Opinion

Kansans should pay more attention to this Chamber of Commerce and less attention to that other one

May 26, 2021 3:33 am

The Greater KC Chamber celebrates the grand opening of Demdaco’s gift store at the Legends in Kansas City, Kansas, in July 2020. (Greater KC Chamber of Commerce/Facebook)

There’s more than one way to support business interests, Kansas.

It’s a good time to remember this, after a couple of weeks in which the Topeka-based Kansas Chamber made headlines for eye-rolly reasons. First was a report that the organization was throwing a middle school mean-girl fit and ending its relationship with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because the national group endorsed Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids in her run for re-election last year. Then came news that some businesses and organizations were surprised to find themselves on a letter to the governor urging her to end pandemic-enhanced unemployment benefits — an effort characterized by the Topeka Capital-Journal as “spearheaded by a number of top business groups, including the powerful Kansas Chamber.”

 

Seeking an adult conversation, I spoke with Joe Reardon, the former mayor of Kansas City, Kansas, who is now head of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. His organization represents 2,250 companies and 300,000 employees. Granted, a lot of those are in Missouri (about 60%, Reardon said) but the Kansas ones are in Johnson, Wyandotte, Leavenworth, Douglas, Franklin, Linn and Miami counties.

Kansas’ northeast corner holds more than a quarter of the state’s population, and we’d all be better off if everyone paid more attention to what the Greater KC Chamber says and less attention to the one known for flooding election-season mailboxes with hysterically negative campaign fliers — which, like last week’s letter-to-the-governor stunt, feels as if its only purpose is to pour fuel on political fires.

“I don’t think this issue of the number of unfilled jobs is going anywhere. I think it’s here,” Reardon told me. “And I think we’d better start looking at the ways that we can solve that for the long haul. I don’t believe it’s just about enhanced unemployment benefits, I think it’s way deeper than that.”

For example, parents need quality childcare.

“I think that’s part of the issue that’s going on, quite frankly,” Reardon said. “There are barriers to getting back into the workforce that are terribly complex.”

Reardon said Kansans could focus on key areas of common interest throughout the state, such as early childhood education.

“That is an issue of access and quality that exists throughout the state and in some places in crisis kinds of situations,” he said. “And if we were to focus on that and really work to make sure that every child could have a quality experience, that’s going to help the economy. It’s a long play, don’t get me wrong. But you can’t argue the data. If we were to do that, that will improve the economy across the state of Kansas.”

Joe Reardon served as the mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, from 2005-2013. He is now president and CEO of the Greater KC Chamber of Commerce. (Submitted)

Reardon said nothing disparaging about the other chamber (nor did I ask him to) and began our conversation by listing a few ways in which the two organizations are working together: on a “returning citizens” initiative to help people coming out of the criminal justice system learn skills and possibly land jobs with Chamber businesses, and a related effort to create a permanent campus at the Lansing Correctional Facility where people could learn trades, for example.

Reardon also said the two chambers have “good alignment” on what he described as “smart immigration reform that would allow immigrants to reside legally in the United States for work.”

But there are also big differences, with support for Medicaid expansion being the most notable.

“It’s caught up in a lot of political arguments,” Reardon said, putting it mildly. “But if you look at what it can do for the economy of the state of Kansas, let alone for the health outcomes of those that would be affected, that, again, is an enhancer to the economy.”

Which gets back to unemployment.

“To be truthful, we have so many workers in the state of Kansas that fall into that gap that are out there working every single day without adequate health insurance, which causes instability in the workforce as well,” he said.

It was also a slate of Kansas Chamber PAC-endorsed candidates who pushed hard for discriminatory legislation based on the delusion that transgender girls are a threat to women’s sports.

 

But the Greater KC Chamber opposed that bill because, Reardon said, “we know we need to be welcoming to everyone to grow Kansas City. And those kinds of pieces of legislation do nothing to help us with that cause.”

Both chambers had legislative agendas for 2021 and there are clearly places of overlap, though the Kansas Chamber’s is more, shall we say, elaborate than the KC Chamber’s.

Politicking by the Kansas City group’s separate political action committee, meanwhile, does not involve all the angry litter during election season.

“We’ve traditionally not done mail drops or that sort of thing,” Reardon said.

Instead, they interview candidates with a questionnaire focused on the issues that are important to them, go through a formal process of endorsement and consider making a contribution to the campaign. Then they publicize their endorsements.

It’s tempting to daydream about the KC Chamber someday campaigning for its candidates and issues as aggressively as the Kansas Chamber does. But that would be surrendering to the forces of darkness and immaturity.

Instead, Kansans should embrace the forces of grown-up complexity.

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.

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