One of the hot topics in our current City Council elections is the The Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce. Today’s TW unveiled the candidates to whom the chamber’s BizPac has chosen to offer funding and endorsements in this year’s council election.
Tulsa has long been a city full prone to conspiracy theories. It would appear that after years of supposed “back room deals,” some of the public has come to expect, not that those deals might happen, but rather that nothing happens in this town without being the result of secret power playing. The chamber nearly always gets top billing in these theories. Their reputation is that they operate in a cloud of secrecy and limited disclosure and that they overstep their bounds without shame. Simply, some believe that they are the big, bad nasty chamber of string pullers and that if they can’t just stick the basics of promoting the city, charming potential employers, and exhorting local business development, then they’re doing more harm than good.
Naturally, their decision to engage in the local political scene so overtly, has spawned a great deal of speculation and has fueled the fires of distrust and frustration. The primary assertion, as I’ve heard it, is that the BizPac is one big, fat conflict of interest, because the Chamber bids on and receives city funds. Theoretically, the very people they are helping to elect, might someday be the same people making decisions regarding their funding, etc. Some believe that candidates are being “bought,” by the chamber’s $1000, or $2500 campaign donations. I suppose the theorizing then dictates that the candidates will then be obligated to vote in the way the chamber wants them to, not just on issues related to chamber funding, but according to the chamber’s ongoing separate agenda.
I tell you this so that you understand the context for the rest of the post. I’m not agreeing with those sentiments. I’m not disagreeing with them. I’m simply sharing what I believe to be the sentiment of at least some of our public. Reading local blogs, message boards, and comment sections will likely lead you to the same conclusions regarding the public’s stance on the chamber. Discredit those people all you will, but they exist, they are plentiful, and they love to theorize about how it all “really goes down.”
Some have speculated that the mayor, Karl Ahlgren (his friend/political consultant), and the chamber higher-ups have had one of those famous “back room” meetings and contrived a plan to replace our current councilors with their own set. The chamber was, in fact, involved in recruiting candidates. Even if it was just in one casual conversation with Daryl Woodard (as Woodard stated in a public forum), Karl had input into the redistricting. The theories abound. The public, with the help of the local paper, has put pieces together (whether accurate or not) and come to the conclusion that this was all a big secret plot. Those theories maintain that those powers that be have pulled strings and that their latest decisions were about which candidates will be funded by BizPac. Trust me, you’ll read this in a blog or on Tulsanow.org/forum, or on the paper’s comments section.
So where do I come in? What’s my response? What’s my involvement?
Here’s the thing. I don’t really care to keep anybody’s secrets when it comes to our local government. It should be open. It should be honest. It should be transparent. I don’t care if Karl’s reputation continues to evolve/devolve and I don’t care if I upset those supposed powers that be. There will be no mystery regarding the part that involves me.
So, because I know that so many out there are suspicious or curious or something, I’m going to tell you every detail I can remember about my experience with BizPac and what I believe to be the truth about the process.
Here goes. The first I really learned about BizPac came from Karl Ahlgren. He’s a political consultant, currently contracted by my opponent. Karl and his partner, Fount Holland, came to Tulsa for a meeting and pitched their services. While I was aware of Karl’s experience and knowledge, I chose not to hire him as my consultant, largely because I didn’t feel that his track record as a ruthless operative was consistent with my approach and because I felt I already had a strong team in place. Karl’s thing works, it’s just not for me. So, if his reputation held true, this prompted him, (I’m only guessing here), to go find someone else to run against me for the District 4 seat. He has a living to make, you know? Liz Hunt had been running for State Senate for a couple of years, and after an unfortunate redistricting, was going to have to cancel her campaign for Tom Adelson’s seat, which she started while Adelson was in office, but running for mayor. Karl was clearly familiar with Liz and when I opted against hiring him, he became available to work for her. I don’t know for a fact that he went after her. Theoretically, Liz just suddenly became as passionate about local politics as she had been for state politics the two and a half years prior and called Karl out of the phonebook. Here’s part of a facebook message from Liz to me around that time:
“I may have shared that I have actively been campaigning for the state senate for the past 2.5 years, given the recent outcome of the redistricting efforts, I’m in the process of dismanteling my campaign. I was recently approached to run for CC although I would much rather support a strong candidate that I connect w/ and leverage the resources I have procured (including donor lists) , to benefit another candidate’s campaign.”
Like I mentioned, it was sent on facebook and I didn’t get back to her as quickly as I would’ve through e-mail. By the time I did, she had decided to run. I’ve got to get better about my facebook messaging, I suppose.
Regardless, Karl was my early cheerleader and is how I know most of what I know. When he heard that I was thinking about running, he made contact. He called me repeatedly. He encouraged me to run. He talked about how much money I would raise and that I was a great candidate. He spoke of motivated donors and of a PAC (or at least a group of people who wanted to influence the council elections) he was working with. I assume this includes Ben Latham of GBR properties, as he’s been vigorously emailing a fundraising letter for a supposedly “vetted” group of candidates. Karl also knew something about what was happening with the chamber, though I’m not under the impression that he was the one actually pulling strings there. As this process has gone on, several conversations have happened that have caused me to come to that conclusion. It’s amazing to me the degree to which people are going to avoid association with Karl Ahlgren right now. Anyway, I’m guessing that he’s working with Ben Latham and his underground group of political influencers, but only loosely (or not at all) with the chamber. The chamber is off the hook on this one as far as I can tell.
On July 14th, I was contacted by Gwendolyn Caldwell, the chamber’s vice-president of government affairs. It was an e-mail sent to all candidates asking us to schedule a time to meet with the BizPac. I assumed at the time that I was not likely to be the candidate they chose to support. Liz has been an active participant in Chamber functions and was now working with Karl. Remember, I assumed at the time that Karl was more involved than I now believe him to be. I debated going to the meeting, but embraced the idea that every group should endorse and support me (even the chamber), and that I’d accept all endorsements. I trusted that I could clearly explain myself if any of them aroused suspicion. I decided that if I’m going to claim to be the best candidate for our city, I should act with confidence in seeking and accepting endorsements, regardless of which group they are from. Just because a group is suspicious, it doesn’t mean I’m any less qualified or deserving of their endorsement. I will continue to resent the simplistic insinuation that an endorsement indentures me to its giver. That’s my character we’re talking about. I take it seriously.
I met with the BizPac on July 20th. Sitting around the table were Cassie Reese the TyPros chair, Gwendolyn Caldwell, Mike Thornbrugh from QuikTrip, David Page is the chair of the committee, Becky Frank of STF PR and vice-chair, Michael Christian the past TyPros chair, Nick Doctor who used to work as a council aid and is now in government relations for the chamber and then two or three others whose names I don’t remember (sorry, if you’re reading this). These were all very cool folks. They asked great questions, were fun to talk to, and are great Tulsans across the board. Say what you will about the chamber. The people in that room are a great bunch of people.
Here’s part of their e-mail to me regarding format:
Provide the Tulsa Metro Chamber and its stakeholders an opportunity to interview the city council candidates and have discussion on important issues facing the City of Tulsa.
45 minutes total length
5 min – candidate opening statement
30 min – Formal Questions (from TulsaBiz PAC finance committee)
The formal questions will be questions given to all candidates for sake of consistency. These will be written and pre-approved by the TulsaBiz PAC finance committee members only.
10 min – open discussion
The open discussion period is when members of the audience will have an opportunity to ask a question
And that is, in fact, how it went.
They did ask questions about their 11 point platform. I will include the platform items and a part of their stance and then my stance on them for your viewing pleasure. My comments here will be written as close as I can remember to the way it was communicated to them in the interview. I haven’t changed much in a month.
The Tulsa Metro Chamber strongly believes that regional partnerships need to not only be increased, but actively sought after; and that barriers to regional cooperation at both local and state levels should be removed. Our partners in this initiative will be proactively working toward the formation of a regional body in the long-term, and removal of the duplication of services in the short-term.
Regionalism, like some other words that end in “ism,” is great in theory. It’s better in many ways. It’s better and more efficient to share services across the metro area rather than have us all duplicating the same basic services for use by our own municipalities. We have, however, some basic fundamental issues undermining those possibilities, none larger than our funding sources. Simply, as long as our local municipalities are forced to fund themselves primarily with sales-tax revenue, we’re going to be competing with our suburban areas. So, I support regionalism in theory, but I’m aware of the difficulties. I like the efficiencies created by our city-county library system, INCOG, city-county health dept, etc. That doesn’t mean I always like how those agencies work, but I don’t attribute those issues to the fact that they are regional entities. It’s hard to argue that the shared services isn’t more efficient. At the end of the day, Tulsa has to fight for itself. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to compete with our suburban neighbors, but our world isn’t perfect. They’re lean, young, funded, aggressive and appealing. We have to compete for jobs, shopping centers, sales tax revenue, etc. We can work together, but we can’t forget that if we continue to support and accommodate suburban growth at the expense of the city, we’ll suffer in the long run.
2. City Charter
The Tulsa Metro Chamber strongly believes that the City Charter is to be respected, adhered to, and turned to for guidance by Tulsa’s elected officials. Changes to the City Charter, if they are needed, should be done through the formal Charter revision process and include the full consent of Tulsa’s voters. Our partners in this initiative will support the City Charter and its guidelines, adhere to the parameters itestablishes, and seek to alter the Charter only through appropriate means and when significant need is demonstrated.
They shouldn’t have had to put it on their list and we shouldn’t be talking about it at all, but some of our friends at City Hall seem to be confused about the suddenly ambiguous terminology in the charter. Some want to throw better lawyers on the staff to interpret it, while others want to replace the officials it governs. I’m not exactly sure what the root of the problem is, but I’d love to work on solving it. It seems that most of the issues we’ve seen in recent months have been related to different interpretations of the charter, not full-blown disregard of it.
3. Education Issues
Our partners in this initiative will share this passion, and will both support TPS in its current reform efforts as well as seek to find opportunities for collaboration and mutually-beneficial endeavors between the City of Tulsa, Tulsa’s educational organizations, our generous philanthropic community, and the private sector.
No brainer. I support this.
4. Support for “The Next Tulsa Vision Package”
The Tulsa Metro Chamber strongly believes that this is the greatest tool available in moving our region forward. Our partners in this initiative will share this vision, and commit to making every possible effort in ensuring the successful creation, passage, and implementation of the “Next Vision Package.”
Yeah, so I’m not going to pledge my support to any packages, especially hypothetical ones. I think it’s probably time to start thinking about what comes after Vision 2025, but I’m not ready to make pledges like this. There are plenty of things to worry about ahead of the next vision package, like our comprehensive plan, for example.
5. Neighborhood Associations and Infill Development
The Tulsa Metro Chamber is willing to work toward a model of shared use which accommodates both the need for safe neighborhoods and the preservation of historic areas; while also providing its residents with retail possibilities, increasing walkability, and creating distinct centers of urban density. Our partners in this initiative will share these broad goals, and be willing to work toward developing new standards for infill and urban development that responsibly meets the needs of both homeowners and Tulsa’s development community.
Agree. We have to be thinking about the comp plan first. This is a big issue, especially in Dist. 4.
6. Intermodal Facilities and Transportation
Many of these projects are too large in scale to be managed by any one governmental body or locality. The realization of these goals will require concerted efforts by municipalities, counties, state and federal government, and business organizations. The Tulsa Metro Chamber stands committed to these efforts, and will work to build regional consensus and strategic partnerships in ensuring their completion. Our partners in this initiative will share this commitment, be willing to dedicate resources and/or secure funding, and work with other regional partners to ensure individual projects are strategically implemented.
I agree, to the degree that I know what they’re talking about. I think the Port of Catoosa plays a huge role in the future of our city and that it’s not too early to start thinking bigger than we have been when it comes to transportation of all types in and around the area.
7. River Development
The Tulsa Metro Chamber views this as a top priority for the Tulsa region, and an issue where Tulsa’s citizens demand action. Our partners in this initiative will strongly support a public/private partnership as the vehicle for river development, and will seek any and all means to expedite the acquisition of funding sources, the completion of environmental feasibility studies and design work, and the beginning of physical construction.
I love river development as much as anyone else. I think there are things the city can do to promote river development without a river development tax. I can support a public/private partnership for infrastructure improvements, but I think we should always look first to solving these problems with ways other than tax increases. The city and county can work to create opportunities. If the opportunity is real, a capitalist will capitalize on it. Let’s get creative about using our existing resources to create opportunity for capitalists to do what they do. I’m a businessman. I’m not the only one. We can make the river appealing as a development site without paying for the development. The chamber may be too quick to look to tax-based financing for this type of thing. If the opportunity is there, developers will take it. The city and county have some work to do on the river. If they do it, I trust the private developers to do the rest…Folks who do it for a living are better at development than the city, county, and the chamber put together.
8. Renew the “Fix our streets package”
The Tulsa Metro Chamber firmly believes that our ability to recruit top companies, employers, and talent is directly tied to the state of our infrastructure. Our city’s long- term health also relies upon a well-maintained infrastructure that doesn’t inhibit its residents. Our partners in this initiative will work to immediately begin planning for “Fix Our Streets II,” identifying the next wave of projects and ensuring they both target high- need projects and are equally distributed across Tulsa. They will also recognize the importance of a strong public buy-in and outreach process to ensure voter support, and will keep this focus throughout all stages of development.
Again, I refuse to make pledges to renew anything. That doesn’t mean I won’t, it just means I think it’s crazy to commit to anything right now. The whole thing has to be done in context. What’s the current budget? What are the current priorities? Is there a plan that involves improved public transit to match the increase in density in midtown and downtown? There are tons of questions to ask. Until they’re answered, you won’t catch me making any pledges. Do we need nice, smooth streets? Yes. I’ll work for that.
9. Downtown Revitalization
The Tulsa Metro Chamber and its member businesses are strong proponents of continued downtown revitalization. Our partners in this initiative will recognize the importance of a strong downtown, and will seek creative avenues for continued growth (through both public and private investments).
Um…Yes. As for public investment, there are smart ways to do it. Tulsa hasn’t always done things the smart way….or the ethical way.
10. Coordinated Efforts on the Convention and Visitors Bureau
The City of Tulsa and the Tulsa Metro Chamber have recently taken important steps to clearly define expectations, establish measureable goals and objectives, and work together to ensure the success of Tulsa’s CVB efforts. The Tulsa Metro Chamber believes that continued coordination between the Chamber and City of Tulsa is crucial, and the existing model represents the strongest configuration for Tulsa’s CVB. Our partners in this initiative will share this vision, and work to strengthen both the City’s and Chamber’s partnership as well as the CVB’s institutional capacity.
I basically said this: “If the chamber and the CVB can operate with total transparency, and will allow strict accountability, and can offer a better service than competitors at a better price, I have no problem at all with the CVB contract. If not, no way.” Having said that, I think our convention and visitors budget is way too low (it’s only $600K more than Muskogee) and that attracting visitors to Tulsa should be a priority. Our downtown has room to grow, both in hotel rooms and retail attractions. Outside of downtown, we have other under-utilized assets, that if capitalized upon, could make Tulsa an incredible tourism destination and a wonderful place for conventions and the like.” I’d start with Rt. 66, for the record. That road is a huge tourist attraction nationally and while Tulsa has been an important part of that highway’s history, we’re a relatively insignificant part of its present, especially the part that runs through Dist. 4.
11. Diversity and Inclusion
The Tulsa Metro Chamber strongly supports efforts that create an inclusive and diverse community, and work to improve the social and economic climate of our region. We also recognize the importance of self-improvement, and strive to ensure our own organization mirrors these principles. Our partners in this initiative will strongly support public diversity and inclusion initiatives, will stand against policies that further divide our community, and will proactively seek out opportunities to improve these efforts in Tulsa.
I will always be an advocate of this. I’d love to see us celebrating our diversity. I know the unspoken issue here is illegal immigration. Immigration is an issue that states and local municipalities can throw water at, but until it’s solved at the federal level, there’s little that can be done, even by states, and especially by a city. The whole system needs an overhaul, starting at the top. It should be much more difficult to get in to the country illegally and much easier to get in legally. America is great because it is a nation of immigrants. We should continue to be one. Let’s crack down on illegal immigration and improve the path to a legal presence here, be it for temporary work or full blown citizenship. The solution is not short-sighted and ridiculous local laws regarding the language used on local signs. Those types of things do more harm than good.
So, they asked me those types of questions. We had a very nice discussion. I felt like they cared about our city and that they liked that I was blunt and honest. I didn’t pander to them, but I was respectful. We were talking about Tulsa. It’s my favorite topic in the world. We could’ve talked another hour. I had a good time.
I maintain that I’m the best candidate for them to support. Regardless of my stance on those issues, it only makes sense that the Tulsa Metro Chamber would support a candidate who in his private ventures employs over 100 people, is working to revitalize downtown, and generates over 4 million dollars in annual sales. Furthermore, our current projects will employ another 100 people, will bring downtown’s first grocery market and movie theater, and will add another 8 million in annual sales. I’m also working to grow film-making in Tulsa, an industry that has provided a 3 billion dollar economic impact to Shreveport, Austin, and Albuquerque in the last three years. I may not be the best city council candidate in the history of Tulsa, but I don’t know that there’s ever been a more obvious candidate for the chamber to support. Simply, to not support my candidacy would’ve smelled of conspiracy. It would’ve generated a whole slew of conspiracy theories about behind the scenes influences, and this time I might even be participating. If you’re going to say you’re about job growth, improving downtown, and attracting people to Tulsa, it seems like you should support the candidate who does that best.
I think the process was a good one. I respect the people in that room and believe that they want a better Tulsa. I believe when they chose to support me that they made the right decision. They trusted the big picture and understood that even if I didn’t rubber stamp their 11 items, I would use sound judgment and work for a better Tulsa. I really do believe those things. It may be that the chamber has done shady things in the past and that it has too freely swung around its influence, but it’s crazy to believe that the majority of people affiliated with the chamber are corrupt. I think the opposite is probably true.
Here’s the thing, the chamber also chose to support my opponent. They’ve explained this decision by stating that they like us both and that what they really want is for the incumbent to be beaten, so they’re going to wait until the general election to give the rest of the money to whichever of us wins the primary. Romantic, isn’t it? I think it would’ve shown more leadership to commit to the best candidates. It would’ve communicated to the public that they were really about finding great new leaders, not removing old bad ones. I don’t know if they’re doing it this way because the race is too close to call and they don’t want to alienate a potential winner by backing an opponent, but I can see how people arrive at that conclusion. I don’t know if they think their financial support will translate into a rubber stamping of pro-chamber items, but I suppose I get how people think we can be bought. I don’t know if they just want to be able to say to PAC donors that the candidates they supported all won, but I get how some might say that. I’m not making those allegations. I don’t think those things are true. I do think they could’ve done it better and I’m okay with being on record.
So here’s what I’m going to do. If there’s something that stinks here, I don’t want to be a part of it. It doesn’t full on stink, but it might smell a little funny to some, right? I’m going to accept the $1000 donation and then I’m going to donate $1000 to a local charity. I’d rather not reject it and send it into my opponent’s pocket, so I’m going to accept it and let you decide what local non-profit will benefit from it. I’ll accept your nominations in the comment’s section below and my campaign team and I will decide by the end of the month who gets the $1000 bucks. Let’s let that money make a difference. There are tons of worthy local non-profits. Make your case for one of them.
I don’t mean any disrespect to the chamber and I do not want to appear ungrateful. I’m very grateful. I do appreciate their support, their effort, their volunteers, and their process. I think there are some great people in that organization and if elected, I will be happy to work with them. I’m honored that they chose to support me. I accept their support. I agree with them that I’m a good candidate for Tulsa. Like I said, I think the chamber is mostly made up of people who love our city and are working hard to make it better and I appreciate it.
I apologize for the long post, but frankly, this has been the number one thing I’m asked during this campaign and I wanted to address it. Our suspicious public wants to know my relationship with the chamber. I want to be known for establishing a new standard of openness and honesty in my dealings, both as a businessman and at City Hall. I’ll say it again in summary. I wasn’t recruited by them. That should be obvious. Now you know about my relationship with them, my thoughts regarding their platform, and that even though I have a track record that establishes me as the better candidate in terms of creating jobs, improving our downtown, attracting visitors, growing and attracting new business, and attracting and retaining young professionals, they still split their support in my district primary. I know you’ll come to your own conclusions. I hope that now they are a bit more informed as they relate to the chamber and to me.
I appreciate you taking the time to read this and I’m glad you’re with me in caring about our great city. I ask for your support down the home stretch and welcome any and all questions and conversations. To learn more about me and my campaign, visit www.blakeewing.com. Connect on facebook at facebook.com/blakefortulsa.
If you’d like to talk, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 918.991.8252.