New Chamber chief brings political savvy to Miami-Dade

Phillis Oeters, new Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce chief, wants the business group to help Miami-Dade companies get into the political game.

 

In this election year, South Florida’s largest business group now has a political junkie at the top.

Phillis Oeters, vice president of government relations at the Baptist Health hospital system, took over this summer as chairwoman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

Her work at Baptist puts her on the frontlines of politics as she protects Baptist’s interests at all levels of government. Now the rotating volunteer Chamber chair post gives Oeters a chance to press her pet projects at the industry group, and she’s focusing on putting the Chamber even more into local politics.

A major idea: set up a political “hobnob” event — a sort of trade show where politicians could mingle with Chamber members. “A lot of people feel their legislators are unapproachable,’’ Oeters said. “The common people and business leaders don’t have as much access to elected officials as they did in the past.”

Oeters is a frequent donor to a range of Florida and national leaders (then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Iowa’s Republican Senator Charles Grassley). She was up past midnight on primary day in August to see how some of the closest South Florida contests ended.

Yet, Oeters says she’s wary about the Chamber moving to the forefront of Miami-Dade’s political economy. While a committee of Chamber members is exploring the creation of a political action committee that could make donations to campaigns, Oeters hints practical matters could be a problem.

“Call me a skeptic,’’ she said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to: Do we have the companies and individuals that will contribute to this kind of PAC? You’d need a lot of money in that PAC to make a substantial difference on the funding side of it.”

In a telephone interview from her Baptist office, Oeters talked politics, her longtime sailing hobby and the reputation Miami keeps trying to live down. Q. Why does Miami-Dade have such trouble recruiting large firms and companies?

First of all, our cost of living is a little bit higher than the other cities. And I think people by nature are reticent about change. And when you move to Miami-Dade, you’re moving to a city that is so different from anything else that exists in the United States. It’s this multi-cultural city that I think a lot of people are afraid to embrace. Yet when you talk to people who have lived here and embraced it, they wouldn’t ever leave.Q. When you travel, are there any misperceptions of Miami you find yourself correcting?

Totally. First of all, let’s face it we have been in every major publication about our Medicare fraud — our Medicaid and our Medicare fraud. About being the center of the pill mills. People still think about us being associated with crime.

Then you also have things like South Beach and the vacation part. Anyone who has been here wants to come back .I think our reputation is changing nationally and internationally. Because I run in healthcare circles, I have a core of people who know us for the worst.Q. Tell me about your plan for a political hobnob.

I think the elected officials want to be invited to meet with the business community, and I think that’s something I can provide.

The other thing is Tallahassee is not the easiest place to get to. And it’s expensive. Miami-Dade is made up of small to medium businesses.