The San Jose Chamber of Commerce is searching for its third CEO in three years, and business leaders hope the move restores the once premier business advocacy group back to its glory days.
The chamber is at an inflection point as it looks for a new top boss. Derrick Seaver, the chamber’s president and CEO since April 2021, is resigning at the end of August for a high school teaching job in Oakland.
Seaver led the business group through turbulent times, and while it saw a rebranding under his leadership, not everyone was happy with him at the helm. The San Jose Chamber of Commerce, formerly known as the Silicon Valley Organization, dissolved its political action committee after it ran racist campaign ads in 2020 and hundreds of members left. As a result, there is a notable gap for advocacy on the business side, and labor-friendly leaders are scooping up political seats.
Sean Kali-rai, a lobbyist and advocate who represents dozens of business owners, said labor is “beating business like a drum,” and businesses aren’t coming back to the chamber because advocacy is lacking. He founded the Silicon Valley Cannabis Alliance and Silicon Valley Restaurant Association because he said the chamber didn’t represent those industries adequately, if at all.
He said the chamber must engage in politics again to elect business-friendly candidates and lead policy discussions so businesses in San Jose can actually thrive.
“The current departure of Derrick Seaver from the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, coupled with the past high profile departure of Carl Guardino from the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, leaves the business community leaderless and at a crossroads,” Kali-rai told San José Spotlight. “Either the chamber will turn to its roots and become a true advocacy group for businesses that have been battered by COVID, over regulation and a difficult economy, or choose to be a social club that offers its members wine, cheese and platitudes.”
He said luncheons and picnics are not going to cut it, and the chamber needs a leader who will push harder for business interests.
Seaver said while the chamber’s work on elections was nonexistent last cycle, he is proud of the policy work the chamber did under his leadership. He pointed to the advocacy done with Assemblymember Alex Lee to pass AB 2164, which helps small businesses fund accessibility-related improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But he also emphasized it was an intentional move to step back from politics after the 2020 ad scandal.
“That was necessary, particularly because of what occurred in 2020, but also because that’s not the primary focus of a chamber of commerce,” Seaver told San José Spotlight. “One of the main things that we did over the last two years was refocusing the organization to support and assist local businesses to thrive and grow in San Jose. I feel very confident that the organization has bounced back on that front.”
The need for advocacy
Membership was at an all-time low with hundreds leaving the group following the 2020 scandal. There were no more than 300 members, Seaver said, but under his helm, that number grew close to 800. Still, before the scandal the chamber had 1,500 businesses. Interim Chamber of Commerce CEO Tony Mirenda, former senior executive at Blach Construction, said the group has brought on 91 new businesses since January.
“Our plan is to continue to build back our organization, its advocacy and add even more services and benefits for our valued members, while also assisting our great city in its rebound process from the challenges it faces in these uncertain times,” Mirenda told San José Spotlight.
He called Seaver “extremely influential” in state policy. He applauded Seaver’s vision to create public policy committees centered around housing and land use, water and energy and small businesses.
Mike Fox Jr., a former chamber board member for 16 years, said the departure of hundreds of members—particularly larger tech companies that financially supported the chamber—is a primary reason political advocacy has been on the backburner. Without membership dollars, the chamber cannot afford to hire people to do that work, like lobbying councilmembers or raising money to support a political candidate.
“You need advocacy on behalf of businesses, especially for small and medium businesses who really can’t afford to do that kind of stuff,” Fox told San José Spotlight. “But you need to support the chamber financially to do that. Until those communities (are) willing to step up and do that, it’s going to be really tough.”
He said the next CEO needs to be a leader that can rally the businesses to come back to the chamber and knows the ins and outs of South Bay politics. Fox said the chamber’s best leaders were well-liked elected officials like former state Assemblymember Jim Cunneen.
“You need people who will want to see that leader succeed and rally around that leader, and you’re not going to get that probably by bringing some unknown person or some person who hasn’t been entrenched in our community,” Fox said.
Seaver said the chamber will engage more during the 2024 election cycle. The board voted last year to make endorsements, but will not restart its PAC or financially support any candidates. Whether that position changes in future elections remains to be seen, he said.
“It was obviously a difficult time when I took over for the organization, both internally and externally,” Seaver said. “But by and large, it was a great experience and a huge honor. And as excited as I am for the next adventure, I will miss it.”
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana Kadah on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: Mike Fox Jr. is a member of San José Spotlight’s board of directors.