Its impact may be only a footnote in this year's elections, but the Greater Washington Board of Trade has sent a message indirectly to prospective candidates that their stands on issues affecting business will be the key to financial support.
This year will find the Board of Trade "extremely active" in the political arena, the new president of the metropolitan-wide business advocacy organization declared at his inaugural press conference yesterday.
"In taking our stands and offering our support we'll also be determining how candidates have stood on business issues in the past and how well they understand the business community now," said Stephen D. Harlan, managing partner, Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co.
Although the board's involvement in regional issues goes back several years, its political action committees weren't formally established until 1978. Just how effective those committees have been in determining the outcome of an election can't be determined.
Since they were formed, the board's four political action committees (one each for candidates for local offices in the District, Maryland, Virginia and candidates for federal offices) have contributed about $130,000. Last year, candidates for the D.C. City Council received $3,000 in discretionary funds and $6,250 in contributions earmarked for individuals.
The Board of Trade plans to endorse as well as give candidates in all three jurisdictions financial support through its PACs this year. However, Harlan said he "is not real sure" whether the 4,500-member business organization will endorse District mayoral candidates.
But it's possible, he added, that the board will give financial support to more than one candidate in several races--local as well as federal.
And what must a candidate do to gain business' support? A model of the ideal candidate of business hasn't yet been developed but, Harlan said, "We've got some pretty objective criteria on which to base a determination."
In part, that means "how an individual has stood on issues such as unemployment compensation, minimum wages and business taxes. How sensitive individuals have been to recognize the need for this area to function as a region? How these individuals have looked at sewer issues. How do they feel about economic growth?"
These are but a few of the issues which candidates will have to address "in order to expect the support of business," Harlan commented while outlining the organization's goals for the year.
While all of the board's goals aren't tied to political activity, they reflect its increased involvement in major social, educational and economic issues of the region.
Indeed, jobs, education, transportation and small businesses will be among the board's priorities this year, Harlan said.
At the same time, he added, additional task forces will be developed to study regional issues.
One issue that is certain to receive a good deal of attention is transportation. Business leaders have complained privately for some time about escalating costs in Metro's operation. As a result, the board of trade is expected, before the end of the year, to take a strong public stand in favor of greater efficiency and lower operating costs within Metro.
"Something has to be done," declared a Board of Trade official. "It probably won't be before the third quarter, but we're going to take a public stand on this one."
Harlan did not address specifically the board's concern over Metro's higher operating costs, but he promised that a task force will work with local governments and others "to find equitable regional solutions for the financing of operating costs and further construction" of Metro.
The board also plans to focus attention on other transportation issues, including the maintenance of highways and bridges--particularly the Woodrow Wilson span.
Meanwhile, the board is convinced that transportation to airports, particularly taxicab service and fare structures, is a major issue that needs to be addressed. Its biggest concern apparently stems from complaints that cab drivers overcharge airport passengers who are unfamiliar with local rate structures.
A challenge for the board is whether it's willing to bite the bullet and advocate meters in taxicabs. "We may well," Harlan replied.
In electing Harlan and other officers for this year, the board has quietly met another challenge by putting a woman and a black in position to head the 93-year-old organization for the first time.
Flaxie M. Pinkett, president of John R. Pinkett Inc., a District real estate firm, has been elected vice president. In the board's normal line of succession, Pinkett would become president of business' major local voice two years from now, succeeding Thomas J. Owen, chairman of Perpetual American Federal Savings and Loan Association.