Jim Goodwin and the Chamber of Politics
CEO takes Chico Chamber of Commerce into uncharted territory behind its PAC
This year the Chico Chamber of Commerce, led by Chief Executive Officer Jim Goodwin, plunged head-first into the Measure A election campaign. The measure was a land-use issue concerning road improvements to an industrial park in southwest Chico. Proponents argued the project was good for business, so it was little wonder the chamber would get involved and lobby strongly on behalf of the measure. That, after all, is a big part of what the chamber does.
This foray into issue politics is nothing new. In 1988, under the leadership of then-CEO Bob Linscheid, the chamber formed a political-action committee to try to defeat a referendum aimed at stopping the controversial Rancho Arroyo housing subdivision in northeast Chico, next to Upper Bidwell Park. The issue was similar to this year’s Measure A campaign in more ways than one, including the fact that in both cases the chamber ended up backing the losing side.
Goodwin worked tirelessly on the Measure A effort, serving as a spokesperson, running its campaign committee—the Coalition for Parks and Jobs—from the chamber offices and using his column in the chamber’s Business Monthly as a forum to argue for the measure. Though perhaps showing more energy and enthusiasm for an issue than the CEOs who’ve come before him, Goodwin’s political activism in this regard is nothing new.
In 1989, former News & Review Editor George Thurlow noted in his column “Your Town” that the chamber, under Linscheid, was undergoing some changes, getting “further into public affairs—read local politics—and out of its social-club functions.”
One sign of this, Thurlow wrote, was the fact that Linscheid had hired as public-affairs coordinator Tom Guarino, luring him away from the staff of then-Assemblyman Chris Chandler. Guarino stayed with the chamber six years, the last two as CEO, before leaving for San Leandro. Eight months later, following an abbreviated stint by Dave Bolick, Goodwin was hired as the chamber’s CEO.
Goodwin also comes from a political background, having served as a communications director for state Sen. Maurice Johannessen, R-Redding, and before that six years as field representative for state Sen. Jim Nielsen.
The chamber has significantly stepped up its political activity since Goodwin took over the reins in 1996. The chamber no longer limits its involvement to land-use issues. In 1998, CHICOPAC was formed to serve as an independent expenditure committee acting for or against Chico City Council candidates. Creation of the PAC sparked an immediate protest from many in the community, in large part because the chamber annually comes before the council to request city funding.
Critics point out that the chamber is asking the very people it will help elect or defeat for what amounts to 20 percent of its budget. Goodwin defends the process, saying that by granting community funding, the City Council is simply paying for contracted services the chamber provides—tourism and economic development.
Still, some local businesses have dropped their memberships with the chamber, including the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, which is, ironically, one of the largest tourist attractions in area.
And in a letter to former chamber President Dave Brower, Linda Lee Bassett, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Library, explained her organization’s decision to drop this way: “No matter how remote and financially independent you may consider the PAC to be from other chamber organizations, it does bear the name of the chamber. And, indirectly, so do we as part of the chamber’s network of nonprofits. If not in fact, in perception the connection is there, as well as the implication that we indirectly endorse the candidates for public office.”
Former CEO Guarino, who is now head of the San Leandro Chamber of Commerce, said that almost as a rule chambers of commerce across the state are getting more involved in local politics.
“Chico is not unique in that regard,” he said. “[In San Leandro] we are very active in politics. And though we don’t endorse candidates, we do have a PAC. It’s an issues-oriented PAC. We kind of draw the line there.
“Every community is different,” Guarino said. “In San Leandro we have a business PAC that is not part of the chamber. Here, there’s been active debate on whether we should get involved more in candidate politics or not. But those against doing so are leaning a bit heavier than those in favor. So we won’t.”
Guarino said requesting money from the city is not necessarily a pleasant affair.
“The [Chico] chamber’s position is that they are providing service for and contracting with the city,” he explained. “And they have a very, very dedicated staff there, some of whom I worked with. Still, even before there was CHICOPAC, Bob Linscheid and I would have to go before the council for community funding, and it was something we agonized about.”
Last year the City Council voted to give the chamber $120,426 in community organization funds. The chamber’s total revenue for that year, according to records filed with the city, was $615,107. Expenditures, including Goodwin’s annual salary and benefits of $67,655, were $595,041.
This year the council, six of whose seven members have been anointed by CHICOPAC, again agreed to grant the chamber $120,000. In fairness, two of the council’s progressive minority—Dan Nguyen-Tan and Maureen Kirk—have received the chamber’s blessings. Only the outspoken Coleen Jarvis, whom CHICOPAC deemed too uncivil for its tastes, does not have the chamber’s seal of approval.
A few weeks ago I interviewed Goodwin in his Salem Street office about politics and the chamber’s role in the community. I was told by a journalist in Glenn County, where Goodwin used to work, that he always has an large red open Bible on or near his desk. On this day, I saw no such Bible. The most unusual thing I could find among the stacks of papers, folders, children’s artwork and other typical office accoutrements was what looked to be an extra-large Jack in the Box drink sitting precariously close to the edge of his desk. The windows of his office do look out across Third Street to the St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, but otherwise there seemed to be no hint of religious influence in Goodwin’s office.
With his light-blond hair and slight paunch around the waist, Goodwin looks like he could be a former Southern California surf bum who hasn’t had a chance to grab his board and ride the waves for a few years. And, in fact, he does hail from So Cal’s Riverside County. But his hometown Rialto, near Fontana and San Bernardino, is at least 60 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
Beyond his physical appearance, Goodwin exudes confidence. He’s friendly but seldom smiles; highly focused, yet relaxed in his demeanor. You wonder if he ever lets his guard down.
What are your responsibilities; what is your job description?
I think the best thing you could call me is that I’m the implementer. Our board sets all policy for the chamber, establishes our budget each year and our business plan. Our board represents the chamber on issues—when we get involved in issues. Everything that happens as an organization is put into motion by our board of directors, and I’m the implementer who oversees the business operations of the chamber. I manage the staff and make sure that we accomplish the things that we set out to do. I’m not a free agent doing my own thing here.
How are these decisions made?
Our board has very lively debates, and it’s not always unanimous on the decisions they make. They’ll basically hash it out and determine if there will be a vote. Basically it is a majority vote that carries the day, and whatever the vote is becomes the official position of the organization.
I think it’s fair to say that the chamber has become more politically active in the last few years. It’s obvious because of the CHICOPAC. I guess you could say you’re more upfront about it now than in the past.
I think the only change really in the chamber’s advocacy role from now compared to anytime in probably the last 15 years was the creation of the PAC and our involvement in candidate issues. When it comes to dealing with community issues, whatever they may be, this chamber has a very long history of being a representative of the business community in these debates.
Such as Measure A…
Measure A is a classic example of something this chamber has a long history of being involved in. There is nothing new there. What was new happened almost four years ago when we created the political-action committee. Our board had some very, um, candid discussions about this historical ceiling that we had set. We are an advocate of the business community in issues. The question is, who gets to be in the driver’s seat making decisions on those issues?
Now it was whether they wanted to continue to impose that ceiling upon themselves or whether they wanted to step past that and be a full advocate of the full spectrum of public debate. They made the decision that they wanted to take that step to endorse candidates, to be able to support candidates. The organization can endorse candidates without a PAC. It chose not to, but it can. The PAC is really just a tool that, once the chamber’s decided to endorse candidates, allows a way to use non-dues monies to support them.
It’s not giving money directly to a candidate, just advocating for or against them, right?
The PAC itself hasn’t frankly made a whole lot of money. I think last year it was all of $4,000 or $5,000 raised and $4,500 spent or something like that. The PAC is really just a tool that allows the organization to advocate on behalf of candidates more effectively. The PAC allows for some resources to help candidates if it chooses to. There is a separate board of trustees that oversees the PAC. It’s been chosen to keep the chamber from ever getting tied up in any allegations of dirty campaigning or dirty tricks or any of that kind of stuff.
They’ve made it clear that whatever resources they have available, they are going to spend in independent expenditures that are controlled completely by the political-action committee so that no one can ever allege that the PAC’s money was used to smear somebody or something like that. We felt like politics in Chico had gotten exceptionally dirty. That people on the extremes were the ones who were basically carrying the debate, and that here’s the chamber as the largest broad-based business organization—if not the largest broad-based organization in the community—silent on those issues.
We wanted to be that voice of reason in the debate. We made this cry for civility that has been somewhat mocked by some, but that I think has been a hallmark of the chamber’s efforts. We’re saying that we can disagree, we can endorse candidates, we can campaign for candidates, but we can do it without having to dip to all-time lows.
Currently six of the seven councilmembers were endorsed by the chamber.
Of the sitting councilmembers, yes, all but Coleen were endorsed by the PAC.
Some people do express concerns that the chamber comes before the council on a yearly basis for the community funding. How do you separate that? You guys do advocate for or against [council] candidates. Doesn’t that have some influence on how they vote when you come before council? You have to admit there has to be some influence, or at the very least the appearance of such.
First of all I think the appearance is probably more at issue than the reality of it. If you look at legally what we do, we have a contract with the city that is on a cost-reimbursement basis to perform certain services. Like when we print four-color brochures on the city of Chico or when we produced four-color brochures on cycling in Chico and on water sports and on hunting and fishing. Next year in our proposal to the city we are going to redo our blossom tour and our bird tour. All of those things are a real, live product that has been produced with these city resources.
They are not anyway remotely related to anything other than what they are, which is a promotion piece on cycling, a promotion piece on water sports. The community economic profile that we print, a good piece of money goes into printing costs every year. And that’s out of our contract. We are audited every year by the city auditors who come in and look at our expenditures to prove that we have fulfilled the contractual obligations that we have, that we haven’t spent money inappropriately.
Finally, if we weren’t good at what we do in that arena, the council would be uninterested in contracting with us.
Who else would they give it to? There is sort of a lack of competition for something like this.
Part of that is because we are very good at what we do. There is nothing that could prevent any group to want to try to replicate what we’ve created here. And the council would have to wrestle with that if were it to happen. If we became very sloppy at what we do and didn’t meet our contractual obligations and had exceptions in our audit that we had to go explain away to the council, that would create a different impression of who we are, but the fact is we do a very good job at our tourism promotion efforts. We produce a good product. We produce good material that represents the city. We’ve done good work on the city’s behalf, and that is why the council continues to contract with us.