The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce will consider changes to its relationship with its Political Action Committee after the PAC sent out controversial mass mailings supporting the ouster of three incumbent state senators, according to e-mails obtained by The Eagle.
Gary Plummer, the chamber’s president and chief executive, said numerous members have contacted the chamber since the controversial mailers.
Chamber Chairman Walter Berry has called a board meeting for Thursday to discuss “the chamber’s involvement in electing pro-business candidates,” according to an e-mail Plummer sent to members of the chamber board.
The overall chamber board is prohibited by its bylaws from endorsing or campaigning for candidates, but the affiliated PAC, run by a separate board, can and does do that.
“We are committed to keeping the Chamber Board informed, even when it’s the PAC Board’s actions and information, because we know that you receive questions from those in the community and other members,” the e-mail to the chamber board said. “At the board meeting, we will have an open dialogue about our working relationship with the PAC. We will also consider how we continue to improve our own processes and look at best practices from chambers around the country.”
Plummer also sent a less-detailed version of the e-mail to the general membership of the chamber, promising to consider concerns the members have raised.
“I want you to know that we understand the concerns you have expressed and we take them very seriously,” the e-mail said. “The chamber will be discussing and reviewing the current process. Please know that the chamber and I personally welcome your comments and input.”
The three senators targeted by the PAC are Dick Kelsey of Goddard, Jean Schodorf of Wichita and Carolyn McGinn of Sedgwick.
They are being challenged in the Aug. 7 Republican primary by Rep. Dan Kerschen of Garden Plain, Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell and businessman Gary Mason, who moved from Wichita to Park City to challenge McGinn.
The challengers are associated with an effort led by Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce to break a slim moderate majority in the Senate that has opposed some of the governor’s conservative initiatives.
The Wichita chamber and its PAC “have a close working relationship,” sharing office space and staff, Plummer said.
“The way to get on the PAC board is to make a contribution to the PAC board and then the board will approve anybody who’s nominated who’s a donor to the PAC,” Plummer said. Members of the PAC board must also be members of the chamber, he said.
Although the makeup of the chamber board is public, the chamber does not disclose the PAC board’s membership.
Plummer said the chamber board was informed of the PAC board’s decision to back the challengers in the Senate races during meetings earlier this year.
Plummer said he doesn’t know whether any new policies or procedures will emerge from Thursday’s meeting. Members are welcome to contact the chamber with their thoughts, and Plummer said he’ll share them with the board.
“I’m still hearing from those folks so it’s hard to really say that they gave me any specific direction,” Plummer said. “But they have given me enough input that by sharing it with my chamber board I think it will help us have a conversation about the process and what, if anything, we would do differently in the future.”
Although Thursday is the chamber board’s regular meeting time, the group had not planned on meeting this week, the e-mail indicated.
That changed after last week, when the senators targeted by the chamber PAC called a news conference to criticize the mailings and boycotted a chamber election forum.
The chamber PAC mailing supporting the challengers cited the closure of Boeing’s Wichita plant as a reason to support the challengers. Plummer said he’s been “hearing pros and cons” about the mailer.
“There was some concern about what our intent was for using the Boeing example,” Plummer said.
He said the intent was to argue that lower taxes and less regulation of business would create a better business climate and “help us retain businesses like Boeing and not have that same experience again.”
The incumbents have argued that they had nothing to do with Boeing’s decision to shutter its Wichita plant and they are as “pro-business” as the challengers.
They also said they all have a long record of supporting chamber priorities such as airfare subsidies, the National Institute for Aviation Research and the National Center for Aviation Training.
Mason served as treasurer of the chamber PAC until September, when he resigned the job to run against McGinn. He said he left the room when the PAC board discussed his race, although he did participate in deliberations on the Kelsey/Kerschen and Schodorf/O’Donnell races.
Plummer said he’s not sure what direction the chamber board will take.
It’s “too early to tell how that conversation will go,” he said.