Top-level turnover sparks questions about Chamber

Top-level turnover sparks questions about Chamber
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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the powerful pro-business lobby, is undergoing a transition, with its entire communications team turning over and several other staffers on the move in recent months.

The Chamber has downplayed the changes, but some on K Street worry the organization is struggling to keep its footing.

Losing the whole press team is “a reflection of an organization that’s in poor health,” a Capitol Hill veteran told The Hill.

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It’s been a time of change for the Chamber, which began to revamp its lobbying team in 2016 due to the exit of its then-top lobbyist, Bruce Josten. Suzanne Clark was promoted to lead the team and became first-in-line behind longtime president and CEO Thomas Donohue.

Josten had been at the Chamber for 42 years, and his departure sent shockwaves through K Street.

Now changes at the press team are sparking new speculation about the state of the organization.

Blair Latoff Holmes, former vice president of media and external communications, left in January after nearly a decade at the Chamber. Katherine Knight, former senior manager of media and external communications, left on Friday for the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting. The Chamber’s current press contact, Stacy Day, director of media and external communications, is departing in March. The other two members of the team left in February.

“The U.S. Chamber has a long tradition of recruiting and hiring top talent. Good talent gets noticed, and when members of our staff embark on new professional adventures, we send them on with thanks and good wishes,” Caroline Swann, vice president of talent solutions at the Chamber, told The Hill.

“Now, as ever, we’re committed to building and supporting the strongest, most effective advocacy team for America’s business community,” she added.

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The Chamber announced its interim media team on Tuesday, according to an internal email obtained by The Hill. It is led by Eric Wohlschlegel, who led the Chamber’s media team for nine years before moving to the American Petroleum Institute.

Matt Letourneau, from the Chamber’s Global Energy Institute, and Justin Hakes, from the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform, will assist Wohlschlegel until a media team is hired.

Some K Street watchers say the departures are not limited to the press office and worry the Chamber has lost a step. Many former Chamber executives have indeed found prominent perches at other groups or by hanging their own shingles.

Karen Harbert, who was president of the Chamber’s Global Energy Institute, announced her exit last week and is now president and CEO of the American Gas Association. Amanda Eversole, with the Chamber for more than a decade before leaving in 2016, was named chief operating officer at the American Petroleum Institute in August. Thomas Collamore, former executive vice president and counselor, left in 2018 to start a consulting firm.

One source traced the changes to Josten’s exit in 2016.

“From an external perspective, it was clear that something dramatically changed after Bruce Josten left and the case has been the subject of speculation for a few years on the Hill,” the Capitol Hill veteran said.

“Josten was on a different level; he was like a member. That’s something that’s earned,” the source added.

Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, came on in January 2017, after Josten left. Before, Bradley was president of the advisory firm Chartwell Policy Solutions and spent two decades on the Hill working for a number of Republican lawmakers, including ex-House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorEmbattled Juul seeks allies in Washington GOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care' 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington MORE (R-Va.) and then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyI'm not a Nazi, I'm just a dude: What it's like to be the other Steve King Trump finds consistent foil in 'Squad' Tlaib says she won't visit Israel after being treated like 'a criminal' MORE (R-Calif.).

“Bruce was kind of an institution unto itself and a force of nature in this city. That said, I’ve never pretended to be Bruce Josten,” Bradley told The Hill.

“I think that we are successfully building on the strength that the Chamber’s had particularly over the last 20 to 25 years while simultaneously adjusting to the real changes in communications and advocacy and association membership,” he continued.

To some, the departures can be explained by the fierce competition for top K Street talent among business groups.

The Chamber’s defenders note that the organization is bringing in new talent. John Wood, formerly with Hughes Hubbard, was named chief legal officer and general counsel in June, replacing Lily Fu Claffee, who left in 2018 to be Fox News’s general counsel.

The Chamber also brought in Sara Armstrong from the Republican National Committee in 2017 to lead political affairs and federation relations, and Mike Morello from Inc. to be chief product officer of small business in 2018.

The turnover at the Chamber also comes at a time of great change for the influence world.

“The Chamber, like other trade associations, is going through massive changes. As D.C. political engagement modernizes, it’s no longer focused on former members of Congress from the ’90s and early 2000s who can ‘influence’ current leaders,” a Republican lobbyist told The Hill. “It’s focused on being quick, nimble, lean and able to adapt.”

The lobbyist added that “organizations like the Chamber, with massive internal bureaucracies, do not adapt well or easily.”

Bradley pushed back on that criticism.

“No question that the way everyone communicates is changing, and we are changing with it,” Bradley told The Hill.

“Our big event of the year that we just did in January is the ‘State of American Business.’ The old school way of doing it is our CEO stands up and gives a speech and the people in the room cover it,” he continued. “This year, that speech is an anchor to a whole lot of other activities.” He highlighted, for instance, an hourlong Twitter chat he conducted.

Yet, for all the questions about the Chamber, the group still remains incredibly influential.

Lawmakers covet its endorsement and the organization can boast deep pockets, spending the most on lobbying each year going back to 2001, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In 2018, it spent $94.8 million on lobbying, up from $82.2 million in 2017 but below the nearly $104 million spent in the 2016 election year.

But some questioned whether those numbers obscured how other business groups were stepping up their game.

“Other trade associations are benefiting from the Chamber’s lack of leadership,” a source familiar with the issues said. “They’re getting talent, they’re leading on coalitions.”

The source also worried that the Chamber is focused more on “the key vote letter or a press release ... rather than coalitions and advocacy campaigns.”

Bradley disputed that claim, saying the Chamber was vigorous in its work and in taking a lead on important issues.

“We’ve always viewed all of these things as kind of tools in the toolbox that we use to advocate our member’s positions,” he told The Hill. “We are no more or less using coalitions than we have before.”

“Just this last week, we had about 60 companies and associations here in the building talking about H.R. 1,” he said, pointing to a coalition House Democrats’ sweeping reform bill that would put tougher restrictions on lobbying. “Needless to say, we’re against it.”

The Chamber has also been involved in the fight over data privacy legislation, and it is one of the leaders of the new USMCA Coalition, announced last week to help pass President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE’s new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.

The debate over the Chamber’s health, though, highlights its prominence and outsize role in Washington’s influence world

The Republican lobbyist who spoke to The Hill said Trump had changed how Washington operates and that all lobbying groups were looking for a new playbook.

“In general, the Chamber, and others like it, don’t have nearly the sway and clout they used to,” the lobbyist said.

Bradley acknowledged the Chamber was undergoing changes but dismissed the idea the group had lost influence. And he said the Chamber was ready for any challenges ahead.

“The real tragedy would be if everything always stayed the same,” he told The Hill.