The chamber in me

For one novice, Cap-to-Cap was an eye-opening trip

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno. His column, Greenlight, appears in this space weekly.

Three hundred of us flew from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago for four days of lobbying on behalf of our region as part of the 39th annual Cap-to-Cap event. This event, sponsored by the Sacramento Metro Chamber, was something I’d heard about in years past … but somehow I’d never considered myself Cap-to-Cap material.

Don’t get me wrong. I run a successful business, and I’ve been a member of the chamber for the past quarter century. But I always felt a little out of sync with this organization. Perhaps the feeling sprang from my experiences when I started our paper in Chico during the 1980s and served as a member of the legislative committee of the Chico Chamber of Commerce. Let’s just say that the committee found itself in a 9-1 vote on many issues during those years—with me being the one dissenting vote.

Reviewing the California Chamber of Commerce’s positions on the intersection between government and business is like reading a supermarket tabloid, albeit with far fewer mentions of Elvis. To see it from that organization’s point of view, passage of any workers’ safety program would shut down all industries, and a 25-cent increase in minimum wage would end civilization as we know it.

Yes, it was there in Chico that I formed a working opinion of my fellow business owners: I grew to love many of them on an individual basis, but when it came to those same business owners engaging in chamber groupthink, simply put, I thought they were nuts.

So I was reluctant when my good friend Tom Stallard suggested I join the green technology team of Cap-to-Cap. But when I later spoke with SMUD director of communications Elisabeth Brinton and Sac Metro Chamber president and CEO Matt Mahood, I realized that Cap-to-Cap might actually be an amazing experience.

And it was. I was impressed with the logistics of the program, but also with how sound the green technology team’s proposals were regarding clean technology, energy savings and water conservation. The team made a great case for our region and pushed for the government to spend dollars in a way that positively impacts our future.

While in D.C., the team met with people from all different areas of clean and green technology: Sam Nunn, the co-chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Kathleen Hogan, the director of the Climate Protection Partnership Division with the Environmental Protection Agency; Richard Karney, the Energy Star program manager from the United States Department of Energy; and Ellen Vaughan, a policy director with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, just to name a few.

My experience with Cap-to-Cap re-emphasized my pride in being a Sacramentan, but also made me proud to be a member of the Sac Metro Chamber. But in regards to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? I am sticking to my creed: Enjoy chamber members as individuals, but question them when they go into groupthink.