May 19, 2023 10:00am

Good News for the Chamber? Half Rate It Good Or Excellent.

But large numbers rate it as “fair.” And some, “poor” or “unacceptable.”

Photo of Bruce Dobie
Nashville, TN Correspondent

Power Poll Nashville members have decidedly mixed opinions when it comes to how well they think the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce is doing.

When asked to rate the performance of our city’s pro-business organization on various fronts—economic development, government relations, overall representation of business interests—about half described it as “excellent” or “good.” 30% described it as “fair,” and the remaining 20% selected “poor,” or “unacceptable.”

Members were also asked whether they agreed, or disagreed, with the decision by the mayor and Metro Council to defund the Chamber, pending expected Metro Council approval of the budget line. Mayor John Cooper’s final budget proposal to Metro Council includes no funding to the Chamber, ending for now the annual contributions which began in the early 90s to support the Chamber’s economic development work.

Just under 40% of Power Pollers agreed with the decision to eliminate the Metro contribution, while slightly more disagreed. Sharply divided, one would have to say.

How to interpret these numbers?

• On the one hand, one might conclude that the Chamber’s standing is pretty darn good. After all, some 80% feel the Chamber is doing an excellent, good, or fair job.

• On the other hand, others might see a not-so-great assessment. That’s because, looking at it from another viewpoint, approximately half think the Chamber is doing a poor, unacceptable, or merely fair job.

No doubt, which view you take of the results will be influenced by your general view of the Chamber.

Meanwhile, as we ourselves played with the numbers, we thought it might be instructive to assign each of these five choices a grade and come up with a GPA. (We awarded an A for “excellent,” a B for “good,” all the way down to an F for “unacceptable.”) Using that method, the Chamber would have had a grade point average of 2.4, or a C+.

Make of that what you will.

As to our monthly question on the mayor’s race, Power Poll members were asked to rate who they see as placing first and second. (With so many candidates in the field, the likelihood is great for a runoff between the top two finishers. Matt Wiltshire, according to responses, has the best chance of making a runoff, followed by (in order) state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, state Sen. Heidi Campbell, and Metro Councilman Freddie O’Connell. (Full list later.)

Here are the specific questions and answers in this month’s Power Poll:

Context to Questions 1 and 2:

And now, operating in a world where there are no such things as stupid questions, we ask: What is a Chamber of Commerce? We first sought answers at Google: “A chamber of commerce is a group of businesses that supports the interests of its members.” Then, we read the Nashville Chamber’s mission statement, where our chamber’s purpose is described this way: “to create economic prosperity by facilitating community leaders.”

To know our Chamber’s history is to appreciate its deep power and standing in local matters. In the 1960s, around the birth of modern Nashville, young Republican business leaders emerged on the scene to champion liquor-by-the-drink and consolidation of local government. Nelson Andrews and Pat Wilson were two of these more prominent leaders, and they were joined by newspaperman Eddie Jones, who would later serve for years as the Chamber’s top executive. Liquor-by-the-drink was an incredibly big deal to the local business community; they ultimately got it passed.

Importantly, these three men—Wilson, Andrews, and Jones—would go on to serve as the nucleus of a secret, offshoot organization called Watauga, which would exert a powerful presence in local and state affairs through the early ‘80s.

There is, therefore, great precedent for our local chamber being intimately connected to policy and politics. Businesspeople have opinions on things; it’s only natural that there should be an organization that concentrates their power and involvement.

Fast forward to the present day, where our Chamber is almost synonymous with its leader, Ralph Schulz, whose backslapping nature, effusive charm, and shameless snuff-dipping have blended nicely with the Nashville vibe. Hired from his nonprofit job 17 years ago at the Adventure Science Museum, Schulz’s supporters credit him with first-rate strategic management, outstanding board relations, and all-around good management.

Schulz has worked with a number of mayors over the years, and the go-go era of Karl Dean as mayor from 2007 to 2015 was probably the zenith of Chamber influence during his term. Then Megan Barry was elected. When she was forced to resign because of an affair with her bodyguard, someone had to take on the job of being the public face of an ongoing—and wildly expensive—transit proposal. Schulz became the man.
The transit referendum went down in flames. That was due to a variety of reasons. The previously very popular Barry was no longer a player. And the pro-transit messaging was vastly more complicated than the vote no crowd.

That was a big hiccup. But more Chamber policy hiccups came with the election of John Cooper, when the Chamber supported legislation that could have resulted in our mayor taking over our elected school board if student outcomes sank to certain levels. That royally angered the school board, Metro Council, and the mayor himself. Critics charged the Chamber with trying to “subvert democracy.” Soon, there was talk of withholding the money Metro had paid to the Chamber for years to handle the lion’s share of the city’s economic development work. That was kind of tragic, because most think the Chamber did a fine job of it and saved Metro a fair amount of money in the process. As the tit-for-tat continued, the money was whittled down, and whittled down some more, until now it’s being withheld altogether.

Schulz is widely considered to be a moderate Republican, although it’s not something he wears on his sleeve. Nevertheless he is most certainly a political animal who relishes the game. In the recent slugfests between our increasingly lefty Metro Council and our ultra-conservative state Legislature, many are upset he and the Chamber did not use their influence to stop the anti-Nashville bills that conservative legislators started mass producing. It is known that the Chamber fought to temper the “authority bills”—that is, the bills weakening Metro representation on the boards of the Nashville airport authority, convention center authority, and sports authority. However, as to the legislature’s measure reducing the size of Metro Council, the Chamber was seen as not having done much, if anything.

“A lot of people in this city were ready to die on the hill to stop the state from reducing Council and they viewed Ralph as the person to help,” says one Chamber insider. “But it was crickets.”

In a world where politics has gotten more angry and polarized, it is fair to say the Chamber has been drawn into the fray and skinned a knee or two. Schulz’s members generally are fond of him, and the Chamber’s own member surveys are positive about the role the Chamber plays. As to the Chamber being absent on the Council bill, Chamber defenders say it had no standing on this measure up at the Hill. It was a fight between our Council and their Legislature, and business interests weren’t even on the playing field.

Defenders also say the Chamber only takes on issues based on the votes of its board; it’s not an organization that charges off into the night based on the whims of its leadership. While its policy involvement in transit and education have experienced setbacks, they were undertaken with the full backing of members.

Politics can be rough. In recent years, the Chamber has experienced that first-hand.

Context to Question 3: The Mayor’s Race

What follows are the total numbers of votes the mayoral candidates received that would make them a top-2 finisher.

Matt Wiltshire had 625 votes projecting him to be a top 2 finisher.

Jeff Yarbro: 329

Heidi Campbell: 226

Freddie O'Connell: 213

Jim Gingrich: 74

Alice Rolli: 60

Sharon Hurt: 26

Vivian Wilhoite: 14

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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