By Kevin Bogardus - 01/12/12 10:00 AM EST
Tom Collamore is in the brand-protection business.
The longtime Washington hand manages message and media for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Washington’s perennial lobbying power, as senior vice president of communications and strategy.
“My goal is to leverage the sum of the parts as best we can, because the Chamber has one of the most valuable and powerful brands around. We take that very seriously,” Collamore, 52, told The Hill.
The Chamber has become a household name in Washington, thanks in large part to its staying power. Founded in 1912, the organization will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year — a milestone the group plans to promote heavily.
Reminders of the Chamber’s 100 years will be prominent on the business group’s logo, on a massive banner outside headquarters and on special-edition coins that Chamber officials will hand out. An “all-hands celebration” is also planned to honor the anniversary in April, Collamore said.
A key element of the campaign will be the launch of a website that consolidates the Chamber’s media outreach — Twitter, Facebook, blogs, video — in one place.
“FreeEnteprise.com is going to be a daily-refreshed place to go to not only get new content from the Chamber’s own staff writers and policy experts, but from outside folks with diverse opinions,” Collamore said, noting that columns from Commerce Secretary John Bryson; Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute; and Al From, who led the Democratic Leadership Council, will appear on the site.
The Chamber was a major player in almost every Washington debate last year — from the increase in the debt ceiling to the passage of trade deals to the controversy over the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The business group and its affiliate, the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, together spent about $45.8 million on lobbying in the first three quarters of 2011, according to disclosure records.
Collamore, a former senior aide to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, has played his part, helping to coordinate campaigns around the Chamber’s jobs plan and a “road show” for regulatory reform led by former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and ex-White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. He cited a saying from Tom Donohue, the Chamber’s president, about how the business group has to handle 300 issues on any given day.
“He’s not far off,” Collamore said.
Collamore’s work at the Chamber has earned the admiration of colleagues past and present.
Kirk Blalock, a partner at lobby firm Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, worked under Collamore when they were both at Philip Morris. He compared Collamore favorably to his other prior bosses: GOP heavyweights Karl Rove, Haley Barbour and Lamar Alexander.
“Tom is up there with the other three,” Blalock said. “He’s extremely smart and very politically savvy. He’s top-notch. Donohue is lucky to have him.”
The Chamber’s influence on Capitol Hill often results in clashes with the White House.
President Obama made an effort to reconcile with the business group last February when he delivered a speech at its headquarters. But the White House and the Chamber are already at odds in 2012, following Obama’s decision to make recess appointments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the NLRB.
Collamore said relations with the Obama White House have been “a rollercoaster,” and predicted election-year politics will not help. But he said the business group interacts with the Obama administration in daily meetings and will continue to do so.
“The higher-level rhetoric and politics does get in the way from time to time,” Collamore said. “It would be helpful to not have the heated rhetoric that surrounds some of these actions. … It doesn’t stop us from working hard … to make progress.”
Collamore, a Drew University graduate, is familiar with presidential politics, having worked on several national campaigns.
After working on George H.W. Bush’s 1980 presidential campaign, Collamore landed a job as an aide to Malcolm Baldrige, President Reagan’s Commerce secretary.
“It was a classic Washington deal. I thought I would be here two years. I have been here for 30,” said Collamore, who had to defer and then never ended up attending Wake Forest law school.
The Bloomfield, Conn., native said he got involved in politics in high school, volunteering for then-Connecticut state Sen. Lew Rome’s (R) and President Ford’s 1976 campaigns. He later was a driver for Rome on the campaign trail, which Collamore said is the best job in politics.
“It’s how I met George [H.W.] Bush,” Collamore said, recalling driving the future president to a fundraiser.
Collamore’s experience in politics will be an asset as the Chamber’s reach spreads to election-year races. The business group spent more than $32.8 million on electioneering communications in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group.
Collamore wouldn’t estimate how much the Chamber plans to spend on politicking for the 2012 election, but said the group’s commitment would be substantial.
“The mantra around here is if you’re not growing, you’re dying. We will be in 2012 in a robust manner,” he said.
Scott Reed, who managed former Sen. Bob Dole’s (R-Kan.) 1996 presidential campaign, has been brought on as the Chamber’s new political strategist. The business group has already aired ads in six congressional races.
Though the Chamber often leans Republican in its endorsements, Collamore said its goal is not a GOP-controlled Senate in 2013. He noted that retiring Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) was once in the running for a Chamber endorsement and that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) “is someone who will get a close look.”
“Our thing is going to be to just focus on individual races where we can make a difference for friends of business, and the numbers will just sort themselves out.”