonious

        The local political landscape is an acrimonious mess. Next year's county and statehouse races are going to be head-bashers. Republicans and Democrats, particularly in the statehouse and Kenton County, aren't exactly getting along.

        Democrats and Republicans have waged recent battles over such important topics as the host of a Kentucky Lottery game show and the timing of a party held here, in addition to their differences on the budget, workers' compensation, health care and the menu in the Capitol Annex cafeteria.

        Yet this is the political environment the chamber will enter. Good luck.

        The chamber says it will look to endorse candidates with a pro-business agenda and that it will use a bipartisan interview process to select endorsees. Democrats sounded the alarm, claiming that the chamber will back mostly Republicans.

Some GOP wariness

        But even some local statehouse Republicans expressed concerns about the chamber's political involvement. At least two Republicans said privately they fear the chamber will use endorsements to muscle lawmakers into supporting its agenda.

        For instance, the chamber has backed an increase in the region's hotel bed tax, with the money raised going toward bringing convention business to town. But a few Republicans haven't supported the tax increase. Will they feel the chamber's wrath, the Republicans wondered?

        What is especially curious is why the chamber wants to risk alienating the candidates who aren't endorsed when the business group has been so politically effective in the past.

        I can say with confidence that without the involvement of the chamber, particularly Mr. Stevens, the Northern Kentucky Convention Center and the Northern Kentucky University science building might not have happened. Mr. Stevens, the chamber's lobbyist, worked countless hours here and in Frankfort to help land funding for those important regional products.

        The chamber also had major influence in workers' compensation reform; bills consolidating the region's water and sewage systems; helping bring economic development projects to the area; and pumping up this region's tourism.

        Now it wants to start picking sides in political battles?

        That is scary.

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