The Ames Chamber of Commerce has refused to comment on the recent white supremacist-boosting and anti-diversity tweets of Congressman Steve King, whom the organization invited to its Main Street headquarters Nov. 20, despite an inclusivity statement it adopted in January that emphasizes it “believes in and stands for values of inclusion, equity and justice.”
Reached for comment on three occasions and asked specifically about the tweets — which included a retweet of a white supremacist website whose founder has supported the views of Adolf Hitler and King’s comment that “[a]ssimilation, not diversity, is our American strength” — the Chamber would not even acknowledge the question. Instead, Andrea Hammes Dodge, the group’s public relations director, said only, “The Ames Chamber of Commerce has a long history of working with elected officials from the local, state, and federal levels, and we will always work with those representatives who impact the Ames and Story County community.”
This is true (as the Informer noted in its initial request for comment), but the Chamber’s refusal to address King’s views, several of which including his anti-diversity comment explicitly echo those of white nationalists, raises questions about its commitment to its inclusivity statement in Ames, a relatively diverse college town in King’s 4th Congressional District. (We also pointed out other comments made by King, including insinuations that undocumented immigrants tend to be violent criminals and his claim that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was “sympathetic to ISIS” because he has a Muslim girlfriend and protested against racial injustice during the national anthem.)
The Chamber and its affiliate groups “maintain the belief that all people are allowed the freedom to express themselves respectfully,” according to the inclusivity statement. “Embracing differences within the Chamber membership and community at-large makes the organizations stronger and better diversified,” the statement says. “The Chamber believes in and stands for values of inclusion, equity and justice.”
It also states that the Chamber “will not tolerate personal expression that is harmful, hurtful, derogatory, or threatening in any manner at any event or within any portion of Chamber programming.” There’s no indication that King made any such comments at the Nov. 20 event, which was open to invited members of the press (the Informer was not on the Chamber’s press list at the time) and members of the organization. King’s most recent tweets were posted after the event, but he’d previously made numerous similar tweets including one praised by former Klansman David Duke.
Nor was it clear if anyone, reporters included, asked King any challenging questions. The Ames Tribune’s story focused entirely on tax reform. An article by the Iowa State Daily touched on a handful of other issues King addressed, as well as his story about a recent phone call with Donald Trump. (Trump has also retweeted white supremacists on Twitter, including the Hitler-endorsing founder of the website whose tweet King retweeted last month.)
“He had other things he wanted to talk about, but what I learned was that as soon as the president gets done saying what he wants to say, he wants to hang the phone up,” King said, according to the Daily. “I decided in an instant, I’m gonna talk to him about all the things I want to talk about first and if he hangs up before he gets said what he wants to say, I guess that won’t be so bad, I can read that on Twitter.”
In a statement after the event that also included details about his other activities in Iowa, King said: “I also enjoyed having the opportunity to meet with the members of the Ames Chamber of Commerce to discuss the issues that are on their agenda. The Ames Chamber includes representatives from Iowa State University, local communities like Nevada and Story City, and important job creators like Alliant Energy and Danfoss Power Solutions. We share a belief in the importance of international trade to Iowa’s economy, and it is a pleasure to work with them on issues like tax reform and regulatory reform.”
According to Dodge, the Chamber’s inclusivity statement “was developed with support from the board and was implemented in the corporate policy manual in January 2017.”
The statement also addresses vendors invited to events held by the Chamber and its affiliates, which include the Main Street Cultural District. “The Chamber and its affiliates make every attempt to ensure vendors of our events and programs maintain the integrity of the Ames Chamber of Commerce,” it says.
It is unclear whether the inclusivity statement was implemented as a result of the MSCD’s Ames Bike Night, an event the organization held for several months last year, and the reaction to the Informer’s coverage of Confederate flags on display at one of the bike nights that included a flag flying atop a vendor’s trailer in the middle of the 200 block of Main Street. The MSCD subsequently apologized for the flags’ display during a City Council meeting and said in a statement that it was “in the final stages of developing our policies to keep future vendors from making overt political statements at our events.”
Later, the Ames Human Relations Commission addressed the Bike Night situation during an August 2016 meeting. At the meeting, Chamber members downplayed the Confederate flag controversy, saying no one approached them at the event to complain about the flags. If they had, Chamber president Dan Culhane said then, the organization would have taken action.
Dodge dodged our question asking whether the Chamber’s inclusivity statement included any of the policies the MSCD last year said it was working on adopting. Cindy Hicks, the director of the MSCD, did not respond to requests for comment about the statement. However, Hicks told us in February that her organization had “a final draft of a [revised] vendor application” that it would post to its website. The current application (PDF) states that “[p]rofanity, yelling, heckling, and offensive behavior” by vendors “will not be tolerated” and that complaints made about vendors “may result in further inquiry or disciplinary action including up to and removal from event premises.”