WASHINGTON — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has hired former Maine Gov. John McKernan to lead the powerful business organization’s nonprofit foundation and to advise top chamber officials on key policy issues.
McKernan said Thursday that as president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, he will likely focus on issues affecting the country’s job growth and competitiveness in the global economy, including education and skills training for future workers.
And in a secondary role as senior adviser to the chamber’s president and CEO, McKernan could also have a voice in developing policy priorities and in some of the influential organization’s campaign activities.
“I have worked on competitiveness issues since I was in Congress in the early ’80s,” said McKernan, a two-term Republican governor who represented Maine’s 1st District for six years in Washington. “The purpose of the chamber is to focus on competitiveness and to address issues that have an impact on our economy and our businesses.”
McKernan joins an organization with a huge footprint in business and political circles. The chamber describes itself as “the world’s largest business organization.” But the organization’s political arms – which are separate from the foundation McKernan will run – spent more than $35 million on elections last year, making it a heavyweight during campaign season.
The position will also allow McKernan and his wife, former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, to continue working in Washington. Snowe, who retired in January after 34 years in Congress, is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.
“Olympia and I have made the decision that we are going to spend the majority of our professional time in Washington,” McKernan said Thursday by phone.
Asked whether they plan to change their residency to Washington, McKernan replied with a laugh “absolutely not” and said they will spend much of their nonprofessional time at home in Maine.
“That’s where our life is outside of work,” he said.
McKernan said he will retain his position on the board of directors of Education Management Corp., which operates for-profit colleges in more than 100 locations around the country. Education Management has come under intense federal scrutiny in recent years along with other for-profit colleges over use of federal financial aid, recruiting techniques and high withdrawal rates.
The chamber foundation is a nonprofit offshoot of the larger organization “dedicated to strengthening America’s long-term competitiveness by addressing developments that affect our nation, our economy, and the global business environment.”
The foundation conducts research, writes reports and recommends policy changes that are then presented to chamber leaders. It also runs programs such as Hiring for Heroes, which aims to help veterans and military spouses find employment through job fairs.
McKernan said one focus will be promoting “Common Core,” the push for national academic standards touted as providing more robust and relevant standards for today’s economy. The standards remain controversial.
McKernan will serve as a senior adviser to U.S. Chamber President and CEO Thomas Donohue, who said in a prepared statement that McKernan has “the perfect mix of public and private sector experiences.”
“Jock has dedicated his entire life to strengthening America’s economy, enhancing our global competitiveness, promoting innovation, and improving education and workforce training,” Donohue said. “He’s successfully pursued these goals as a governor, congressman, and CEO.”
The chamber’s political spending last year largely went to support Republican candidates or to oppose Democrats. Because of its nonprofit status and independence from specific candidates, the chamber was not required to report its donors, earning it rebukes from labor unions, liberal groups and money-in-politics watchdog groups.
A spokesperson for the organization said the “U.S. Chamber Foundation does not have anything to do with the chamber’s lobbying or political activity.”
But McKernan’s other position as a senior adviser to Donohue could mean he will cross over into the political realm.
Asked how he would be involved in the chamber’s political activity, McKernan said he would likely advise on some political issues and on supporting candidates perceived as supporting the organization’s goals on job growth and competitiveness.
McKernan said he will also work closely with local and state chambers – including those in Maine – to promote the policies espoused by the foundation.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: