Sacramento Metro Chamber CEO Roger Niello is stepping down. Niello, a former county supervisor and moderate Republican assemblyman, announced that he will not seek the renewal of his contract, which expires at the end of this fiscal year. Niello led the Chamber for the last two-and-a-half years.
Now, the Chamber leadership needs to pick a new CEO. This is an important decision, because the CEO can dramatically influence the Chamber’s direction. Should the business Chamber try to be a big tent, where Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists and global-warming deniers, business lobbyists, community activists and government officials are all welcome? Or should the Chamber be a political-action group for a small, well-funded group of business and corporate interests, like the Neanderthal United States Chamber of Commerce?
The U.S. Chamber is like a caricature from a Charles Dickens novel. It is the epitome of the heartless capitalist gone awry. The national chamber is opposed to any regulation that would clean the air, reduce climate change, increase worker safety, prevent banks from preying on their customers, close tax loopholes for businesses or provide a safety net for employees. Coal companies and health-insurance organizations make political donations to the Chamber, which then runs ads promoting policies supporting their interests. This makes a mockery of political transparency. The national chamber is an embarrassment.
But a business chamber need not be a regressive organization. Sacramento’s chamber has a long, proud history of being a “big tent.” Our chamber provides a variety of member services, such as training, mixers and reliable information. The Chamber has always been an organization where conservatives and liberals could come together to have a real dialogue about economic development.
Unfortunately, Niello and his former chief of staff at the supervisor’s office, Dennis Rogers, have tried to move the Chamber away from the big-tent model and toward the political-action model.
They carved out a pro-sprawl position supporting the controversial Cordova Hills project and invited sprawl supporter Joel Kotkin to speak at a Chamber meeting. At the Chamber’s Sacramento Economic Forecast luncheon, keynote speaker Neel Kashkari used the opportunity to announce he was entering the Republican primary for governor. And Niello and Rogers have not been supportive of increasing federal aid to our region’s poor, even though a good case can be made that additional federal dollars for low-income housing and increasing local participation in federal programs such as Medi-Cal and CalFresh (food stamps), and veterans benefits would be good for the business community. These federal dollars going to poor people would flow into the local economy, which would in turn benefit local businesses.
But Niello’s short tenure was not able to destroy the Chamber’s big tent. Openness and diversity are huge strengths of Sacramento’s chamber. We need a CEO that supports and even celebrates this.