Since its founding by fusion two years ago, the Ann Arbor / Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce has supported the election of Republicans Rick Snyder and Mark Ouimet and opposed a city income tax—all predictably conservative positions for business folks.
The chamber’s latest public policy initiative is a lot less predictable: it’s opposing a pair of bills in the state legislature that would prevent public employers from offering benefits to unmarried domestic partners and bar public unions from bargaining for them—a not-so-subtle swipe at the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens.
Though “defending” heterosexual marriage is a fixation for social conservatives, the chamber kept clear of the values debate. Leaders insist they made the call for solid business reasons.
“As a state, we cannot afford to be exclusionary when we’re trying to attract and retain talent,” wrote Sean Duval, the chamber’s public policy committee chair and owner of Golden Limousine International, in announcing the chamber’s position. “We are a better place because of the diversity of wonderful people who call this region home, and we want our public institutions to use every tool they have to attract and retain each and every bright individual.”
“The impetus for our position was realizing the universities would be affected by this,” Duval explains. “They’re important parts of our community, and there’s a strong business case to be made against these bills. The nation’s best companies offer competitive health care benefits, and, from a talent standpoint, you can’t take that recruiting tool out of the hands of our universities.”
“Ever since the merger, we’ve been trying to show that we represent the whole community,” adds Andy LaBarre, the chamber’s vice president for government relations. “And we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to make those points.” Duval says the chamber’s public policy committee, executive committee, and board were “overwhelmingly supportive” of the proposal. As with all the chamber’s public policy decisions, the 1,266 members found out after the fact.
“I’ve had a few good comments from the membership since the announcement, not as much as I anticipated,” says LaBarre, a former aide to congressman John Dingell. From the public, he says, “the feedback’s been good. People were pleasantly surprised by the case we made from a business perspective. This has nothing to do with a social agenda.” LaBarre says they’ve yet to get a negative comment.
No other chamber in the state has taken a position on the legislation, but LaBarre insists that the Ann Arbor–Ypsi group has done nothing extraordinary. “I don’t think our statement is setting the world on fire,” he says. “It’s really just a pretty common sense, Midwestern position.”