The End of The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce?

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Op-ed

The Rick Brainard debacle — the ongoing saga of the newly-elected Grand Junction city councilman who pled guilty to criminal assault minutes before being sworn in as a City Councilman May 6  — has led to greater scrutiny of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, the group responsible for foisting Brainard onto the local political scene.

In the decades before Brainard, to the people who even noticed it at all, the Grand Junction Chamber was generally regarded as a well-meaning force in town. Becoming a member of the Chamber was a rite of passage and a feel-good move for businesses, and a way to show support for the community. The Chamber, a long-standing organization incorporated in Grand Junction way back in 1915, typically engaged in helpful and uncontroversial activities like recruiting volunteers to help tutor elementary school kids in reading and promoting its “Blue Band Buy Local” program aimed at keeping local dollars in the area. The Chamber weighed in on policy matters like taxes and fees, but it’s influence wasn’t out-sized. Its political activity stayed in check in part because its 501-c-6 IRS designation limits the amount of lobbying it can engage in. Because it was a relatively helpful, low-key organization, it had few enemies.

All that changed in 2012, when the Chamber  stopped being satisfied to simply weigh in on policy issues like every other nonprofit group in town. Suddenly the Chamber started acting like the sober person in the car who needed to seize the wheel from a drunk. The Chamber decided it needed to force its will upon citizens by actually becoming City Council. In 2012, the Grand Junction Chamber turned ruthlessly competitive, devised a winner-take-all strategy, then stacked the deck to make sure it got what it wanted: total control of City politics.

A New Chamber Struts Into Town, Guns A-Blazing

Chamber President Diane Schwenke (Photo Credit: YouTube)

Chamber President Diane Schwenke (Photo Credit: YouTube)

The Chamber carefully selected three trusted allies from within its ranks to run for city council: Marty Chazen, Phyllis Norris and the now notorious Mr. Brainard. With its candidates chosen, the Chamber arranged out-sized funding for their campaigns using secret money from its newly-established 501-c-4 “social welfare” lobbying arm, the Western Colorado Business Alliance (WCBA).  The Chamber’s fourth ally, Sam Susuras, already had a seat on Council and was not up for re-election. Citizens now refer to these four public figures collectively as the “Chambermades.” For Grand Junction’s 2013 city council election, Chazen, Norris and Brainard collected an average of $11,000 each in donations, while candidates who weren’t affiliated with the Chamber raised an average of just $2,100 each. To put this in perspective, prior to the 2013 election, the most a city council candidate ever spent on a local election topped out at about $3,400. The amount of money the Chambermades spent in 2013 blew everyone out of the water, including the Daily Sentinel, who called it “eye-opening.”

The list of people who funded Rick Brainard’s campaign for Council, is telling not only about the close relationship between the Chamber and Brainard, but also about which businesses in town are his strongest supporters. Sitting Grand Junction Mayor Sam Susuras donated $400 to Brainard’s campaign.  Susuras’ wife, Lois Dunn, a former Chair of the Chamber’s Board, donated $200. Jamee Simons, who with her husband, Doug Simons, co-owners of Enstrom Candies, donated $500. Wayne and Jamie Fisher of Fisher’s Liquor Barn donated $1,000.  Michael Burke, who works at the law firm of Kain & Burke and is the current Chair of the Chamber’s Board, donated $50 to Brainard’s election. Another donor, Karen Anton, gave Brainard $250. She is married to Michael P. Anton, yet another member of the Chamber’s Board. (More about Mr. Anton later.)  Chazen, Norris and Brainard are all former members of the Chamber’s Board of Directors.

Who’s the Chamber’s Deep Pocket?

Doug and Jamee Simons, owners of Enstrom's Candies

Doug and Jamee Simons, owners of Enstrom’s Candies

WCBA keeps its donors secret, so no one knows for sure who poured the big money into influencing the last local election, but that hasn’t stopped the local rumor mill.  Talk around town is that Doug Simons of Enstrom’s Candies funneled somewhere around $50,000 through WCBA to get the Chambermades elected.  The rumor is also afoot that Simons also is the deep pocket that secretly funded Brady Trucking’s campaign to return some of the cleaned-up riverfront area south of downtown back to industrial use. Simons is also rumored to have had a hand in turning around the Chambermades’ recent vote to fund improvements at the Avalon Theater, which got local conservatives howling. After all, Brainard, Chazen and Norris all ran as fiscal conservatives, complaining that the City spent too much money on community amenities. At first, the Chambermades hedged on whether to pursue the plan the previous Council agreed on to spend millions fixing up the historic Avalon Theater on Main Street.  It happens that Doug Simons owns land on two corners right next to the Avalon. Word about town also is that Simons contacted the Chambermades and, to the relief of many who care about downtown, convinced them to fund improvements to the Avalon according to the preconceived plan. Even Sam Susuras voted to fund the Avalon, which shocked many people, and may demonstrate the power Doug Simons wields over the new Council.

The Simons own famous Enstrom Candies downtown

The Simons own famous Enstrom Candies downtown

 

The Bully Chamber

Some people in high positions at Grand Junction’s Chamber of Commerce and its lobbying arm, the Western Colorado Business Alliance (WCBA), seem to be out-and-out bullies.

Grand Junction has always been a pretty civil town, and that also pertained to its politics.  City Council races were just not that contentious. Candidates  financed campaigns out of their own pockets with few bucks thrown in from friends and family. Campaign expenditures weren’t high — usually just enough to cover a few yard signs and ads in the local newspaper. Candidates would give their points of view on issues to the local media, and negative advertising just wasn’t a feature. In general, city council elections were fairly amicable. But thanks to the Chamber re-writing the rules, in 2013 that changed, too.

Michael P. Anton, Member of the Chamber's Board of Directors and President of the Chamber's lobbying arm, WCBA

Michael P. Anton, Member of the Chamber’s Board of Directors and President of the Chamber’s lobbying arm, WCBA (Photo Credit: Business Times)

Just before the April 2 election, in March, 2013,  a quarter-page ad appeared in the Daily Sentinel berating the incumbent City Council members who were running for re-election. The ad complained that they were big spenders, and demanded that City government be run like a business instead of a government. Like negative campaigning, negative campaign ads are very rare — even nonexistent — in Grand Junction, and this one had a particularly angry and personal tone. It singled out councilwoman Laura Luke with very threatening language. “Hey, Laura … I’m your worst nightmare….” the writer said. He writer berated Luke as a free spender and demanded, “I want change! I want to see a person like Rick Brainard…” who “has a relentless passion and drive for the community he lives in….” get elected to council. The ad was threatening enough that the Daily Sentinel  pulled it before it’s three-print run was through. The ad’s author was none other than Michael P. Anton, who, in addition to sitting on the Chamber’s Board of Directors, is also President of the Chamber’s new lobbying arm, the Western Colorado Business Alliance (WCBA). According to the Business Times, WCBA was formed to advocate on behalf of the Chamber’s members. Chamber President Diane Schwenke says the WCBA was created “add to, rather than replace, Chamber efforts” to influence elections. WCBA’s administrative costs are paid for entirely by the G.J. Chamber (pdf). Anton did not sign the ad with his affiliation with either the Chamber or WCBA, but he is a close Chamber ally who represents them on several levels and the ad was clearly aimed at doing what Schwenke said WCBA was created for: amplifying Chamber efforts to oust incumbent council members and elect Rick Brainard, Marty Chazen and Phyllis Norris.

In another incident of Chamber-related bullying, on May 5 Diane Schwenke posted an offensive joke on her Facebook page targeting a subset of area citizens based on their beliefs. The punchline of her joke was that the people she singled out for derision “don’t know sh*t.” Alongside the post, Ms. Schwenke listed her affiliation with the G.J. Chamber, and below the post some of Ms. Schwenke’s friends, including Betty Bechtel, a prominent local attorney who is also a past Chair of the Chamber’s Board, had added comments praising Ms. Schwenke’s joke and egging her on. That the head of the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce felt so free to make a bigoted joke in a public forum, and that such prominent local people would jump on the bandwagon and cheer her on was amazing. News about the untoward joke spread quickly not just locally, but across the Internet. Someone even made a YouTube video out of it to show their disgust. As a result, Schwenke’s post drew hundreds more views than anything the Chamber has ever uploaded onto the Internet. When Chamber Board Chairman Michael Burke was notified about the post, he did… well, nothing. He didn’t issue an apology, or make any public statement. No one at the Chamber lifted a finger to address their President’s adolescent urge, which just made it even clearer to local citizens that the Chamber’s leadership feels free to trample upon whomever it likes, and thinks the day will not come when they have to pay a price for it.

Picking and Choosing Members

The G.J. Chamber says it’s mission is to promote business, but that really only means some businesses, specifically the ones it likes. At the May 1, 2013 City Council meeting, Councilman Jim Doody told the audience that he represents the City of Grand Junction at Chamber meetings, and only a narrow point of view is ever represented at their meetings.

That is by design.

Examination of the Chamber’s actions on the ground confirms that the Chamber manipulates its membership to assure alternative viewpoints do not intrude.

The Chamber actively solicits members by regularly conducting “Business Walks” where they physically go into hundreds of local businesses and promote Chamber membership.  But once a member, a business owner must agree with the Chamber’s leadership politically, and not actively promote competing political views, or you must keep your views to yourself.  Business owners who don’t share the same political opinions or who refuse to go along with the Chamber’s political agenda are either not invited to join. If they do manage to join, they risk getting summarily ejected. One example of this happened in 2008, when the Chamber kicked out the local environmental group Western Colorado Congress, on the grounds that the WCC had “competing philosophies” and was overly political. And the owner of a well-known local business who occasionally flies peace flags in front of his business reported that even though he’s operated his store in a prominent location in town for decades, the Chamber has never once visited his business to seek his membership.

Paying the Price

City Councilman Rick Brainard. Photo credit: KREX-TV, Grand Junction

City Councilman Rick Brainard. Photo credit: KREX-TV, Grand Junction and Mugshots.com

The Chamber got Grand Junction citizens into the Brainard mess by picking a remarkably poor candidate and pushing him into local office. Citizens recoiled at the thought of having someone sit in authority over them who admits to beating up a woman and then, after initially lying about it, told police he had to do it because she “needed to shut her mouth.” They say it reflects poorly on the City’s residents and reputation. Just about everyone in town agrees, but the Chamber has been unable to admit that backing Brainard was a terrible mistake. Instead, the Chamber has clammed up, thrown up walls, refused to answer any tough questions, deleted hard questions from its Facebook page, then deleted the ability to even LEAVE questions on its Facebook page. They won’t talk to anyone about difficult issues on the phone, and they won’t meet with people in person to talk about them, either. The Chamber doesn’t apologize for its mistakes, bad choices or bullying, nor does it consider the ramifications of its recent poor decisions for the City. The Chamber’s behavior demonstrates more than anything else that it does not care about its member businesses, or the City or its citizens. What it cares about is its own political ambitions. It’s amateurish handling of its crises has made things far worse for it as an organization. But that may be just fine. The Chamber has managed to become the last entity in town that still supports Rick Brainard staying on Council, and that fact has made it politically radioactive. The longer the Chamber clings to that position, the fewer businesses will want to get anywhere near it.

People have had their fill of the Chamber and its antics. A Facebook group has been created called Rein in the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and is working at all hours of the day and night to beat back the Chamber’s political influence by encouraging a growing boycott against Chamber member businesses.  Members circulate lists of local businesses that belong to the Chamber, like the Rockslide Brew Pub, the Ale House, the Dream Cafe’ and Main Street Bagels, so that when people patronize these businesses, they can tell the owners how they feel about their Chamber membership and ask them to get out of the Chamber. They hold letter-writing parties where they write their concerns to local businesses. And businesses are starting to flee the Chamber over its continued support for Brainard. After hearing about the boycott from a neighboring business owner, the Candy Time Shoppe on Main Street promptly scraped the Chamber’s logo off its front window and asked the Chamber to take their business off its member list.  The new Edgewater Brewery in south downtown next to the Colorado River held a ribbon cutting — a RIBBON CUTTING! — and didn’t even invite the Chamber, whose signature event is ribbon cutting.

The No Brainard Recall Committee is also now a reality. It’s gotten all its paperwork completed, rented office space and is soliciting donations. (Checks can be made out to the No Brainard Recall Committee and mailed to P.O. Box 824, Grand Junction, CO, 81502 or dropped by the No Brainard Recall Committee at 749 Rood Ave., #B.) Jes Coleman, the organizer of the Committee, says so many people have been waiting for the recall petitions to start being circulated that it should be pretty easy to get the required number of signatures needed to recall Brainard. The Chamber has staked its entire reputation on a man who is not only reviled by a huge number of people town, but who has set himself up to take the hardest fall in City Council history.

The short story is that the Chamber flew too close to the sun and got burned. Grand Junctionites don’t want their City Hall dominated by a majority of people so closely linked to a single organization whose most distinguishing feature is a string of remarkably bad decisions that have plunged the town into revolt. And they don’t want to be represented by a city councilman who pled guilty to abusing a woman because “she needed to shut her mouth.” Like the national Republican Party it strives so hard to emulate, the Chamber is suffering from a case of a highly insular nature combined with the aura of an exclusive club, a lack of diversity, blind political ambition and deep-pocketed supporters who, ironically, just keep getting the Chamber into more trouble.

The good news? Thanks to its own doing, the Chamber may finally be on it’s way out.

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