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UpClose with Todd Sanders: Phoenix Chamber CEO says business community unified like never before

Todd Sanders (Photo by Evan Wyloge)

Todd Sanders (Photo by Evan Wyloge)

Arizona’s business community isn’t the monolithic entity that some people make it out to be, but Todd Sanders sees more unity now than ever.

As the state tries to drag itself out of the economic morass caused by the housing bubble and the recession, Sanders, the president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, said it’s more important than ever for business groups such as his, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, to present a unified front. They stood together during the election behind pro-business candidates from both parties. But the hard part is still ahead.

Sanders, who was raised in Colombia, has seen the rampant inflation and economic hardships faced by other countries, and knows things could be a lot worse here. But Arizona has to make itself a friendlier place for business before its economy can thrive, he said. And while policymakers and other business groups strive to attract new companies to the state, Sanders is more concerned with improving the business environment for companies that are already here.

Sanders, who has headed up the chamber since 2009, sat down with Arizona Capitol Times to discuss the Greater Phoenix Chamber’s electioneering, his hopes for the 2011 legislative session, and what it was like growing up in war-torn Colombia.

The Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce doesn’t usually play as big a role in elections as your counterparts at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, but you appear to have stepped up in the past year with events like 12 in ’10.

Well actually, we have. I guess the difference between us and the (Arizona) chamber is that we focus more on Maricopa County. So on the legislative races, really what we do is focus mainly on Maricopa County. We actually were the first SuperPAC chamber in the state.

This wasn’t really new for us, but I think that some of the things that we engaged in … were higher in profile. It’s important, especially now. All along, big businesses have focused on what happens at the state Capitol. It hasn’t always been the case with our small businesses because they’re waging a day-to-day war to keep their doors open, so it had been harder to engage them in the political process.

What made this election more critical for the Greater Phoenix Chamber and other business groups?

If you look at the unemployment rate, if you look at where we are with the budget, what we’ve done so far on economic development … there was a broad recognition that we need to focus on jobs and we need to focus on the economy. Our main goal was people who are going to look at that. Maybe you have an ideology, but really put a focus on practical policymaking.

So what kinds of things has the Greater Phoenix Chamber traditionally focused on?

GPEC and the chamber complement each other pretty well. GPEC’s role is that of an entity that brings companies and attracts businesses into Arizona. That’s a huge role.

Where we come into play is on the retention side of the equation. That’s all economic development — making sure that we’re nourishing those companies and we’re retaining them, and hopefully growing them.

We have teams of members of our economic development committee actually canvassing the city as we speak, talking to members of the business community, talking to businesses large and small and saying, “What do you need?”

You don’t think the business community in

Arizona has presented enough of a united front. Why hasn’t it?

I think when times are good, people tend to forget about times like these that we’re in right now.

If you ever spent any time at the Capitol, you hear the same thing — the business community is divided, the business community is schizophrenic. And you know what? There’s a lot of merit to some of that, because we haven’t been (united). So I think there’s a broad recognition that we need to be unified and really push the agenda of the production side of the economy.

You guys came together in the past year with events like 12 in ’10, which many people viewed as a push for moderate candidates. Why do you guys prefer those kinds of candidates?

If you have an ideological conservative who’s got a pro-business agenda, I’m going to support him or her. And if you have a very liberal Democrat who’s got a pro-business agenda, I’m going to support them.

It’s maybe how it ended up at the end of the day … but what we say here is we bleed green and we’re going to support candidates who support a pro-business agenda. We didn’t pick people based on where they were on the political spectrum.

But many of the Republicans the chamber endorsed in the primary were running against allies of Senator Russell Pearce, and conservatives largely viewed the event as an attack on them.

I wouldn’t say it was opposition. Again, it’s looking at where people stood in terms of the business side.

There were some of those (anti-Pearce candidates). And I think if you look at our list of folks who we endorsed in the primary and in the general, I think they were a mix. I think you’ll find people who may not necessarily agree with us on immigration that agree with us on other business-related issues. So it wasn’t a referendum on social conservatives.

For most of this year, Arizona’s political discourse was dominated by illegal immigration and SB1070, not business. What kind of impact has that had on businesses here?

I would tell you it’s not been good. It’s not been healthy for the business community.

We believe this is a federal issue that should be handled at the federal level. We’re planning a trip to D.C. to try to talk to the new Congress about focusing on that. That’s difficult and there’s a lot of parts to that, but I think we’ve got to get started. And shame on us if we don’t push that at the federal level.

Are you doing that primarily to take away the impetus for the state to take on illegal immigration issues?

That’s why the state’s stepping in. When I hear Senator Pearce and the governor say we’re doing something because the feds haven’t, they’re right. They’re absolutely right.

It’s not that I want to prevent them, but I think we need to have a 50-state solution that works. We need an immigration policy that works not only at the border but it works in the countries of origin.

What we have now is an 18th century model.

Where does the chamber stand on Pearce’s proposed birthright-citizenship bill?

I suspect that’s something we’re going to oppose. Based on our analysis, you’re going to need a federal constitutional amendment to do that. You can argue the merits … as to whether or not they should be citizens. That’s fine. But I don’t know how you get there with a state law.

I think that there are some questions there. I know that the (Senate) president has said his first priority is going to be the economy and jobs, and I’m looking forward to working with him on that. I’ve worked with him in the past. I staffed him a few times (as a research staffer at the House). And he generally follows through on his words.

If Arizona passes Pearce’s birthright-citizenship bill, is that bad for business?

I don’t know that doing that, first of all, will pass constitutional muster. But I don’t suspect that would be good for business.

What specifically do you want the Legislature and governor to do on jobs and the economy?

Right now we’re putting some work into a jobs bill. Last year, obviously, there was a jobs bill that was proposed … that didn’t make it. We’re working on a new one this year with a few other business organizations. Until we have a final product, it’s tough to comment on it. But we are going to put a jobs bill forward.

Do you think we can afford to pass tax cuts that would go into effect next year?

I think that when you look at tax cuts you’re probably going to have to look at perhaps some triggers, some delayed effective dates.

We have a massive problem in terms of the budget. So that is going to be a significant concern for us. We’re going to ask the Legislature to balance the budget in a real way. So when you look at tax cuts I think you’re going to have to balance with implementation that may happen a few years from now, or be based on certain economic conditions.

Would the chamber rather see across-the-board tax cuts or targeted tax cuts and incentives?

On the corporate income tax I think there’s some room there to look at some cuts. There’s the enterprise-zone legislation that was put forward last year. I’d like to see something like that included in the package.

You spent the first 11 years of your life living in Colombia. What was it like moving to the U.S.?

It was an absolute culture shock. My first language was Spanish. My English was something that we used only at home, and to move into a world at age 11 where it was all English (was) very different.

I was living away from home (at boarding school). At one point, my first year, I ran away, and I made it as far as HoJo’s. I don’t know why, but I ordered a chef’s salad, and then realized I wasn’t going to get to Colombia on $15. And I had to re-sneak back into school and hope no one caught me.

Was it scary living in Colombia at the time? There was a lot of violence and upheaval there in those days.

No. We didn’t know better.

It was very unstable and there were some scary times. There were times when we had to ride to school on the floor of the bus.

There was one time when we all got called out from our classes and we had to go to sort of an assembly area. At that time there was a group called M-19, which was based on a Maoist sort of philosophy. They were a terrorist group. They came in and took the school, and they made us all come up — we didn’t really know any better — and what they did was they read from the Little Red Book. And, of course, it didn’t mean much to us.

But they had guns. And I’ll never forget … if you looked down — it was a on a hill — you could see the front gate, and about a half hour later the U.S. Marines showed up. That was an amazing experience to see the U.S. Marines show up and these guys very quickly put away their things and said, “We’re leaving.”

You never appreciated being an American more until something like that happens and your countrymen are there to save you. It was an American school.

It’s amazing place now. It’s a lot safer. … Now we’re the stable country in the northern part of South America, which is something we never thought we’d see.

So you still think of Colombia as “we?”

I do. I’m a dual citizen. They claim me. They absolutely wanted me to do my military service. I was out of the country. But it’s part of who I am.

How does living in Colombia give you a different perspective on this country than most Americans have?

Being American, we tend to just see America because this is really the greatest country in the world. I think that sometimes we don’t tend to look beyond our borders much, and I think that gave me the opportunity to see there’s a whole other world out there.

We had runaway inflation when we had to get to the states one year. The ticket was, I think, $700. But the problem was that in pesos that ticket kept going up in price because of inflation on a daily basis.


What’s a great Colombian food that people in this country don’t know about?

It’s awesome. It’s called ajiaco. This is a very hearty soup. It’s got chicken and it’s got three kinds of potatoes in it and corn — potatoes you can’t get here — and a special spice.

Was the last book you read in English or Spanish?

The last book I read was actually in English. It’s Karl Rove’s book. We just had Karl Rove here at the Sheraton, so he signed a copy for me. I’m going through it right now.

Do you read in Spanish much?

Not as much as I used to. I like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. … He won the Nobel Prize for literature. And he was expelled as a Marxist from Colombia and was living in Mexico. He does magical realism.

What was the last movie you saw?

I just got married. My beautiful wife has a little guy who’s six, so we went out and saw “Toy Story 3.”

After growing up in Colombia, are you a big soccer fan?

I love soccer. Unfortunately, embarrassingly, Colombia didn’t even make the World Cup.

Who would you root for if the U.S. and Colombia played in the World Cup?

Let me tell you why I’d root for Colombia — the U.S. is a superpower and good at everything, so I’ve got to give my Colombians just a little something. So I’d have to root for Colombia.

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