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POWER PAC: Since Pat Dando became president of the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, contributions to its political action committee COMPAC are up significantly.

Flex Time

Under Pat Dando, the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce has amped up its political efforts—with mixed results

By Erin Sherbert

THE NOV. 4 election was about month away, and with a downtrodden economy, it appeared that a transportation tax like the BART measure was going to need all the help it could get. So San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a leading proponent of the BART tax, made some back-and-forth calls to the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce's president, Pat Dando, requesting some face time with her board.

Dando turned him down.

It seemed puzzling that Dando, the former vice mayor, would outright reject the mayor's invitation. Reed is a longtime friend of the organization—in fact, he's a former chairman of the Chamber's board of directors. To this day, the Chamber takes credit for helping him get elected. As one City Hall staffer bluntly put it: "When the mayor asks to speak to your board, you don't say, 'No.'"

Dando says this wasn't a snub, explaining that there were too many conflicting positions among board members about whether to endorse the BART measure this time around. She didn't want any individuals for or against the measure coming to speak to the board on this issue.

"That was why it was not the best use of the mayor's time to talk about it," Dando says.

While his staffers seemed perplexed about the rebuke, the mayor was nonplused. He went ahead with one of his senior advisers and drew up a list of Chamber board members who were sitting on the fence on the BART issue. Reed made a few calls and wrote some letters to those folks, hoping to convince enough of them that it would help sway the Chamber's endorsement in support of BART.

Dando says she encouraged the mayor's calls and letters.

Eventually, the Chamber overwhelmingly endorsed the measure, which barely passed at the polls.

"I was surprised," says Jeff Janssen, senior policy adviser to the mayor. "The Chamber had always endorsed BART in the past and it had been active in the BART campaigns. And it was a lot more work to get their endorsement than I thought it would be."

Money Talks

To many City Hall staffers, Dando's apparent initial ambivalence over BART made the business group's legislative agenda seem all that more unclear. There's no doubt the Chamber, which represents more than 2,000 businesses in the valley, has been on the losing side of some recent City Hall debates—most recently a heated fight over a living- wage ordinance guaranteeing higher pay to some airport workers. These losses are not exactly odd, considering that many on the council have ties to the South Bay Labor Council. That also explains why the Chamber has invested in looking for business-friendly candidates to run in local races.

Political insiders noted that since Dando became president of the Chamber in 2006, the group has taken its political fundraising activity to a whole new level. In 2004, before Dando took over, COMPAC—the Chamber's political action committee-—received roughly $105,000 in contributions. When Dando came on board, its fundraising leaped to $352,000 in contributions between January and October of 2008, according to campaign finance statements.

Dando's political prowess is exactly why the board selected her to run the Chamber, according to Bill Baron, who was chairman of the board when Dando was hired.

Having served 10 years on the City Council (two years as vice mayor), Dando, who is described as a tenacious politician, certainly knows the ropes of running a campaign and raising money.

The Chamber became especially active in the mayoral race in 2006, when the labor-backed Cindy Chavez was vying to become San Jose's next mayor. Dando and the Chamber stepped in, working hard to keep the labor candidate from becoming leader of San Jose politics. Dando's group rallied behind Michael Mulcahy in the primary, and shifted its support to Reed, a conservative Democrat, who won the runoff against Chavez.

"I will say that I'm going to work real hard to get someone elected who I think will do the best job for San Jose and the business community," Dando says, adding that Reed is still a friend of the business community.

But the Chamber hasn't always gotten a good return on its investment in local elections, political insiders say. It was probably unsettling to some Chamber members when Councilman Sam Liccardo unveiled his proposal for inclusionary zoning, which would have mandated more affordable housing citywide.

The Chamber had been one of the first major groups to support Liccardo in his 2006 race against the well-known Manny Diaz. It was the Chamber's support that helped establish Liccardo's credibility among political players, Liccardo says.

Many people believed Liccardo would be more sympathetic toward the business agenda until he gave a thumbs-up to the inclusionary zoning mandates, which some see as a financial burden on home builders.

"We were disappointed," Dando recalls.

Seeing that it was likely to be a losing battle from the start, Dando fought instead to get some concessions in the plan. At its Dec. 9 meeting, the council voted 9-2 to approve the new ordinance, requiring developers to build more affordable housing citywide. Before the council meeting, Dando spoke against them.

"I cannot stress enough how much of an effect the decline on the housing industry has had on Silicon Valley," Dando said. "There are so many jobs that are dependent upon housing. So the impact on the business community is huge."

Liccardo knew he was likely to take some political hits for his affordable housing plan, but he pushed forward. "I went to a round table at the Chamber board within a month or two of introducing it," Liccardo says. "Obviously, there were a lot of folks who were upset about it."

But Dando, who prides herself on being the kind of community rep who's good at "getting over it," is staying upbeat on the issue, going as far as to calling the inclusionary zoning vote a "victory" for the Chamber. "It turned out to be a very big win," she says.

Why is she framing it as a win? Dando points out that the council decided to hold off on implementing such "onerous" mandates on developers until the economy picks up.

But even as she calls it a win for the business folks, one can't overlook the fact that Councilman Pete Constant and Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio, two big Chamber allies, were the dissenting votes on inclusionary zoning.

Losing With Grace

Perhaps Dando has learned to take the glass-half-full-outlook, having been a lone vote more often than not during her time on the council. As a moderate Republican and fiscal conservative, Dando's politics haven't always been in step with this heavily Democratic city, as evidenced by her loss to Ron Gonzales in the 1998 mayoral election. Dando, a mother of three, hasn't always taken the popular position at City Hall.

While on the council, she pushed for porn filters at the city's libraries, an issue that she lost, and which has since resurfaced under Councilman Pete Constant.

Dando also recalls fighting the living-wage concept as a councilmember, a position she has maintained as the Chamber's CEO. Dando says she is keeping close tabs on the issue, making sure it doesn't spill over into the private sector After all, it goes against one of the basic tenets of the Chamber, which is to make it as easy to do business in Silicon Valley.

"I do think the business community, in general, would like to see City Hall be more business-friendly," Dando says.

City Hall staffers say if the Chamber appears weak when it comes to pushing more business-friendly policy, it's in part because they aren't visible enough on the 18th floor of City Hall, where the councilmembers' and mayor's offices are located. As one City Hall staffer said: "I think the ACLU has spent more time on the 18th floor than they have."

Maybe that explains a recent "oversight" (in Dando's words) that occurred when the city staff didn't invite the Chamber to be part of a discussion on how to attract a small business to a City Hall retail site that has sat vacant for several years.

Dando, a sharp-tongued Texas native, vented her frustrations at the podium during a Dec. 2 council hearing, when the group was bantering about whether to drop the "labor peace" clause in the proposal—a city policy that says any company that bids on the space must promise to work with labor.

Dando pointed out that the city's attempts to get a Starbucks in that site failed because of the labor peace clause.

"I was disappointed that the Chamber was not asked to be a part of this," Dando told the council. "I'm under no disillusionment that you are going to step away from labor peace. I can look at each one of you and know exactly how you are going to vote before we started this conversation."

The fact that the Chamber was snubbed clearly infuriated her closest allies on the council, including Pete Constant, who lobbied strongly to have the council let go of the labor peace clause.

"I was ticked off," Constant says. "How can we do something that affects business without checking with the Chamber? And when we say 'community leaders'—we don't consider Pat a community leader?"

Business as Usual

Three days after the Nov. 4 election, Dando was spotted at the downtown Il Fornaio restaurant having lunch with Rose Herrera, a popular Democrat who had just won the District 8 council race against Republican Pat Waite. Clearly, the Chamber has had high hopes that Herrera, a businesswoman, will carry a business-friendly agenda. The group strongly endorsed her in the June 3 primaries, where she was up against six candidates.

In fact, the Chamber's political action committee spent $27,120 on mailers and polling supporting Herrera's campaign, according to finance records. The Chamber also spent big bucks carpet-bombing District 8 with hit pieces on Craig Mann, who was considered to be a likely front-runner.

Chamber board members say they are looking to Herrera to help carry out their agenda. At the same time, the Chamber is well aware that Herrera's votes might not align with its agenda, especially since she was also endorsed by the Labor Council.

"As a CEO of the chamber I should say, 'Absolutely, I helped someone get elected I want them with me all the time,'" Dando says. "But I don't think that's good. I don't expect that if I work hard and support someone that they are going to be lock-step with me."

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