It’s not talked about much, but the rivalry between Florida’s top business associations is real, and it’s beginning to show itself more in the 2010 elections.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida have long sparred for the position of top dog. And in an election year, where creating jobs and improving the economy are top priorities, the organizations are jockeying to increase their power, to slug their way into the spheres of influence that will help them accomplish their goals.
Barney Bishop has been the president and CEO of the loftier AIF since 2005, and Mark Wilson leads the Florida Chamber.
In the first paragraph of each of their biographies, it’s clear both want to be known as the leading voice for Florida business and the one that legislators and politicians think of first when they want to appeal to the business community.
“AIF was founded in 1920 and is most commonly referred to by the state press as ‘the most powerful business association in the state,’” reads Bishop’s bio.
Wilson’s bio uses similar language when it states, “Wilson serves as president and chief executive officer of Florida’s largest and most influential business advocacy organization.” In truth however, the chamber is known for its networking and association with smaller businesses across the state, while AIF enjoys the more powerful lobbying force for larger corporations.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Retail Federation all represent business interests in the state, but the way they do it often differs and sometimes creates a sense of enmity among them.
“Absolutely there’s a rivalry,” said Bishop. “I think it’s more about style and approach than it is about issues.”
Bishop will candidly admit that the chamber has some strong advantages. Its membership is about 14 times as large as AIF's, and with branches all over the state, it has grass-roots capabilities that AIF can’t match.
“But I think we’re the leader in the endorsement field," Bishop said. "We’re pretty dogged in what we do and how we do it.
"We draw a line in the sand and say if you cross it, we'll fight you," said Bishop. "That's the tenacity and persistence in what makes us different."
AIF’s endorsement process is fairly straightforward. The organization requires candidates to fill out a questionnaire and it conducts interviews to determine if their views best meet the members' needs.
Wilson says he doesn’t think there’s a rivalry at all.
“If this were a football team, the running back and the quarterback aren’t rivals,” he said. “They’re just different parts of the team.”
But the chamber is making a concerted effort to increase its prominence in Florida politics. It already outspends any other business organization to win elections. In the last election cycle, Wilson says, they spent $6 million, and in this year’s primary races they spent $3 million. “And we plan to double that for the general election,” said Wilson.
The Florida Chamber is trying to muscle its way into the endorsement realm, too -- but its credibility took what some chamber leaders consider a sock in the jaw on one significant endorsement last week.
For the first time in its 100-year history, the Florida Chamber made a pick in a gubernatorial primary race, endorsing Bill McCollum over Rick Scott and pumping significant amounts of money into McCollum's campaign.
Wilson said his group had only paid for pro-McCollum ads -- not anti-Scott ads. But the chamber has shown it's not averse to funding attack ads in some cases.
For example, a Treasure Coast columnist wrote a story slamming the chamber for paying for attack ads against Erin Grall in the race to succeed Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach, as the District 29 representative. The article, “Florida Chamber looks foolish in attack ads against Grall,” sharply criticized the organization for being out of touch, and attacking a first-time candidate who was well-liked in the community.
“The Florida Chamber is showing no shame,” the story snapped.
Wilson says he would risk controversy and do it all again if he had to.
“Florida will be better off when plaintiff trial lawyers are not in the Senate and in the House,” he said. “We have to make sure that people who run businesses, not people who sue businesses, are in office.”
Since McCollum lost in the Republican primary, the chamber has left the door open for both Rick Scott and Alex Sink, and potentially Bud Chiles if he were to reach out to them.
“We would welcome knowing more about Bud’s job creation plan, as well,” said Edie Ousley, a spokesperson for the chamber. Both Alex Sink and Rick Scott have had discussions this week with the chamber.
Endorsing gubernatorial candidates is one point where AIF and the Florida Chamber don’t have the same business interests at heart.
While the official announcement hasn’t been made, Bishop says AIF will endorse Rick Scott in the general election.
“We don’t change partners that we take to the dance. We’re going to stay with Rick Scott because he’s got a conservative philosophy,” Bishop said. “He understands what it takes for employers to survive in this economy.”
And while making it clear he has great respect for Alex Sink, Bishop said, “The difference is, Alex Sink says she’s a business-friendly Democrat.
“My comment is, that’s not true,” he continued. “She’s a business person who just happens to be a Democrat," he continued, "and that dog just ain't going to hunt.”
Meanwhile, the Florida Chamber told Sunshine State News that it still needs to compare the business plans of Alex Sink and Rick Scott before making its decision.
Part of the rivalry between AIF and the chamber is rooted in history. AIF was created just six years after the chamber and had many of the same founders. But another part of that rivalry exists because of the personalities leading the two organizations.
“Mark and I don’t get along very well together at all,” said Bishop. “I’ve tried to work with [him]. He didn’t see any advantage in working with us.”
Bishop says in many states the Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries organizations are combined. Florida is an outlier.
Both Wilson and Bishop say the idea of merging the two -- and possibly the Florida Retail Federation as well -- has been floating around for a while.
But the chances of it happening in the near future are slim.
While AIF doesn’t reveal publicly who sits on its board, some of the same business executives are board members for both AIF and the chamber, and sometimes even the Florida Retail Federation. And while it may make economic sense not to have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to each group, it’s the currency of power that holds more sway.
Lane Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-247-1063.
Nancy Smith contributed to this story.