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The Politely Evil Empire: How the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Became the Greatest (Bumbling) Enemy of America

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Meet America's Business Cheerleaders

People tend to view chambers of commerce in the same colors as the Rotary Club or the Knights of Columbus: eager do-gooders lending a helpful hand in the name of economy and country. It's a largely accurate assessment — at least on the local level.

In Davenport, Iowa, it means hosting music festivals like River Roots Live, a "quality of life initiative" that brings 30,000 people downtown each year, says Jennifer Walker of the Quad Cities chamber.

In Largo, Florida, it means introducing the small and struggling to the guys with all the money. "They want to meet heads of the hospitals, heads of the banks, so they can generate business from one another," says Tom Morrissette, the president of that city's chamber.

In Pasadena, California, it means pushing a business agenda without the sectarian shrieking of Washington. "We can still go for a beer after work and talk about our kids," says chamber president Paul Little.

These are sainted duties. Local chambers chiefly represent small businesses, which collectively make for the nation's largest and most stable employer. After all, the florist and the restaurateur are more likely to sponsor a softball team than ship their jobs to Indonesia. Neither is prone to demanding public welfare under threat of bolting for Tennessee. The local chambers are their cheerleaders, providing mercantile expertise, all with a cheerful disposition built to illuminate the possible.

But that reputation is being smeared by their national umbrella group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a nonprofit group that sounds innocuous but, since it began supporting extreme right-wing ideas and funding controversial candidates, has quietly become the baddest bully in Washington. And its behavior is causing dozens of smaller, dues-paying chambers — and some of America's most prominent companies — to flee its ranks.

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Pete Kotz is a former editor of Cleveland Scene. Copyright Voice Media Group, reprinted this week with permission.

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