Chamber CEO Stands Out in Election Year
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Like all effective chamber and association leaders, Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), goes to great lengths to represent his members’ interests. And in 2012, that means positioning his organization as an active participant in federal and state elections.
With businesses facing bigger government and more taxes and regulations, including labor rules tipped in favor of unions, Bauer says that his organization, the state’s largest business trade association with more than 3,500 members, has no choice but to carry out a campaign to educate voters on the consequences of such policies.
While most political pundits are focused on the presidential contest, Bauer says that the June 5 recall election of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will also reverberate nationwide.
“There are two aspects as to why this has national repercussions. It sets a precedent on whether a state can control its spending and budgets by reining in the power of government sector unions,” says Bauer. “Also, Wisconsin is a swing state in the presidential election, so there’s a concern at the White House that if Walker wins, it will have an impact on Obama’s ability to carry a key swing state.”
Gov. Walker is the first U.S. governor in nearly a decade to face a recall election after labor unions and their allies targeted him following his signing of a law to rein in increasingly powerful of public sector unions.
Faced with a $3.6 billion deficit when he took office in 2010, state lawmakers passed, and Gov. Walker signed, legislation limiting collective bargaining to base wages and requiring most public sector workers to pay more of their health insurance and pension costs. Those reforms gave local governments and school districts the tools they needed to balance their own budgets without raising taxes or laying off teachers.
For WMC, the Walker recall election is a proxy for fiscal responsibility and for maintaining a fair labor environment. The organization has taken out radio and television ads in support of Walker, a strategy it hopes to carry through the June general election. “Frankly, it’s going to be hard to buy air time [close to the elections]. There’s a lot of money coming in from out-of-state interest groups, especially from the national unions,” according to Bauer. “From the teachers union perspective, they may see the Wisconsin battle as more important even than the November presidential battle from the standpoint that if Walker’s reforms win, it could be precedent setting in other places.”
WMC’s voter education campaign is not limited to local and state races. It has joined the U.S. Chamber in running television issue ads in two federal contests, including Rep. Sean Duffy’s (R) defense of his House seat. “He’s very popular with the business community, so we partnered with the Chamber on ads letting people know that he is doing a great job,” Bauer says.
WMC is also involved in the race for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Herb Kohl (D), who’s retiring. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) is running to replace him. “She’s not very pro-business at all, so we don’t want her to do in the Senate what she has done in the House, which is vote against business interests. We’re trying to educate folks on her record,” Bauer says.
Bauer understands the risks associated with WMC’s political involvement, but he makes no apologies, saying, “Sometimes we get pushback from local chambers. When you get involved in the campaign, you have to choose sides and that can be uncomfortable for some people. But we believe, in fact it’s in our charter, that one of our missions is to elect pro-business candidates to Congress and the [state] legislature.” Bauer continues, “If our job is to be a business advocacy organization, it makes sense that in addition to advocating for policies that support free enterprise and economic freedom, we try to elect candidates who share that philosophy.”