Monday, August 26, 2002

Ky. chamber plans to stay neutral in election

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT MITCHELL - Northern Kentucky's largest business group has backed off plans to endorse candidates in this fall's political races. The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has, as promised, increased its political involvement in this year's elections, including posting candidates' positions on a Web site and hosting televised candidate forums.

        But the group dropped endorsement plans because debate over which candidates to back had begun to consume some members, said chamber president Gary Toebben.

        “We determined at this point in time the endorsements became more of a distraction than an asset in getting the message out,” Mr. Toebben said. “There were members who were hearing all the things we were going to do but focused on only one thing, the endorsements.

        “We realized it was getting in the way of some of the other things we were trying to accomplish.”

        With more than 2,000 members, the Chamber of Commerce is the region's biggest pro-business organization. Mr. Toebben, as well as chamber vice president of public affairs and lobbyist Steve Stevens, were among the most ardent advocates of endorsing candidates who reflected chamber viewpoints.

        “This is a logical step for us . . . to actively support political candidates that can implement our policies and positions,” chamber chairman Charles Pangburn said in July 2001 when the plan to endorse candidates was announced.

        “We want to encourage business-minded people to get involved, not just as voters but also as candidates and supporters of candidates,” he said.

        The chamber, led by Mr. Stevens, has been successful in recent years lobbying in Frankfort for funding and on issues. Chamber officials helped land more than $80 million for the Northern Kentucky Convention Center and Northern Kentucky University's Natural Science Center. The group also pushed for changes in workers' compensation laws, tax reform and legalized gambling in Kentucky.

        But the endorsement plan was immediately attacked by some of Northern Kentucky's best-known business leaders.

        Fort Thomas businessman Wayne Carlisle - who has interests in construction, banking and real estate - said he was “very, very unhappy” with the chamber's endorsement plans.

        “I'm very comfortable with what the chamber has done in the past for Northern Kentucky,” Mr. Carlisle said. “But I don't feel like endorsing candidates should be a function of the chamber. It makes them a political organization, and that's not what it is.”

        R.C. Durr, a highway builder, banker and developer from Boone County, expressed similar concerns. “I didn't know the chamber was a political organization,” Mr. Durr said.

        Mr. Toebben said the chamber would reconsider endorsements in the future.

        The chamber also has created an Internet voter's guide at

        More than 300 candidates for federal, state, county and local office were mailed questionnaires and asked to provide information about their background, political platforms and stances on business and economic issues.

        In addition, the chamber is producing televised forums featuring candidates in a number of key local races. The forums will run from early September until Election Day on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast on ICN cable's Northern Kentucky Magazine on Channel 6. Mr. Stevens will host.


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