The Florida COC is one of the most influential business groups in the state.
» The different dynamics of the two groups guarantee that their interests will not always coincide. The Chamber's range of membership means it has to aim to maintain a broad consensus around general business-related themes. AIF, by contrast, is likely to be more micro-focused on the specific concerns of its members. "We don't feel obliged to be with anyone else on any other issue because we focus on what our membership wants, whether it's popular or not," says Bishop. "If that is in the same vein or issue arena where the Retail Federation and the Chamber are, great. If not, we let them do that, and we do our own thing."
Case in point: AIF's backing of "destination gaming," a issue that Wilson says doesn't mesh with the Chamber's core mission of "resetting" Florida's economy and improving the overall business climate.
Wilson says the Chamber won't get involved in those sorts of niche business issues: "You can't call the Chamber and say, 'I've got an issue. If we pay you a million dollars will you do it for me?' We say no. And on the political side, we're just not going to endorse a plaintiff trial lawyer or someone who's sympathetic to the unions. We see that they're regularly endorsed down the street."
In addition, overlapping memberships means the two groups have to compete for both membership dues and political contributions. Says one Tallahassee insider: "You can't hire 20 or 30 lobbyists if you don't have dues money coming in. You cannot assign five lobbyists to a particular issue if you don't have them on your payroll. They're fighting, if you will, for the same basic pool of members in hopes of on individual issues being a more recognized hero on something more important to business."
In Tallahassee, much perception of conflict between the two groups may stem from the fact that Wilson and Bishop frankly don't like each other much. "The staffs of AIF and the Florida Chamber and the Florida Retail Federation work very well and very smoothly," says Bishop. "I think at the senior leadership level, it's a little bit different. We have a lot of improvement we can make there." Says Wilson, succinctly, "Our staffs work (well) together."
Not surprisingly, both Wilson and Bishop believe there's really only room for one major business lobby in Tallahassee. "The business community is more aligned and united than it's ever been, and there's no longer a need for two organizations," says Wilson. But, he adds, "that's really up to the leaders of the business community, not up to Barney or to me."
Bishop says he even brought up the idea of a merger to his board some time ago. The board members, he says, believed the cultures of the two groups were not reconcilable. Likewise, says Bishop, rank-and-file businesses in Florida see the two groups differently. "They view the Chamber as a handshake. They view us as a slugfest."