Longtime U.S. Chamber of Commerce chief Thomas Donohue, a storied player on K Street for decades, is stepping back from his role atop the organization, shedding his title as president but pledging to remain with the group as CEO until June 2022.
Suzanne P. Clark, currently the chamber’s senior executive vice president, will assume the role of president, the group said Wednesday, noting it will “undertake a global search” for the next CEO.
“Securing the dynamic leadership of Tom and Suzanne ensures the Chamber can focus on near-term political priorities and long-term sustainability,” Tom Wilson, who chairs the group’s board of directors and runs the Allstate Corp., said in a news release. “The Chamber is deep in talent and expertise and I am thrilled that Tom and Suzanne are committed to leading this team at this important time.”
Clark, in a phone interview, said the transition was “the board saying, ‘OK, team, keep on keeping on.’” The group’s policy priorities, including trade and infrastructure, will remain at the top of the agenda, she said.
Donohue, 80, has run the chamber since 1997 and has fielded questions about his possible retirement for years. “Older Americans should have incentives to work well past 65,” he said during a news conference early this year.
The gig is a crown jewel of K Street jobs, so it’s no wonder Donohue would leave slowly and reluctantly. His compensation was more than $6.6 million, according to the organization’s 2017 IRS form 990. And the chamber routinely is the top spender on federal lobbying, reporting $22.1 million on federal lobbying in the first three months of this year.
“The corner office at the chamber is without a doubt one of the most coveted spots in Washington,” said headhunter Ivan Adler. “It’s about as high profile as it gets and is a career maker or breaker for sure.”
Under Donohue’s leadership, the chamber has cultivated a reputation for playing a prominent role in policy and politics, typically favoring the GOP agenda, such as tax cuts, and Republican candidates. But earlier this year, the group announced it would revamp its criteria for rating and endorsing lawmakers, relying more on bipartisanship in an attempt to rebuild the governing-focused political center.
It was an outward sign the group has seen its clout diminish within the GOP, as the party has pursued more populist policies, such as the Trump administration’s tariffs and trade wars, rather than the free-trade priorities of the pro-business wing of the party.
The chamber’s political operation spent more than $7 million in outside expenditures during the 2017-2018 election cycle, with $6 million supporting Republican candidates, $1 million spent to defeat Democrats and less than $500,000 spent to defeat Republicans, according to a tabulation from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
“Lawmakers should be rewarded for reaching across the aisle — not punished,” Donohue said in January during his annual “State of American Business” address. He added “governing by crisis” is no way to do the nation’s business.
Leslie Hortum, a K Street recruiter for the search firm Spencer Stuart, said in an email that the change “provides for thoughtful succession planning” and offers “a great recognition of all Tom and Suzanne have done to keep the Chamber strong and relevant.”