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Area Chamber of Commerce chief 'kicking it up a notch' with political advocacy

It is the lifeblood of the political world: advocacy. And for the former lawmaker now heading the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, it is becoming a bigger part of the job description.

It is the lifeblood of the political world: advocacy. And for the former lawmaker now heading the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, it is becoming a bigger part of the job description.

Since taking over as president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit business group 16 months ago, Rob Wonderling has expanded the chamber's political-advocacy agenda, seeing it as essential given the tough economic conditions of the day.

Untangling persistently logjammed Route 422 - and the possibility of turning it into a toll road - is one of the initiatives the 11-county group has embraced since Wonderling joined the chamber in August 2009.

Other issues are getting the chamber's ardent backing, too, under the stewardship of Wonderling, a former Republican state senator whose district included Montgomery and several neighboring counties.

"We are kicking it up a notch," he said of the chamber's advocacy mission in an interview Wednesday at The Inquirer. "But not in an obnoxious, no-holds-barred way."

Wonderling's comments came a week after he labeled as untrue a published report out of Washington saying that his group, and some dues-paying members, was unhappy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for bankrolling aggressive campaign plays to help elect mostly Republican candidates in the recent congressional elections.

Through its own efforts, the regional chamber - which, Wonderling has taken pains to point out, is independent from the national chamber - is pursuing a more consensus-oriented approach to achieving its public-policy goals.

"I think the days of finger-pointing, torches, and pitchforks only get you so far," Wonderling said.

It was at the urging of local corporate chief executives who belong to the chamber and met with him soon after he was hired last year, Wonderling said, that he agreed to join efforts to address problems plaguing Route 422, a vital artery jammed every morning and evening by commuters to such corporate giants as Vanguard.

The notorious roadway - which cuts across Montgomery, Chester, and Berks Counties - was among the top three priorities identified by the corporate CEOs Wonderling met with. The other two were expansion at Philadelphia International Airport and the need for high-speed rail lines in the region, he said.

Already committed to advocacy for airport expansion, the chamber agreed to take on the Route 422 conundrum: It requires an estimated $1 billion for maintenance, with no sign that cash-strapped state or federal governments are willing to kick in aid, he said.

With federal coffers slamming shut and a transfer of power in the governor's mansion coming in January, the chamber has been mobilizing all year to be heard, Wonderling said - and to continue to be heard, no matter which party is in charge.

In laying the groundwork for an educational campaign, the chamber has overseen $200,000 in research to see whether converting Route 422 into a toll road could produce the revenue needed to rebuild costly stretches of the roadway.

Another goal, he said, is to see whether a toll system also would generate sufficient revenue to run a high-speed commuter train line along Route 422 to help ease highway congestion.

At the same time, the chamber has been working to advance issues of concern to businesses in Philadelphia.

In recent testimony before City Council, the chamber opposed a pending bill that would alter the business-privilege tax, saying a more thorough analysis of its potential effect was needed before further action.

Another initiative launched on Wonderling's watch, called "Relay Philly," has the chamber reaching out to nonprofit community-development corporations, African American advocacy groups, and others to form coalitions around specific political issues.

Wonderling said the chamber's increased focus on advocacy connected with him "on a very personal level." With both private-sector experience and political service under his belt, he said, he has reached the conclusion that political advocacy is a necessary component of problem-solving.

His definition of advocacy, he said, is this: "What's the solution here?"