LONG BEACH — The Chamber of Commerce, in an attempt to remove itself from local partisan politics, has stopped collecting funds for a political action committee it founded two years ago.
The chamber's board of directors has voted overwhelmingly to eliminate a box from its monthly dues bill that members checked when contributing $10 to the Long Beach Political Action Committee, said Rolfe Arnhym, chamber executive director.
The box was removed from the January dues bills the chamber sent to its 3,300 members, Arnhym said last week. Contributions to the independently run PAC now are made directly to it.
The chamber's decision to sever its last formal tie with the committee came after "board members expressed concern about whether the chamber could posture itself as apolitical so long as it was soliciting monies on behalf of the PAC," Arnhym said.
"We don't want to support a particular candidate for a particular office," he said. "If the PAC does that, then it's on its own. . . . If we supported a candidate and that candidate lost, we would neutralize our effectiveness with the City Council."
The chamber will continue to make its mailing lists available to the PAC for fund raising and will encourage its members to participate in the committee and to seek elective office, said Arnhym. But the chamber does not automatically endorse every action of the PAC, he said.
Gearing Up for Elections
The chamber's decision to stop collecting funds for the PAC came as candidates in five City Council districts were gearing up for elections in April and June. The PAC expects to endorse candidates after filing closes Jan. 30 and probably will contribute $50,000 to $100,000 to city races, said its chairman, Henry Meyer.
The PAC's campaign record, however, has not been impressive. It unsuccessfully opposed incumbent Councilman Wallace Edgerton when it first endorsed candidates in 1984, and it irritated incumbent Tom Clark, who sees himself as pro-business, when it did not endorse him
PAC officers acknowledge the organization has suffered from ineffectiveness and its image as a narrowly focused, predominately Republican, pro-business group.
The committee tried to alter that perception last summer by changing its name from the Long Beach Business and Commerce Committee and by emphasizing that Democrats as well as Republicans were welcome as members. It honored Democratic Rep. Glenn M. Anderson of Long Beach at a fund-raising dinner in August. And it hired a professional consulting firm to run its affairs.
Still, problems and the soul-searching have continued, some members say.
"The PAC is now evaluating what it should be doing and has not reached any real conclusions on the matter," said attorney Charles Greenberg, a director.
Broader Base of Support
And PAC chairman Meyer said committee members have even considered starting a new organization to try to change its image and build a broader base of support.
"We feel that we can stand on our head and people will still think we're a branch of the chamber," he said. "It's a real problem. And invariably if you form another group, you're going to have some of the same players. . . ."
The links between the PAC and the chamber are strong, said Meyer, since he and PAC director Joe Saucedo are both former chamber presidents. Another PAC director, Harold W. Gansert Jr., is also a chamber director.
Clarified Role Sought
The chamber board felt it had to clearly separate the operations of the chamber and the PAC, because "we do not want to imply we're singling out" for defeat a council candidate "who may not represent the business perspective," said Arnhym.
In particular, the chamber does not want to get caught up in an effort to unseat 9th District Councilman Warren Harwood, said Arnhym.
Harwood is already campaigning against "downtown business interests" and the PAC, which he claims have recruited a candidate to run against him and are conspiring to try to control city government.
"With enough money and enough hand-picked candidates," said Harwood, "you can get people appointed mayor and get people appointed to special commissions and get the city manager fired. You can work special deals. You can take over the city, and that is a very insidious type of conspiracy."
Harwood identified Ralph Howe, a retired Fire Department captain from Downey, as the candidate recruited to run against him.
Howe acknowledged in a recent interview that he moved from downtown Long Beach to North Long Beach in October partly so he could run against Harwood. A number of people, including PAC vice chairman Bryan (Whitey) Littlefield, have encouraged him to run, said Howe. But most of his support is coming from people within the 9th District who dislike Harwood, Howe said.
He has received no money or endorsements from the PAC, said Howe. "Frankly, (PAC) members don't all seem to be on the same wavelength. I've kind of written them off."
Meyer said the PAC has recruited no one. "It sounds like Mr. Harwood is running scared," he said. "Mr. Harwood is a very clever politician, and he is saying what he thinks are the right things to say."
Meyer said he thinks the PAC will support candidates who favor little government regulation of business and who vote for the good of the entire city, not just the interests of their individual council districts.
Some chamber officials say the behind-the-scenes debate about Howe's candidacy clearly illustrates the chamber's need to sever formal ties with the PAC.
"I currently have philosophical differences with the PAC," said Chris Pook, chamber president. "If I was involved in a PAC, I'm not sure I'd have got myself in a . . . boxed position where I could be accused of taking off after any council member. I think a PAC has to be a very subtly operated political machine."