Where’s the Voice of Business?

The mouse that roared squeaked

by James A. Bacon

As the General Assembly considers a host of issues that could have devastating consequences for Virginia’s business climate — tax increases, $15 minimum wage, repeal of the right-to-work law, a death tax, trial lawyer-friendly anti-discrimination legislation, and the list goes on — the business community has been remarkably quiet.

Once upon a time, when business spoke — like in the old E.F. Hutton commercial — Virginia listened. Now, it seems, business isn’t speaking, and nobody’s listening.

The silence of Virginia’s business community struck me when reading a Roanoke Times op-ed today in which Terry Durkin, vice president of public policy for the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce, expressed muted reservations about the minimum-wage and right-to-work bills. Whoah! Where did he come from? When’s the last time I heard from anyone in the business community who wasn’t bleating about safe, non-controversial topics?

Durkin’s op-ed begins with a nod to Virginia’s new political realities: “As a new majority prepares to take its place in both the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate…” And then it proceeds in a placating tone: “We are encouraged by signs that the new majority will be supportive of proposals that encourage business collaboration with the educational community….”

Only then does Durkin note that “we are concerned” by minimum-wage and right-to-work legislation that would lay waste to much of Virginia’s economy outside of the urban crescent, including, of course, the Roanoke Valley. “Those two policies, if implemented,” he said with vast understatement, “could have significant negative effects on job growth and employment in our region.”

I am no longer involved with state or local chambers of commerce, but I do remember how, when I was editor and publisher of Virginia Business magazine 20+ years ago, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Merchants Association, and the Virginia Manufacturers Association, just to name the most prominent, were among the most visible lobbies in the General Assembly, and among the most influential voices in the community. Those days, it seems, are long gone. I see almost nothing from those organizations anymore.

Why? What has changed? Has a new generation of business leaders risen to power in these organizations? Are they less confident in the rightness of their cause, and therefore less assertive than their predecessors?

Or does the media simply ignore them? Has the change occurred in the newsrooms of Virginia? Has the new generation of Virginia journalists stopped caring what business thinks and turned instead to lefty/progressive professors and advocacy groups as their go-to sources for everything?

Perhaps businesses have given up on the battle to influence public opinion in order to focus attention on the legislature. There certainly is no lack of business lobbyists in the General Assembly, and businesses still contribute big bundles to political campaigns. But all the money and lobbyists in the world can’t sustain business-friendly legislation if the public and the media are hostile. If the business community isn’t willing to combat destructive policies in the realm of ideas, they will lose in the long run.

So, I applaud Durkin for speaking up. I just wish he’d speak louder and more forcefully. And I wish he wasn’t out there by himself.