Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce cancels issues forum after calls of complaint

WICHITA — The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce has canceled a federal issues forum it planned for April 19 in response to complaints from its members and U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt’s office.

“We’ve been well communicated with,” says Sam Williams, chamber chairman.

“It’s a political year, and we didn’t probably pay enough attention to the political ramifications.”

The chamber invited U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran to speak at the forum.

Moran and Tiahrt, both Republicans, are running against each other for U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback’s seat.

Williams says the forum is meant to be a nonpolitical gathering to discuss issues in Washington that affect local businesses.

“We thought this was going to be pretty interesting just because of all the health care stuff going on,” Williams says.

With the pressure that everyone is under these days, though, he says, “Things that maybe in the past wouldn’t have been so important just get overblown.”

The forum will be rescheduled, but neither Moran nor Tiahrt will be at it.

“Bottom line?” says Todd Novascone, Moran’s chief of staff. “As of yesterday or the day before, we are disinvited.”

Regarding Tiahrt’s office, Novascone says, “I don’t want to use the word arrogant . . . but I’ve never seen pressure like that. It just kind of really shocked me.”

In a prepared statement, Tiahrt spokesman Sam Sackett said: “We received several calls from Wichita Chamber members upset that Jerry Moran was speaking at a federal issues forum here in Wichita but that Congressman Tiahrt wasn’t. We called the chamber to ask if Mr. Tiahrt was also invited to the issues forum.”

Chamber spokeswoman Barby Jobe says Tiahrt has been invited to chamber issue forums in the past. One was scheduled for last fall, but Tiahrt canceled.

He was invited to speak the previous year, but Tiahrt didn’t accept.

“A lot of it was we just couldn’t make our schedules match up,” Jobe says.

She says the last time Tiahrt spoke to the chamber was in 2004 when it helped him put on a small business outlook conference.

Tiahrt was not invited to speak April 19.

After learning of the forum, Jobe says Tiahrt’s office said it was open to a debate between Tiahrt and Moran. She says the forum is not the right time or place for that.

Jobe and Williams say there will be a chance for Tiahrt and Moran to speak or debate before chamber members closer to the primary.

“Congressman Tiahrt looks forward to participating in it,” Sackett said in his statement.

Novascone says Moran’s office wasn’t looking for a political event at the April 19 forum.

“Our whole deal was to keep it official,” he says.

He says that Moran’s office “would never pressure a chamber to disinvite another elected official.”

Wichita City Council member Sue Schlapp was one of the people who called the chamber to express concern over the forum.

“It looks like the chamber is endorsing Jerry Moran,” she says. “That can’t be their intent.”

She says she had a “very pleasant” conversation with chamber president and CEO Bryan Derreberry to say as much.

“I just want you to think about how this is going to look to the public,” she told him. “You can say it’s not . . . political, but that’s the way it’s going to be perceived.”

Williams says it’s a lesson he and the chamber have learned.

“We’re smarter today than we were in terms of understanding when we should do something and when we shouldn’t.

“Absolutely, I’m smarter.”