Two of Northern Virginia's largest business organizations are announcing the formation of political action committees, a signal, their leaders say, of an intention to become more actively engaged in deciding who wins and who loses during next year's state and local elections.
The Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce is dropping its long-standing practice of remaining neutral in General Assembly races and will announce today the formation of a PAC to raise money and influence the outcome of political campaigns in favor of business interests, the group's chairman said.
Meanwhile, the Northern Virginia Technology Council on Monday will hold the first fundraiser for TechPAC, its recently formed political action committee aimed at electing delegates and senators who support the agendas of technology company executives in Northern Virginia.
Chamber officials said they have set a "six-figure" target for their PAC, to be called the NOVA BizPAC. The technology council's TechPAC has $70,000 in cash and commitments, and the group's officials say they hope to triple that amount. State law allows political action committees to collect money and redistribute it to candidates.
The announcements come on the heels of this month's lopsided defeat of a transportation tax in Northern Virginia. Both groups had worked feverishly to pass the tax increase, which would have raised $5 billion over 20 years to widen roads, build freeways and interchanges and expand mass transit.
"Now we have volunteer and staff leadership that understands the importance of consequential politics," said chamber President Michael J. Lewis. "It's an essential part of the political landscape. The timing is right now."
Lewis said the chamber's board of directors will vote today to officially reactivate its PAC, which has lain dormant for a decade.
Josh Levi, vice president of policy for the technology council, said the high-tech companies his group represents saw the need for being active in politics even though their side lost at the polls Nov. 5.
"For the first time, you had executives communicating to their employees about political issues," he said. " 'I support the transportation referendum, and here's why you should, too.' That's brand new for the tech community. We had a lot of folks that took their first foray here. This is the natural outgrowth of that."
Not everyone agrees.
Edward H. Bersoff, a past chairman of the Fairfax chamber, said the formation of a political action committee is a bad idea for the business group. He said the chamber will lose influence as it becomes clear which candidates and parties the chamber's PAC tends to support.
"Pretty quickly, you can get compartmentalized and viewed as favoring one party or the other," said Bersoff, a director of Fairfax-based BTG/Titan, an information services company. "Once you do that, you lose your clout as an impartial observer."
And Stewart Schwartz, whose Coalition for Smarter Growth took on the business community and won during the transportation tax fight, scoffed at the notion that business executives need anything to increase their influence.
"Come on," he said. "I would say the business and development community is already strongly dominant in the General Assembly."
Environmental and slow-growth groups in the region have formed their own political action committees. But Schwartz said the business groups, which helped to raise more than $2 million during the referendum campaign, should not waste their money in defiance of the voters.
"What we just had was a vote rejecting the status quo approach to transportation and development in Northern Virginia," he said. "The more money they poured into it, the less people liked the sales tax."