It has become increasingly common to reflect on the unsavory origins and histories of our institutions and for those institutions to take steps to reckon with their pasts, to align their practices with their values.
The United States is foremost among these institutions, as movements of oppressed groups have challenged the nation to extend its founding promises to all its inhabitants. Langston Hughes wrote in “Let America be America Again” that “(It never was America to me)” but insists “America will be!” Martin Luther King Jr. began his speech at the March on Washington:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
If there is a positive story of the United States, it is this one, of people taking the Founders’ words more seriously than they themselves did and fighting to make their promises real for everyone. This struggle continues.
Our Democratic Party is an example of an institution founded for loathsome purposes which has divested from them in living memory. Our first Presidential candidate was Andrew Jackson, who was deeply involved in the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people of North America, and the Party supported slavery then fought Reconstruction. This racist legacy was increasingly challenged within the Party and culminated in a realignment whose landmarks include Harry Truman desegregating the military in 1948, Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts (1964 and 1965), and the election of Barack Obama in 2008, when the last old “Southern Democrats” switched parties or were defeated.
Strom Thurmond was a Democrat when he staged the longest solo filibuster in Senate history, speaking for over 24 hours against a 1957 civil rights law. He switched parties after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In contrast, Robert Byrd, the longest-serving Senator in US history, began his career in public life by organizing a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s. Elected to the House in 1952 and the Senate in 1958, Byrd participated in filibustering the 1964 Civil Rights Act but remained a Democrat until he died, in office, in 2010. While he was always on the right wing of the Party and opposed Bill Clinton’s proposals to allow gay men and lesbians to serve in the military, he denounced the KKK in the strongest terms and endorsed Obama in 2008.
Meanwhile, Republicans seized on this realignment with open appeals to white supremacy, as in Ronald Reagan’s 1966 Gubernatorial campaign, which built on a successful 1964 ballot initiative to repeal the California Fair Housing Act, and Richard Nixon’s 1968 Presidential campaign, which employed the “Southern Strategy” to convert Southern Democrats, as well as more discreet appeals to “law and order.” This was successful; the 1964 Presidential election was the last one where Democrats won a majority of the white vote.
The contemporary Democratic Party is far from perfect: Joe Manchin was elected to fill Robert Byrd’s seat in 2010 and has held it since. However, it is clear that Truman and Johnson chose to be on the right side of history, regardless of the electoral consequences, and that we are no longer the Party of Thurmond and Byrd.
Consider now the Boy Scouts. Lord Robert Baden-Powell created Scouting as part of the British colonial occupation of South Africa. While Culver City now has the very progressive all-girl BSA Troop 15, groups of this kind only became possible in 2019, and the Boy Scouts of America went to court numerous times to argue for their right to discriminate against LGBTQ and non-religious Scouts and leaders. While they yielded on their overall LGBTQ ban in 2015, they stand by their right to exclude atheists and agnostics and hold that troops chartered by religious organizations may still discriminate based on gender and sexuality. Meanwhile, in 2020, BSA declared bankruptcy as the history of pedophilia by thousands of “reverent” and “morally straight” Scout leaders and the organization’s role in covering it up was made public. The BSA is at a rough and early stage of reckoning with its history.
When Colin Diaz resigned as “CEO” of the Culver City Chamber of Commerce in March 2022, he wrote in his farewell message that the Chamber was a voice of the “sane center.” In his final appearance at a City Council meeting, that March 28, he inappropriately used public comment on the soft-story retrofit ordinance to advertise Optimum Seismic, a Chamber member but a non-Culver City-based business, spoke against the proposal to remove street parking and widen sidewalks under the Washington overpass in order to meet ADA requirements without sweeping encampments, argued for reopening Main Street to traffic, and announced his resignation.
I had intended to go through several years of Mr. Diaz’s public comments to show that he and the Chamber represented the far right wing: consistently opposing environmental, tenant, and labor protections, defending police impunity, etc, rather than the “sane center,” but the PDF files of the minutes from 2021 and before are not searchable and I do not have time to skim thousands of pages of text. As an information scientist, historian, and activist, I ask the City Clerk to do better. An intern from UCLA’s Department of Information Studies may be available to help with this important digital archiving work.
Fortunately, the Chamber’s new “CEO,” Jesse Nunez, saved my project at the August 14, 2023 City Council meeting by offering a single perfect example of the Chamber’s work. The Council was considering a resolution supporting the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, and UNITE-HERE strikers, and his public comment was to ask the Council to change it to a resolution asking both sides to come to the table and reach a speedy resolution, a request immediately embraced by the conservative Council majority.
This shows exactly how, by posing as the “sane center,” the Chamber moves discourse to the right and mainstreams Republican talking points. By placing equal concern and responsibility on “both sides,” they appear fair while advocating an outcome which would be worse than if they simply opposed the resolution. Instead of asking the Council to not stand with workers, the Chamber asks them to stand equally with management. This shifts the Overton Window hard to the right by claiming that the problem is the strike itself rather than the exploitative terms offered labor by management.
The positions taken by Mr. Nunez and Mr. Diaz were not determined by votes of the local Chamber members and may not even be their personal views. They are paid decently to present them, as you can see from the Chamber’s tax filings. The Chamber’s “CEO” may be the only professional lobbyist whose scope is exclusively Culver City.
Many of the Chamber’s members are businesses based outside of Culver City, like Optimum Seismic, who have joined essentially to hire the Chamber to do public relations and lobbying for them. The Chamber, like most lobbying organizations, sells access to power. Ike Smart City/Orange Barrel Media, the company whose proposal to place digital advertising in our public space is under consideration yet again, just joined the Chamber, surely to gain advantage with former Chamber Board Members and current Council Members Göran Eriksson and Albert Vera Jr. Ike/Orange Barrel has a record of unethical lobbying.
While Chambers of Commerce claim a history going back to the 16th century, the key date for the United States is 1911, when President William Howard Taft worked with business leaders to foster the Chamber of Commerce movement in the US. The Chamber represents organized capital and was intended as a counterweight to the rising power of organized labor in the year of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and subsequent mass mobilization.
This mission was renewed in 1971, when Lewis Powell, soon to be nominated to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon, wrote a memo to the Education Chair of the US Chamber entitled: “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” The Powell Memo argued that the environmental, consumer protection, and anti-war movements of the 1960s threatened capitalism and that the Chamber needed to fight back through increased political and public relations work. Powell highlighted the role of colleges in incubating dissent and joined Reagan and Nixon in attacking higher education, a tactic which never went away but has recently reached new heights.
Unlike the United States, the Democratic Party, and even the Boy Scouts, the Chamber has never reconsidered its mission or reflected critically on its history, instead continuing full-speed ahead. The Culver City Chamber’s networking and publicity services are not impressive and serve as a mask for political work, which includes not only lobbying public officials but also mainstreaming right wing ideas by conducting “educational” activities dominated by conservative voices. For example, on June 18, 2020 Mr. Diaz chaired a panel entitled “Decoding the Defund the Police Movement.” The panelists were listed as “Culver City Mayor, Goran Erikkson; Acting Chief of Police, Manuel Cid; and CCUSD Board President, Parent, and Wife of a Law Enforcement Office, Summer McBride.” None of these people represents or studies the abolitionist movement. I challenged Mr. Diaz on this and he said this would be the first of a series, with subject experts planned for future installments. It was not. The purpose of this panel, and similar Chamber “educational” efforts, including Leadership Culver City, is to present an Overton Window which is more like a peephole, excluding the perspectives of academics, activists, and anyone beyond the local gentry.
Republicans hold no statewide offices in California, and candidates identifying as Republicans struggle to get more than 10% of the vote in Culver City. The Chamber of Commerce serves as a proxy; they can present the Republican Party’s platform without its toxic brand. The US Chamber recently fought the Green New Deal, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, Medicare for All, and the $15 minimum wage. It defended the filibuster and gave cash and prizes to Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema for their work derailing Biden’s Build Back Better bills. The California and US Chambers are leading opponents of California’s SB253, a bill this Club endorsed, which will require companies to track and disclose the climate impact of their supply chains. The California Chamber opposes allowing striking workers to collect unemployment, as they can in New York and New Jersey, a policy which State Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas advocated at our August meeting and which is now in the legislature. While Mr. Nunez offered on August 14 that the Culver City Chamber would pay for a celebration of Assembly Member Isaac Bryan being named Majority Leader, compare the California Chamber’s legislative agenda to his record. The California Chamber is currently fighting AB421, ballot initiative reform, one of the Majority Leader’s legislative priorities, which our Club also endorsed.
The Culver City Chamber’s opposition to Measure BL, which updated the City’s business license fees in 2022, showed that it is a Republican lobbying group rather than an advocate for its members. Thanks to BL, larger companies now pay more while small ones pay less or nothing at all, instead of the previous system’s flat rate. Why did the Chamber oppose this, which clearly benefits a majority of the businesses in Culver City? It is reasonable to suspect that the Chamber is using local small businesses to front for the interests of some of the world’s largest corporations, but it is also clear that they are ideologically opposed to taxation and the health of the public sector. In 2020 they fought Measure RE, a real estate transfer tax designed by Club member and Mayor Alex Fisch, which not only saved the City’s finances during COVID but also almost completely covered its obligations to CalPERS. Again, I suspect the Chamber opposed RE not only because it requires their member Hackman Capital Partners to pay millions more in taxes, but also because looming CalPERS debt had been a useful tool to threaten and marginalize public sector unions and to thwart any demands for expanding City services.
These “business friendly” positions are bad for business. They not only financially harm the majority of Culver City’s residents, businesses, and workers to accelerate the upward redistribution of wealth, they also harm the image of “business” by associating it with a cruel and irrational platform. There is nothing “sane” or “centrist” about it. Our “business community,” composed mostly of smart and decent people, including many of you, is getting played by these right wing grifters.
What can you do? Don’t vote for candidates and ballot measures endorsed by the Chamber. It is not a community-based or democratic group; those endorsements aren’t chosen by their members. Don’t go to their events, or ask hard questions if you do. If you are in the Chamber, get out. Talk to your friends who own Culver City businesses. If they’re members, do they know what is being done in their name? Talk to your favorite businesses. I remain astonished that Co-opportunity is a Chamber member, as well as any other company claiming to value sustainability, because the Culver City Chamber has consistently lobbied for environmental laws to be incentives rather than mandates, an “all-carrots” approach, and the California and US Chambers inevitably describe environmental laws as “job-killers.” If you or your friends are convinced that Chamber membership is an essential part of doing business here, give some extra money to progressive candidates and causes to balance that out. However, I believe associating with the Chamber is a “reputation-killer” and this will only become more so because of their unswerving commitment to a self-destructive right-wing agenda.