Last spring, the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia announced a plan to up its political game. The business lobby’s goal was to sink more resources into City Council races and foster “real change and a focus on growth.”
Real change came. Just not the kind the Chamber wanted.
Beating back a last-minute campaign by the Chamber’s political action committee that even a business lobbyist called “awkward,” Kendra Brooks of the progressive Working Families Party won one of the two Council at-large seats effectively reserved for candidates outside the Democratic Party. Those seats have been held by Republicans since the 1950s. On Monday, Brooks will be inaugurated as the only third-party politician to hold a Council seat in at least a century.
“I do feel like they underestimated the power of the Working Families campaign, and then at the last minute they tried to do something to stop it," Brooks said. "But we had already run an effective campaign up to that point.”
Campaign-finance reports show the Chamber’s PAC raised about $235,000 in 2019, while the campaign arm of the Working Families Party raked in more than $1 million.
And those resources were spent in vastly different ways. Working Families Party canvassers pounded the pavement, knocked on doors, and mailed out campaign literature. The Chamber went negative, sending uncharacteristically incendiary text messages and robocalls, including one that said, “Radical liberals in the Working Families Party are trying to eliminate the GOP from Philadelphia city government."
"These far-left socialists want to raise our taxes, implement socialized medicine, and declare war on middle-class families,” the Chamber campaign warned.
In other cities, big-business interests are often feared political players. In Philadelphia, specific industries or companies find success lobbying lawmakers or winning favors from city agencies. But the voice of the business community as a whole has long played a less significant role in shaping political discourse. And in the past, the business lobby could rely on help from the mayor’s office, which for years had been occupied by politicians sympathetic to their concerns. But as a new generation of liberal activists has pushed the city further to the left, the struggles of big business to influence policy and politics have come into sharper focus.
In the last few years, the Chamber has sought to improve its standing in City Hall. It has beefed up its political spending, engaged more with Council members in their neighborhoods, formed new alliances with the building trades unions, and diversified its board and staff — politically and demographically — to fight the perception that the group is dominated by wealthy white Republicans who live in the suburbs and work in Center City.
A membership-based organization of firms throughout the tri-state area, the Chamber advocates for business-friendly policies, and its top funders include Comcast, Peco, Wells Fargo, and Independence Blue Cross. While it has always weighed in on policies at the city and state level, the group’s involvement in electoral politics has been less consistent.
Chamber spokesperson Dan Fee said the group’s new focus is on addressing Philadelphia’s 24.5% poverty rate — the highest of any large U.S. city — through “inclusive neighborhood job growth.”
“Going forward, anyone who cares about reducing poverty, which means increasing the number of people working, will have to be aggressive because what has been tried in the past hasn’t worked,” Fee said. “There have been activists for 30 years who have had ideas. Poverty has been a problem for decades. ... Maybe you should focus on actually putting people to work."
John Hawkins, a City Hall lobbyist with major corporate clients, said the Chamber is “moving in the right direction.”
“Their awkward text-message campaign was too little too late," Hawkins said. “But in these hyperpartisan times, every interest group has got to get in the arena, and for the last couple decades they’ve been on the sidelines. I’m glad to see them stepping up.”
It won’t be easy. The Chamber’s recent moves came at the same time that the city’s progressive movement has won a series of upset victories and pushed a “pro-worker” agenda that has rankled many business owners.
In recent years, Council has passed laws, some of which have yet to take effect, aimed at ensuring workers have access to paid sick leave, requiring service-industry companies to give their employees predictable schedules, prohibiting parking-lot operators from firing workers without just cause, and closing the gender pay gap by prohibiting employers from asking job applicants about their previous salaries. Business interests last month failed to head off changes to the city’s controversial 10-year tax abatement on new construction, although the Chamber supported reform.
David L. Cohen, a longtime political power player and Comcast executive who recently announced he will be stepping down from his position, bemoaned the state of Philadelphia politics in a recent interview on 6ABC.
“There’s just no way to describe City Council’s attitude toward business other than to say that they are antibusiness, they are hostile to business,” said Cohen, who previously served as the Chamber’s board chairman and was chief of staff during Ed Rendell’s business-friendly mayoral administration in the 1990s. “If one more member of City Council tells me, ‘I’m not antibusiness; I’m just pro-worker,’ I’m going to feel like strangling someone, because what they are is they’re pro-unemployed worker.”
The Chamber and other big-business interests used to rely on mayors like Rendell, John F. Street, and Michael Nutter to be a bulwark against Council proposals they didn’t like, said Joseph McLaughlin, director of Temple University’s Institute for Public Affairs. Mayor Jim Kenney, however, relied on the backing of progressive groups in his 2015 run for mayor and takes pride in the workers’ rights legislation approved during his administration. That’s why, McLaughlin said, the Chamber is attempting to connect more with lawmakers on their home turfs.
“It’s not enough anymore to just go make deals with leaders and things fall where you want them to," McLaughlin said. "You have to connect with legislators at the ground level.”
The Chamber has attempted to toe a line between being more politically aggressive and building relationships with city politicians, a strategy that has produced mixed results. The Chamber, for instance, is working to forge bonds with district Council members through a neighborhood-centered engagement strategy. But it also angered some members and the Kenney administration when it sued to prevent the city from enforcing the gender pay equity bill. (The case is pending on appeal.)
The Chamber is bringing on more Democrats as it seeks to steady itself politically. Former State Rep. Mike Gerber of Montgomery County, the senior managing director of FS Investments, is an active member of the group’s board. And this year the Chamber tapped William Carter, a former staffer and confidant of Council President Darrell L. Clarke, to be its vice president of local government advocacy and engagement.
Brooks said that, despite the Chamber’s attacks on her during the campaign, she’s willing to work with them.
“We should come to the table and have a conversation if they’re really sincere about creating more jobs — more good-paying jobs here in the city," she said. “We need to make sure that job growth should happen in Philadelphia, and also quality good job growth, so people can afford to stay and live in Philadelphia.”
Fee said the Chamber decided to go negative on Brooks after realizing how much money Working Families Party-aligned groups outside Philadelphia were spending.
“In the final days of the election, it became clear just how much outside money was being spent, and there was a decision to support people who were longtime champions of inclusive neighborhood growth," Fee said.
Councilman Allan Domb, a condominium magnate and one of the most business-friendly Council members, said the business community and progressives need to come together if the city is going to address poverty in a meaningful way.
“One side can’t do this,” he said. “You need both sides, and I think the Chamber, from what I’ve seen, they’ve been working toward accomplishing that goal.”