If you listen to some leaders in the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, the powerful business group's political arm was hijacked by partisan loyalists when it endorsed losing Republican candidate Jerry W. Kilgore in the Virginia governor's race.
Some think the group was simply betting on which candidate was the likely winner.
Others think Kilgore came out on top by unequivocally stating his support of a tax issue important to government contractors, a core part of the chamber's membership, or because of his promises on transportation.
There's little dispute, however, that the endorsement and its outcome have roiled a group that tries hard to sound omniscient as the voice of business in Northern Virginia. But after Democrat Timothy M. Kaine's victory in Virginia, the endorsement seems to have had the biggest impact on the chamber itself -- raising questions about how the group can best represent its priorities and prompting it to retool how its three-year-old political action committee, NOVABizPAC, makes endorsements. Kaine won Fairfax County by 22 percentage points.
"It's a double-edged sword to have a PAC," said Michael P. Carlin, a former chamber chairman and head of Access Point Public Affairs LLC. "You have an opportunity to support in a real and concrete way the people who are pursuing the business community agenda. The other half is it can be a slippery slope, because unless you've been extremely careful who you're endorsing and how, you can get into trouble."
Political analysts said the Kilgore endorsement is unlikely to have repercussions outside the organization, and a spokeswoman for Kaine said Virginia's new governor would work closely with the chamber.
"We look forward to working with them," said Delacey Skinner. "It's important to us for moving forward."
The endorsement is nevertheless a nick in the image of an organization that traces its roots to the dairymen and farmers who helped form it in 1925 and evolved into a high-powered gathering place for 925 top defense, technology, financial and other companies.
There are regional business groups, notably the Greater Washington Board of Trade, that rival the Fairfax chamber in size and scope, and others that try to focus on influential business sectors in the area, such as the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
But none has tapped as successfully the government contracting and information technology companies that drive the Washington economy, while sustaining a base in chamber of commerce mainstays like banking and home-building.
With the golf outings and seminars that are a staple of many business groups, the Fairfax chamber has a staff lobbyist to represent it in the Virginia General Assembly and involves itself deeply in regional planning and transportation issues. Its drawing power was on display Oct. 19 at the annual Stars of Contracting dinner, co-hosted by the chamber, that attracted 800 business executives, politicians and others. To a meal of filet mignon and fighter jets screaming across big video screens, the audience cheered their A-list peers as they accepted awards under disco lights.
The board of directors has more than 100 members representing companies including Lockheed Martin Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp. and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. The volunteer board helps govern a chamber that has a paid staff of 19 and a $2.4 million budget.
Though the board and the chamber staff help set policy priorities on issues like transportation, tax reform and education, the people who decide on political endorsements make up a much smaller group of about 22 who pay extra membership fees for the privilege of being NOVABizPAC trustees. Chamber officials would not disclose the fee.
When the chamber's political arm announced its support for Kilgore, there was an uproar, particularly since the Republican candidate had opposed the group in a referendum on transportation funding and also fought a tax increase for education that the chamber supported.
"I was surprised by it because I thought Tim Kaine had supported some very, very important chamber initiatives over the years," said David M. Guernsey, a past chairman of the Fairfax chamber and a trustee of the PAC who sat in on the deliberations. Guernsey said that in the endorsement meeting he voted for independent H. Russell Potts because he was dissatisfied with both Kilgore's and Kaine's plans on transportation.
"It was so out of character with where the chamber has been these past several years. As a result, the chamber is made to look foolish. What this says to politicians is, when it comes time for endorsement whether or not you support our agenda is immaterial," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat, whom the PAC supported in his campaign two years ago and who is on the board of directors as an employee of Science Applications International Corp.
Chamber PAC trustees said Kaine's chances for winning the endorsement suffered because his transportation plan was viewed as weak. Kilgore, meanwhile, won some votes by vowing to back a sales tax change requested by government contractors. The change would eliminate the "true object" test, which applies state sales taxes to goods that contractors purchase for their use on contracts with government agencies. Kaine was noncommittal on the issue, saying he needed proof that the existing tax law put Virginia contractors at a competitive disadvantage.
"Can you tell me a larger business community in Northern Virginia than the government contractors? It's the goose that lays the golden egg," said NOVABizPAC Chairman Michael J. Lewis, managing director of Liberty Capitol LLC. "You do not want them in a noncompetitive situation."
There was also concern that Republican partisans among the PAC trustees put party loyalty over the best interests of the chamber. Former chamber lobbyist Nancy Reed avoided partisan ties, while her replacement, Jason A. Flanary, has worked for Republicans on Capitol Hill and in Richmond. Government affairs coordinator Paul V. Tyahla worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee before joining the chamber staff.
"I am a moderate Republican, but I am issues-driven," said Michael G. Anzilotti, a former chamber chairman and president of Virginia Commerce Bancorp Inc. "My sense is there are too many people in the chamber leadership who think of the party first."
Last Wednesday, the chamber's board of directors agreed to amendments to change the endorsement process. Most significantly, the requirement for endorsement was raised from a simple majority vote to three-fifths of the PAC trustees voting. The leadership also decided to involve the board of directors more in the PAC's decisions.
Chamber president and chief executive William D. Lecos, noting that Flanary's Republican contacts will be helpful with the majority in Virginia's General Assembly, said he did not think the controversy over the endorsement will hurt the chamber. He disagreed that the chamber's public-policy shop is tilted toward the Republican Party.
Lecos said he sent a congratulatory letter to Kaine on the chamber's behalf and was confident that the group would be able to push its agenda with the new administration.
"The oldest rule in this line of work is you don't have permanent friends or permanent enemies," Lecos said. "You have permanent interests."