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VOTER EDUCATION: Springfield chamber Education Task Force Chair Elizabeth Wente, left, and Vice Chair Sarah Hough, right, ask 2023 SPS Board of Education candidates about their positions related to business.
provided by Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce
VOTER EDUCATION: Springfield chamber Education Task Force Chair Elizabeth Wente, left, and Vice Chair Sarah Hough, right, ask 2023 SPS Board of Education candidates about their positions related to business.

Advocating for Business: Chamber changes approach to elections

Posted online

As the April 2 election approaches with seven candidates vying for three seats on the Springfield Public Schools Board of Education, the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce is looking to educate its members on their positions.

The chamber discontinued endorsements of school board candidates prior to the 2023 election. Instead, a forum was held in March 2023 to introduce all candidates to a live audience.

Morrow said the chamber never endorsed candidates for Springfield City Council directly.

“About 15 years ago, the chamber and the Home Builders Association were both concerned about the quality of the work that was happening on City Council and the lack of engagement around growth and development issues in particular,” he said.

That spurred creation of the Springfield Good Government Committee political action committee in 2008, he said.

“Neither of those organizations was in the business of endorsing candidates for City Council, but both wanted to help,” he said.

Now, the chamber is engaged in the slow process of dissolving the PAC, which it shares with the Home Builders Association of Greater Springfield, Missouri, and which in the past provided monetary and campaign support to Springfield City Council candidates.

On the most recent financial statement filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission, donations to the PAC came from local and chain businesses, ranging from roughly $100 donations by Texas Roadhouse and Locke and Stache Media LLC to $4,671 from Great Southern Bank, the highest donation of the quarter.

“At the time, the big challenge was you had people who would be great members of City Council and good community servants, but they didn’t know the first thing about running a campaign and didn’t really want to,” he said.

By helping with their campaigns, he said, the organization eliminated a barrier to entry into politics for those candidates.

Over the PAC’s 15-year history, Morrow said checks to candidates got smaller, and the financial support they received from a broad base of supporters in the community got larger.

“I think our board really evaluated that and spent a couple of years, really, thinking through that work,” he said. “The last time that the Springfield Good Government Committee was involved in elections was last year, and every candidate they endorsed and supported won.”

In 2023, the Good Government Committee funded the successful campaigns of three council candidates. According to Missouri Ethics Council reports, Citizens for Ken McClure, who was elected mayor, received a monetary donation of $5,000 and three in-kind donations totaling $14,974 for research and canvassing. Citizens for Callie Carroll received a $5,000 monetary donation and in-kind contributions of $11,349 for research and canvassing. Citizens for Derek Lee also received a $5,000 donation, plus $11,349 in-kind for research and canvassing.

The 2021 election also saw Good Government Committee funding for candidates, with $20,000 in monetary donations and $3,000 in-kind provided to Brent Brown for Springfield, who lost the election to Craig Hosmer; $16,000 in monetary donations and $6,500 in-kind to Committee to Elect Matt Simpson; and $19,000 in monetary donations and $8,110 in-kind to Committee to Elect Heather Hardinger. Citizens for Ken McClure received $20,000 in monetary donations and $3,000 in-kind. Simpson, Hardinger and McClure won in the council election.

The chamber will remain active on the recruitment side, Morrow said.

“We still want to recruit business-minded candidates, but the same barriers don’t exist today that existed then. There are different kinds of barriers now,” he said.

Endorsements no more
For Springfield school board elections, the chamber had endorsed candidates for some 20 years, ending in 2022, according to Morrow.

“That was a member-driven process, and it was really driven by the fact that there were school board candidates who had kind of a single-issue focus and were really narrow in that sense, and it was hurting our ability to attract businesses here,” he said.

Through endorsements, Morrow said the chamber identified for its members the candidates most in line with issues of importance to the business community.

“In more recent years, what we were hearing was that the way people approach their decision-making about who they’re looking to vote for is different than the way they did it in the past,” Morrow said. “They were less interested in things going into a closed-door session with a lot of work happening and an endorsement coming out the other end.”

A shift to an education-based model happened with school board races in the 2023 election, Morrow said. Now, the chamber surveys all candidates and captures and synthesizes information to distribute to members in a voter guide.

The organization also offers an opportunity for members to meet and hear directly from candidates, Morrow said. In 2023, that took the form of a forum.

Personal meetings seem to be important to members, Morrow said.

“It’s not as simple as putting a Good Housekeeping seal of approval on them,” he said. “You really need to be able to tease out, what’s the candidate’s philosophy on governing? What’s the candidate’s approach to key issues that have a direct impact on long-term and short-term workforce needs for employers? Do they handle governance in a way that’s attractive to or that repels new business?”

Chamber Board Chair Brian Hammons said education can be very helpful for members, and candidates also learn by interacting with council.

“We want to focus on things that can help move us forward,” Hammons said. “We want to be part of the unity of advocating for the good of the entire Springfield community, particularly the business community.”

Charles Taylor is a former SPS board member and, with Chad Courtney, was one of the last two school board candidates endorsed by the chamber with his reelection bid in 2022. Taylor lost that election.

“The chamber had a strong and positive influence on public schools understanding that they are central to the cultural and economic growth of any community,” Taylor said. “I appreciated it. I was proud of it, and I think it demonstrated – imperfectly, of course, given the outcome – that I had supporters from across the political spectrum.”

Taylor said he understands why the chamber would want to discontinue its endorsement of candidates.

“I certainly understand it, as we’ve become so divided politically and with the absence of goodwill with those we might disagree with,” he said. “I understand why they might not run the risk of endorsing folks.”

He added that he heard arguments that said a chamber endorsement meant the organization would have outsized impact on the election and the candidate.

“I never felt that pressure to adapt to a chamber-friendly approach,” he said.

PAC dissolving
The Good Government Committee’s Jan. 16 disclosure report with the Missouri Ethics Commission shows money on hand at the close of the reporting period of $70,092, with expenditures over the three-month reporting period of $7,758. Those expenditures covered legal fees to Husch Blackwell LLP, accounting fees to FORVIS LLP and website costs to Victory Enterprises of Davenport, Iowa.

“There are still a few steps that you have to take to dissolve that,” said Lauren Mustoe, vice president of public affairs for the chamber.

Eventually, the money in the fund will be transferred to the Committee for the Future, which Morrow said is a chamber PAC that formed in 2001 and exists solely for action on ballot issue initiatives.

One current member of council who has been a vocal opponent of chamber involvement is Hosmer.

“It’s not necessarily a problem with the chamber – it’s a problem with the city, and whether the city should be a member of the chamber when the chamber runs council campaigns,” he said. “If the city’s going to be involved on issues and be a member of the chamber, I think that brushes up against the line of whether that’s ethical or not for the city.”

He said in the past, city staff would run action items by the Good Government Committee, which would provide feedback.

“The chamber would make suggestions or changes and they would bring it to council, but we wouldn’t even know what the original proposal was,” Hosmer said.

More recently, other organizations have had similar opportunities, he said, citing the Sierra Club’s input along with the chamber into a recently adopted energy efficiency code.

“Everybody had some say in it,” he said. “It wasn’t perfect for anybody, but things work out better with different or divergent perspectives. It shouldn’t be just one side that has a say.”

Morrow said complaints like that became a disproportionate lightning rod for the chamber.

“Particularly given the trajectory of the last 15 years, with most of these campaigns, it’s better for us to just say we built something good here, and there are a lot more engaged people in this process,” Morrow said. “That’s a win. Let’s take it, and let’s continue to recruit candidates who will serve really well in the city.”

A new PAC, United Springfield PAC, was formed in October 2023 and is chaired by Jim Anderson, former president of the chamber, and Terri McQueary.

Like the Good Government Committee, United Springfield supports nonpartisan school board and council candidates. Its website says it is independent and nonpartisan and decries political polarization and the high cost of running a campaign. It states, “Nonpartisan elected officials serve Springfield better without the influence of divisive partisan politics.”

United Springfield’s January quarterly report shows $93,367 raised in the 2023 calendar year and $89,100 on hand at the close of the reporting period. No expenditures on candidate committees are reported.

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