Election elephant in the room: How politics plays out at the Tallahassee Chamber conference

From the Tallahassee Democrat

AMELIA ISLAND — Politics isn’t on the official Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce agenda during this weekend’s sold-out annual conference.

But the approaching election will be omnipresent.

Efforts to set the capital city’s future course through weighty policy discussions will hang in the balance of the ballots. There will be hushed conversations on golf greens and over cocktails. Dinners will be served with a side of speculation on who’s going to claim victory or get washed out come Tuesday night.

The pivotal primary is days away and attendees to the high-powered gathering on the Florida coast include elected officials, candidates seeking re-election and those hoping to unseat them.

Some of those say that prepared speeches and off-the-cuff comments at last year’s conference fanned the flames of what may be the ugliest political season in Tallahassee history.

It started with immediate past Chamber Board of Directors Chairman Jay Smith, who stood on stage and declared a more visible political position by its members. He urged them to turn out to meetings and “make sure the voice of the business community is heard loudly and clearly.”

At the time, he said, “Our public communication will be more assertive and more frequent” and the chamber will “cultivate candidates” and “support our allies with resources to drive our community forward.”

But, it was comments made by State Attorney Jack Campbell that both led to thunderous applause and became a rallying cry by a progressive candidate insurgency that is seeking to reshape city and county government.

‘Rally call for everyone to get together’

Like years’ past, the conference concludes on Sunday with the headline-making look at what developments are on the horizon in Tallahassee.

But a fiery speech and adlibs from Campbell on that 2021 Sunday morning stole the spotlight.

“We need Jeremy Matlow out of office,” he said from the podium.

Campbell themed his remarks on a quote by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who said, “The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”

It’s “silly to listen to a pizza maker about criminal justice policy,” Campbell continued, adding we must stand up to the “evil men and their 12 trolls on Twitter.”

He was fed up with the outspoken commissioner’s stance on questioning the integrity of the Chamber. Matlow, elected in 2018, ignited a verbal war with the Chamber after he penned a Tallahassee Democrat column saying business leaders had turned a blind eye to public corruption.

Matlow chided the optics surrounding the conference last year, which occurred during the trial of businessman J.T. Burnette, who’s serving three years in federal prison for his role in a public corruption case targeting City Hall.

The Chamber responded by slapping Matlow with that organization’s first censure in its history.

Campbell’s not attending the conference this year due to an upcoming trial. However, he told the Democrat his speech was more about apathy as it relates to criminal justice issues than politics.

“I’m a criminal justice professional, and so I think that people being engaged in the process is essential,” said Campbell, who was re-elected without opposition in 2020. “I continue to be engaged in that. In my personal and professional life, I support those who I think are good for the safety of our community.”

He agrees with those who say the local political season has had a negative tone, adding it mirrors what’s taking place throughout the country.

“It is getting a lot uglier,” Campbell said.

Chamber President and CEO Sue Dick said there has not been “a war room attempt in the last year to cultivate candidates.”

She told the Democrat the Chamber’s position on candidates and elections hasn’t deviated since the 2021 conference. She said the Chamber does not endorse candidates but did survey all the candidates for city and county commissioner races on issues important to the business community.

“People just need to make their own decisions on what type of leadership they want in the community.”

Sammie Dixon, who chairs the Chamber’s Board of Directors, reframed the comments made last year as more of a “rally call for everyone to get together, and let’s solve problems.”

Think of a beach ball and its stripes, Dixon said, with each stripe representing a segment of the community.

“If you’re only looking at the red and green, you’re not seeing the other colors,” he said. “When we talk about having a rallying cry, we’re talking about how we back up and see the entire beach ball and where we can help holistically to solve all or problems.”

‘I don’t want the Chamber conference to be a political rally’

Leon County Commissioner Brian Welch was a first-time attendee last year after he upset Bryan Desloge for his District 4 seat.

He called some of the comments made, specifically by Campbell, “extremely unfortunate” and “certainly distasteful.”

“To hear that kind of rhetoric at an event like that, I don’t want the Chamber conference to be a political rally,” Welch said.

Even as the Chamber has been vilified by Matlow and allied 2022 candidates as an insiders network that benefits special interests, Welch praised the Chamber as an institution and valued community partner – specifically its efforts to address talent pipeline challenges and classroom adoptions in Title 1 schools and the public school district.

Welch also said it’s important for elected officials to have good relations with business chambers and elected officials attend conferences.

“I was certainly turned off last year when that tone was taken,” said Welch, adding his perspective was limited as a first-time attendee. “My understanding was that was unusual. To hear that kind of rhetoric, it’s unfortunate. And, it’s certainly contributed to the climate we see now in this election cycle, which I think we can all agree has been very nasty.”

Candidates speak on attending conference: ‘Charges of extremism everywhere’

While voters will be casting ballots in early voting in Tallahassee, some candidates will be far from home.

Those attending in Amelia include County Commissioners Nick Maddox, Rick Minor and Bill Proctor, all up for re-election; and candidate Terrence Barber, who’s running against Proctor and representing the Big Bend Minority Chamber of Commerce.

Also in attendance will be some of Tallahassee’s most prodigious donors: Representatives from NAI TALCOR,  Arbor Properties, Premier Homes and the Ghazvini family.

Matlow isn’t going to the conference and hasn’t done so since he was on the campaign trail in 2018.

For the last several months, especially this summer, Matlow said he and his team have spent their time talking directly to voters to determine their needs, interests and concerns.

“Five days before an election, we’re just full throttle to the finish line,” said Matlow, who is locked in a contentious race with challenger David Bellamy, who is also not attending the conference.

Matlow said this has been “the most negative campaign cycle I remember in recent memory.”

“It has nothing to do with making Tallahassee a better place,” he told the Democrat. “It has nothing to do with any policy or priority. I hear from people every day who say they can’t believe the discourse has gotten to this level.”

Mayor John Dailey, a registered attendee and candidate up for re-election, said he’ll only able to attend Saturday’s reception due to prior campaign event commitments. He’s heading back to Tallahassee immediately after the banquet.

When asked why he’s carving time for a slice of the conference line up, he said he’s going because he supports the business community.

“They do great work in the community and … they are the backbone of our local economy,” Dailey said. “It’s important to go and show support, even on a limited schedule during campaign season.”

He said being a candidate for re-election is not much of a factor for his decision to attend. As Tallahassee’s mayor, Dailey said it’s important for the business community to see the mayor support local businesses.

County Commissioner Kristin Dozier, who’s running against Dailey, said she’ll only be able to attend part of the conference, too. The last week leading up to the election is jam-packed with campaign and community events, she said.

But, the conference, she said, is an opportunity to talk one-on-one with many business owners and others and hear what the Chamber deems as the top issues facing the private sector.

When asked if comments made at last year’s conference contributed to the tone of this year’s election cycle, Dozier paused.

Then, she admitted to being “disappointed but not surprised to hear some of that rhetoric from a couple of people.”

“I think it is critical that we separate the membership and the broader business community with some leaders,” Dozier said. “I am very disappointed at the tone, the personal attacks and frankly there are charges of extremism everywhere. I’m very comfortable in a middle ground. I think that’s where we get really good policy done, and I think that’s where most of our community is.”