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DJ U.S. Chamber's Thomas Donohue to Step Down in Favor of Suzanne Clark -- 4th Update

· 02/05/2021 20:10
By Brody Mullins

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will announce next week that longtime chief Thomas Donohue will step down and that Suzanne Clark will assume the role of president and chief executive officer of the organization, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Donohue, 82 years old, has led the Chamber for more than two decades. He had planned to leave the organization next year, but decided to leave earlier after the Chamber's board agreed to name Ms. Clark as his successor.

Ms. Clark, a loyal ally of Mr. Donohue, took over as president of the Chamber in 2019.

The Chamber has organized a series of board meetings, all-staff meetings and conference calls next week to announce the transition officially, according to people familiar with the Chamber's plans. The transition was earlier reported by Axios.

"The Board is engaged in a rigorous multiyear succession process to name a new CEO," a spokesman for the Chamber said in a statement. "When a final decision has been reached, there will be an announcement."

In recent years Mr. Donohue has delegated many responsibilities of the Chamber's operations to Ms. Clark. Her work to reposition the organization has included a campaign to recruit more small and midsize firms and to bring in more high-tech companies.

Mr. Donohue's departure from the Chamber caps a long career in which he helped build the Chamber into one of the largest and most influential voices of big business in Washington.

Mr. Donohue took over the Chamber during the Clinton administration at a time of waning influence for the organization, turning it around by taking strong pro-business stances on policy issues including taxes, regulation and free trade -- and raising lots of money.

He spent much of his time on the road, traveling around the country to meet with corporate CEOs to ask for large donations for the Chamber.

Mr. Donohue used the money to create one of the largest lobbying operations in Washington and to create a robust political wing to help elect pro-business candidates.

From 1998 to last year, the Chamber of Commerce spent a total of $1.6 billion on lobbying efforts in Washington, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

That was $1 billion more than the amount spent on lobbying by the next biggest organization during the same period.

Meantime, Mr. Donohue built a large political operation and became a major supporter of mostly Republican candidates for Congress. By the mid 2010s, the Chamber spent about $35 million each election on television advertisements and other efforts to elect candidates to Congress that would help the interests of business.

In recent years, however, Mr. Donohue and the Chamber have suffered setbacks.

The Chamber's influence has declined in the midst of the rise of anti-corporate populists in the Republican Party and progressives in the Democratic Party. That change shrank the ranks of pro-business centrists in both political parties, whom the Chamber once relied on to protect its agenda in government.

During the 2016 election, Mr. Donohue was critical of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. After Mr. Trump moved into the White House, he battled with the Chamber over several policy issues, including the president's trade policy and Chinese tariffs.

Mr. Donohue tapped Ms. Clark to help him run the chamber several years ago, when he was devoting his time to helping his wife, Liz, battle cancer. After Ms. Donohue died, Ms. Clark continued to take over day-to-day responsibilities at the Chamber.

In 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported on the decline in the Chamber's internal finances, in part from a drop in the corporate donations.

The Journal also reported that Mr. Donohue was permitted to use the Chamber's private plane to take personal trips at the Chamber's expense.

After the story was published, the Chamber announced that Mr. Donohue would step down as president of the Chamber, to be succeeded by Ms. Clark. The Chamber said at the time that Mr. Donohue would remain as CEO for several more years before departing.

The Chamber has drawn fire from its own ranks for other moves.

During the 2020 election, the Chamber endorsed Democrats in 32 House races, drawing backlash from Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump and then-Vice President Mike Pence together called Mr. Donohue to tell him they were upset by the Democratic endorsements. In a statement to the Journal at the time, the Chamber's Neil Bradley said the nonprofit organization needed to endorse "centrist, business-minded Democrats" as well as Republicans.

The Chamber endorsed 232 Republicans in the House and didn't endorse any Democrats in the Senate.

Just before President Biden was sworn into office last month, the Chamber announced that it supports a market-based approach to reducing harmful emissions of greenhouse gases.

Write to Brody Mullins at brody.mullins@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 05, 2021 20:10 ET (01:10 GMT)

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