FBIA: A Strident Voice on Behalf of Business

By Beacon Staff

Any notion that this year’s city elections in Kalispell are going to be a sleepy, low-key affair was turned on its head last week by an advertisement that ran in the Daily Inter Lake. Paid for by the Flathead Business and Industry Association’s Political Action Committee, the full-page ad, headlined “Needed! New Crew at City Hall,” takes aim squarely at Mayor Pam Kennedy and councilmen Hank Olson and Jim Atkinson – all of whom are up for reelection – by depicting the officials on the “Good Ship Kalispell” floating in a sea of red ink about to crash into an iceberg.

The jagged edges of the iceberg are labeled “Big Salaries,” “Cash Reserves Gone,” “Poor Management Skills” and “City Hall Lease.” Below these council members, a “Kalispell Taxpayer” in a rowboat wonders, “Where’s my paddle?” while at the bottom of the ad a cartoon rat climbs onto dry land thinking, “Even I had the good sense to leave a sinking ship!”

Denise Smith, executive director of the FBIA, said she received a phone call from a city employee wanting to know whether the rat represented anyone specific. Smith didn’t say, but instead described the ad as an opening salvo by her organization in what promises to be an intense and well-funded effort to replace Kennedy, Olson and Atkinson with more business-oriented council members.

“These will be the most active city election races that you’ve seen in the last eight years,” Smith said. “That ad is saying, ‘We’ve been paying attention; we know how you’ve been voting.’”

The council members targeted, meanwhile, acknowledge any group or person’s right to criticize their decisions as elected officials, particularly in an election year, but take issue with some of the allegations made against them in the ad by the FBIA.

“If this is the kind of politics that they want to go, then I guess most of their statements will follow the same ridiculous line,” Olson said. “It’s apparent that they’re going to spend a lot of money.”

And the FBIA isn’t stopping there. After helping to recruit challengers for incumbent council members facing reelection this year in Kalispell and Whitefish, plans are also underway to draft challengers for Joe Brenneman, the lone Democrat on the Flathead County Commission, up for reelection next year, as well as local state lawmakers who received poor marks on the FBIA’s scorecard of the 2009 Legislature. The FBIA additionally keeps track of openings on lower-profile offices, like school and planning boards.

In a recent interview at her office on South Main Street in Kalispell, Smith said the advertisement was part of a campaign set to continue until the November elections that will include going door-to-door, direct mail and other media: “We know what the message is and we’ve got it all planned out.”

A common fixture at public meetings throughout the valley, Smith was the Flathead field representative for former Republican Sen. Conrad Burns. On a bookshelf in her office photos of Smith with Laura Bush, and another with Karl Rove are on display. A fifth-generation Montanan, Smith found her way to Republican politics after working at a local TV station and starting her own production company.

In many ways, she said, campaigning for Burns during the bitter and difficult 2006 U.S. Senate race, which Jon Tester narrowly won, prepared Smith for the take-no-prisoners tone of local politics increasingly common to the Flathead.

“It was a wake-up call for me; I grew a real strong backbone,” Smith said. “You have to be able to separate the politics from the everyday business.”

But she says her current position is “nonpartisan,” as the public face of roughly 300 businesses and business people throughout Northwest Montana the FBIA represents. While the FBIA doesn’t disclose its membership roles, Smith is open about its leadership. Don Dulle, who runs the Flathead Beverage Co., currently heads FBIA’s board of directors and Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s Jim Oliverson is the vice president. Smith takes all policy stances based on the directions she receives from the FBIA’s 14-member board.

“It’s not important what I think, it’s important what the business community as a whole thinks,” Smith said. “It’s not about me.”

Founded in the 1980s as a group of local businesspeople getting together for coffee, the FBIA charges $150 annually in dues, and in return members receive advocacy at public meetings, updates on policy decisions throughout the valley and in Helena, as well as the option to participate in a health insurance program that helps small businesses reduce costs by pooling together, Smith said.

While local chambers of commerce also represent businesses, Smith said the FBIA is more politically active on specific issues.

“Where our niche is, compared to the Chamber, is we take hard stands on everything,” Smith said. “We take it just one step further, I think, than the Chamber.”

The FBIA’s political action committee, which paid for the ad, is a separate entity from the FBIA, she noted, and membership dues don’t go toward paying for political advertisements. Instead, members can choose to make personal donations to the PAC, which is based out of Helena and presided over by its treasurer, Chuck Denowh, who managed Mitt Romney’s successful primary campaign in Montana and was a former executive director of the state GOP.

It’s unclear how much money the FBIA PAC currently has to spend on the current election year, since finance reports aren’t due until October, but according to the state Commissioner of Political Practices, its balance was $2,677 as of Dec. 31.

The FBIA didn’t directly recruit the current crop of city council challengers, according to Smith. Over the past year and a half, she said, the FBIA along with other groups representing business and development interests, “provided venues” where these groups and people could come together to field candidates. Several weeks ago, the FBIA held a “campaign school” for new candidates to learn how to run for office. But then, Smith said, the FBIA severed its ties with the candidates in order for its PAC to run third-party advertisements that, by law, can’t be connected to any candidates or their committees. “We cut the apron strings,” Smith said.

The handling of the economic downturn by local city governments over the last year, as well as several recent votes by councils, will make for some serious policy debates in the Flathead – and the FBIA aims to be a part of that discussion.

“There are a lot of unhappy people out there who feel like there’s been mismanagement or their voices are not being heard,” Smith said. “The business community here is not trying to rape and pillage the land, all we’re trying to say is use some common sense and don’t put us out of business.”

In Kalispell, the March vote to adopt transportation impact fees will be a key issue, and it’s no coincidence that the names of two councilmen up for reelection who attempted to weaken or delay implementation of the fees – Tim Kluesner and Bob Hafferman – were not on the FBIA’s recent critical advertisement. The location of a prerelease center for Kalispell will also be a part of the debate.

In Whitefish, issues like the jurisdiction of the so-called “planning doughnut,” and recently adopted measures like the downtown streetscape and lakeshore regulations will be key topics in campaigns.

Atkinson and Olson maintain that while Kalispell’s cash reserves are admittedly low, the city is otherwise functioning well despite the economy: Services are being maintained despite significant belt tightening.

“They can speak to what they would like to see happen or speak to what they don’t like that we’ve done,” Atkinson said of the FBIA’s ad. “These are the kinds of things that you put yourself into when you run for office.”

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