The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce announced Monday that its new president will be Douglas Loon, a longtime Midwest regional executive for the U.S. Chamber.
He will fill the vacancy left by the death last July of David Olson, who led the state’s largest business lobby for nearly a quarter century.
“A perfect choice. He’s smart. He has a good reputation with both sides of the aisle. He knows Minnesota well,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. “He’ll be well received at the Capitol.”
Loon, 50, grew up in South Dakota, worked in Washington for a Pennsylvania senator and has been based in Minnesota since 1998. His wife, Jenifer Loon, is a Republican state representative from Eden Prairie.
Douglas Loon will take the post in September and spend the fall months touring the state and preparing for next year’s legislative session.
The Chamber and its mostly Republican allies are coming off a strong year in which the GOP took the Minnesota House and logged a solid performance in the 2015 legislative session.
Taxes and transportation were left unresolved and will be a battleground in 2016. The chamber also lists immigration reform and education as key issues, as the state struggles to deal with an aging workforce and the shifting demographics of its younger population.
Chamber members and leaders seethed over a 2013 tax hike on the wealthiest Minnesotans and a rise in the minimum wage. But the state’s economy has remained among the nation’s healthiest and unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since 2006.
“We know that Minnesota is a great place to start, build and grow a business,” Loon said. “It is not strictly the government that has built that. That is built by the private marketplace and their resiliency and ability to compete.”
Last week, the annual ranking by CNBC of the business environment in states — which named Minnesota the best state for business — provided a new moment for Democrats and Republicans to square off over what they believe is driving the state’s success.
In an interview, Loon said CNBC’s accolade doesn’t mean the state can’t improve and pointed to the TV network’s finding of high taxes as a disadvantage for Minnesota businesses.
The Minnesota Chamber, which represents more than 2,300 companies across the state, helped Republicans take control of the Minnesota House in 2014, and Loon said the next step is to win the Senate.
“If you look at just the political landscape, that’s going to be a place where everybody’s going to put focus,” he said. “I would describe it as protect and advance, protect the working pro-business majority that they enjoy and continue to expand it. We’re going to be looking for friends where we can find them, and on each issue you build coalitions of the willing.”
But he also called the chamber a “nonpartisan organization” and said “pro-business” is not code for Republican. He rejected the notion that his appointment gives fuel to critics who say the chamber is just a fundraising and lobbying arm of the state GOP.
“They may try to paint me with that broad brush, but the reality is I work for a nonpartisan organization now, and I expect to operate in a nonpartisan way at the chamber,” Loon said.
After serving as legislative director for Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, early in his career, Loon has been at the U.S. Chamber since 1995 and based in Minnesota since 1998.
He manages the national chamber’s seven regional offices that handle political and grass roots outreach. He also manages the U.S. Chamber’s Midwest region, which includes Minnesota.
One of Loon’s strengths is his experience working with local chambers and trade groups and the businesses that make up their backbone.
“I think he can relate well to small businesses that are the chamber’s bread-and-butter,” Weaver said.
Bill Blazar, who served as interim president and did not apply for the chamber’s president position, will guide Loon through the transition while returning to his previous role as senior vice president of public affairs and business development.