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L.A. Area Chamber Names Chief

May 21, 2006|Lynn Doan | Times Staff Writer

A Kentucky businessman will take over as president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, replacing Russell "Rusty" Hammer, who resigned in September to battle leukemia, chamber officials have announced.

Hammer's five years as president were marked by chamber efforts to gain more influence on public policy -- efforts that his successor, Gary Toebben, said he would continue to build on.

Toebben will meet with chamber staff Monday. He moves into the position at an intriguing time for the city's business community as its historic adversaries in organized labor have acquired newfound influence -- punctuated by last year's election of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former labor organizer with many friends in the union movement.

Toebben said he recognized labor's influence in Los Angeles and pledged to seek "common ground" with the region's union leaders.

"In my 30-year chamber career, I have worked side by side with labor to build infrastructure and cause economic growth," said Toebben, who most recently was president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. "But if there is not a common ground, you have to be convincing in your positions so that the people who are elected are more favorable toward the business point of view."

George Kieffer, a former chairman of the chamber's board and a member of the committee that selected Toebben, said the new president's main challenge would be to develop a unified voice for the city's diverse business community.

"Membership is up. The chamber has cut out an identity as being a more progressive, practical business organization. Those are all advantages for him coming in," Kieffer said. "His disadvantage is going to be the fractured nature of Los Angeles."

Kieffer said the chamber's board of directors will be keeping a close eye on membership.

"I expect membership will grow more rapidly. He's got experience in that," he said. "Both membership and finances are going to be very important to the board."

Analysts say Toebben also will have his work cut out for him in the political arena.

"The labor movement is at the height of its political influence," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton who, with Kieffer and others, helped draft the City Charter in the late 1990s. "Business does not have the power it used to have."

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the region's largest labor group, recently elected its own new leader. Maria Elena Durazo, who in March became the first woman to head the organization, said she hoped to sit down with Toebben to find "issues of common concern."

"I want to extend my sincere congratulations to Mr. Toebben," Durazo said in a statement. "There are many issues of concern to working families in Los Angeles, from healthcare to good jobs, pensions and education. It is my hope to sit down with Mr. Toebben and to discuss these issues in depth."

Toebben, 58, who is married with four children, will be a first-time California resident. But he did happen to be in Newport Beach on a business trip during the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

"I woke up at 4 a.m. and my bed was shaking," he recalled. "That's got to count for something."

After having visited Los Angeles, Toebben said, he is troubled by its seeming loss of "competitiveness to attract and retain businesses."

"Those of us who live in different states have recruited businesses from Los Angeles and California," he said.

"It's important for business and government to make a strong case for Los Angeles' being an attractive place to do business."

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