Betras battles the Chamber

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Merger talks: The Democrats of the 17th and 6th Districts — a club that at one time had almost as much political clout as the Mahoning County Democratic Party — is losing membership and wants to merge with the North County Democrats.

The Dems of the 17th and 6th unanimously voted in favor of the merger, which would also mean a new name for the combined club.

North County is meeting Monday to vote on the merger.

“We concluded having one strong organization” is better than two with lesser members, said Sherman Miles, Dems of the 17th and 6th’s secretary-treasurer. Andrew Hamady, a co-founder, recently resigned as the club’s president.

The campaign by Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras against the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber is far from over.

Betras, as well as organized labor and some local business owners, are angry that the chamber took a position on Senate Bill 5, a proposal that would severely restrict collective-bargaining rights for public employees. They’re even more bothered about the outcome of the vote.

The chamber’s board of directors voted [sort of] earlier this month to support the bill.

The vote was 8 in favor, 1 against, 5 abstentions and 9 members who chose not to vote even though the chamber gave its board members an extra day to cast their ballots.

The chamber did a remarkable job over the years of staying out of partisan politics — at least as far as its public perception. But that came to an abrupt end right before the November 2010 gubernatorial election when Tom Humphries, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer, co-hosted a fund-raising event in October for Republican John Kasich.

The chamber vote in support of SB5 seems to be another effort by Humphries to remain in the good graces of Kasich, his new BFF.

There isn’t any other logical reason for the vote, which makes the chamber essentially a partisan political agency.

The chamber is supposed to represent the interests of its members. If only 8 of 23 members of its board of directors support something, the chamber is obviously not representing the interests of its members.

Chamber-labor relations

The vote will also hurt the chamber’s relationship with organized labor. Chambers of commerce and labor unions typically don’t get along that well, but in the Mahoning Valley that hasn’t been the case.

A couple of members of the chamber board have expressed concerns publicly about the SB5 vote. There are others who are privately concerned, but for various reasons, including fear, won’t say anything public about it.

Betras’ concerns are political. Organized labor is a key supporter of Democrats and Betras is the county party chairman.

Betras also said he’s angry that the chamber, a major economic development agency for the Valley, is alienating businesses, organized labor and local elected officials with its endorsement of the bill.

So Betras, who loves to talk, is taking his show on the road.

He spoke against the chamber’s vote and his concerns about it remaining as a Valley economic development entity on Wednesday at city council meetings in Campbell and Struthers. Betras will speak to the Mahoning County commissioners next week and to Youngstown City Council on April 6.

Also, chamber board members, who’ve been largely sheltered from the fallout from the SB5 vote, will be greeted, and not warmly, by several protestors as they enter the chamber building for their Wednesday meeting. [Betras has a previous commitment and won’t be at the protest.]

There are no plans to rescind the vote at that private meeting though there almost definitely will be a discussion about the issue, said Tony Paglia, the chamber’s vice president of government affairs.

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