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Phila. Chamber sticking with national group

It spent more than $2 million on Pennsylvania's Sestak-Toomey race for U.S. Senate, and the Republican it backed, Pat Toomey, won.

It spent more than $2 million on Pennsylvania's Sestak-Toomey race for U.S. Senate, and the Republican it backed, Pat Toomey, won.

It staged an elections blitz, nationally, that was part of a vow to spend "significantly more" than the $36 million it put out to back candidates in Congressional midterms two years earlier, in 2008.

And along the way, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ruffled the feathers of a few of its members with the aggressive tactics. It left some local chambers fielding awkward calls and questions from businesses unhappy with the national group's work, which focused primarily on GOP candidates.

But the message Wednesday was one of unity from the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, which labeled as untrue an online report out of Washington that said it planned to cut ties with the U.S. chamber over its controversial 2010 campaign work.

"It's totally false," said Rob Wonderling, president and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia-area Chamber, referring to an account in Politico saying his group planned to sever from the U.S. Chamber.

"We don't understand why they would reach the conclusion that would have suggested we are discontinuing our membership," said Wonderling, whose group contacted the U.S. Chamber on Wednesday to reassure them of its intentions to remain a member.

Politico deputy managing editor Craig Gordon said the news organization would correct its web story last night to point out that the Chamber considered, but did not plan, to end ties with the national group. But Gordon, declining to discuss sources, stood by the remainder of his reporter's story, saying it came from "very recent" discussions with sources.

"Our sources were unambiguously clear: There was very serious talk on the top level of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce about quitting the national group," Gordon said. "That is what our sources told us, we reported the story that way."

The U.S. Chamber's well publicized advocacy campaign made headlines nationally in the run-up to the November elections. It spent millions of dollars backing candidates it viewed as friendly to its interests, including what one central Pennsylvania chamber official described as "attack ads" against Joe Sestak. Ultimately, the Democratic majority in the U.S. House was unseated.

"We were hearing from various member businesses that didn't care for the tone of the ads," said David Wise, president of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, near the main campus of Pennsylvania State University. The Sestak ads, he said, were "negative."

The U.S. Chamber ran most of its anti-Sestak television spots around Pittsburgh and across what's known as the "T" of central and north-central Pennsylvania, said Bill Miller, director of political affairs and federation relations for the U.S. Chamber.

"We had a very heavy footprint politically in the state," Miller said, adding that the U.S. Chamber spent more only on races in the state of California.

If top officials at the Greater Philadelphia Chamber were upset, Miller said, they did not share those concerns with his office in Washington.

But the local group did receive flak from some member businesses concerned about the U.S. Chamber's aggressive electoral maneuvers.

The Politico story published this week said that leaders of the Greater Philadelphia chamber "had been inundated with angry - and sometimes profanity-laced - telephone calls from people objecting to the U.S. Chamber-backed ads."

The local Chamber said that was untrue.

"We have had a handful of calls from members asking about our relationship with the [U.S.] Chamber, but none irate," said spokesman Chris Pinto.

David L. Cohen, executive vice president at Comcast Corp., was chairman of the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber through October and remains a member of its executive committee. Cohen said the local chamber, like many others, doesn't necessarily share a common advocacy agenda with the U.S. Chamber.

"We operate independently of each other, from an advocacy and a business perspective," he said.

Cohen said the U.S. Chamber's advocacy was a topic of discussion in leadership circles across the region: "I heard from lots of people about the [U.S.] Chamber's advocacy, some positive and some negative."

Wonderling, a former Republican lawmaker in the Pennsylvania Legislature, said that some member businesses brought up concerns about it to his group, "anecdotally, as part of the broader conversation on negative advertising associated with the midterm elections."

But the Chamber's spokesman, Pinto, said no members "that we know of" withdrew from the local group over the issue.

The Philadelphia-area Chamber plans to once again pay annual dues next spring to maintain its "separate and distinct" relationship with the national organization, Wonderling said.

The topic, which must ultimately be considered by its board, is not on the group's agenda for its next meeting, schedule for next week.