The low hum of discontent finally became audible on the last day of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC) Annual Convention, held in Los Angeles October 16–19, 2002. After listening to a litany of complaints and comments during a general membership session, incoming USHCC Chairman J.R. Gonzales concluded, "We hear you, and we have to fix the system."
Earlier in the day, a group of disgruntled chambers staged a public protest on the steps of the Los Angeles Convention Center to oppose the election of USHCC board members. Dissenting chambers included such heavyweights as the Latin Business Association (LBA), the ostensible host of the USHCC convention; the Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce (TAMACC); the Florida State Hispanic Chamber; and the Albuquerque (New Mexico) Hispano Chamber. Although each chamber had its own story, they expressed similar themes: exclusion of board candidates or member chambers from the election process, confusion over the rules, suspicions that exclusions were politically motivated, and lack of communication from USHCC leadership.
Dissent erupted on the first day of the convention, when the LBA addressed the USHCC board about the exclusion of David Lizárraga as a candidate for a board seat. The USHCC had ruled that the LBA was not a member in good standing and therefore couldn't sponsor Mr. Lizárraga for the election. After reviewing the case – including such minutiae as the dates of canceled checks and certified letters – the USHCC board reaffirmed Mr. Lizárraga's ineligibility.
Thereafter, a dissenting coalition came together almost spontaneously. By the final day of the convention, it had 60 chambers, an attorney, and a press release enumerating its complaints (to see the release, go to www.HispanicBusiness.com/go/ushcc). At press time, 130 chambers had joined the coalition.
In response, the USHCC issued a statement (see www.HispanicBusiness.com/go/ushcc) detailing its election procedures for 200 Hispanic chambers across the country, of which 133 qualified as members. Later in the day, a new board took office and Mr. Gonzales formally assumed chairmanship of the organization.
In the aftermath of the convention, the dissenting chambers adopted the name Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce for Fairness and Inclusion. Also, the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (FSHCC) gathered the reform-minded state chambers to participate in its Annual Conference and Procurement Expo. At the event, the coalition signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Hispanic Business Roundtable, and five state Hispanic chambers. The agreement outlines plans for 16 to 18 regional small-business events around the country focusing on procurement and capital access issues.
Hispanic Business interviewed both Mr. Gonzales of the USHCC and Mr. Lizárraga of the coalition; edited versions of their comments are presented here.
THE NEW CHAIRMAN
J.R. Gonzales assumes leadership of the USHCC in the midst of an organizational crisis, the depth of which he may not recognize.
Like most nonprofits, the USHCC has an established routine for leadership succession: the vice-chairman moves up to the top spot when the chairman retires. This year, the organization nearly broke form, but in the end former vice-chairman J.R. Gonzales of Texas won a three-way election to become the new chairman.
He inherits a chamber confronting a public protest as well as calls for financial and board transparency (see "Agendas Cross in the USHCC Boardroom," September 2002).
Mr. Gonzales, CEO of the public relations firm JRG Communications, spoke with Hispanic Business via telephone from Austin, Texas.
HB: What is your platform as chairman? What projects or issues do you plan to emphasize? Any major changes?
JRG: Here are some bullet points we're going to be working on: •Increasing procurement to chambers, and better access to capital for chambers. We have a procurement committee that last year concentrated on corporate markets; now they're expanding their focus to the government. We're working to expand opportunities for members – not chambers, but individual businesses that belong to those chambers. The USHCC should be a vehicle and clearinghouse for those opportunities. •Increasing membership and outreach efforts. According to the last annual report, the USHCC has increased membership from 91 members in 1998 to 133 in 2002. •Developing a program under which local chambers can receive a percentage of investment dollars when corporations invest with the USHCC. •Fostering outreach to other Hispanic organizations and working with those who share our agenda. HB: How about the coalition [of chambers]. How do you plan to handle its emergence? You are talking with them, right?
JRG: Ever since the [USHCC] convention we have maintained dialogue with individuals and organizations about the process. Let me emphasize that the process has always been open. The process used in Los Angeles was used in Atlanta and the previous conventions.