When Kevin Brinegar began his legislative work, bills were copied with mimeographs, conference committee meetings took place in hotel rooms or bars, and legislators flung rubber bands and held up signs during boring discussions.
That was about 40 years ago. Now Brinegar will be stepping down from his role as president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce in January 2024 after nearly 30 years with the organization.
“I wanted to see if I could find something where I would, you know, continue to be able to utilize my knowledge of state governments and relationships that I built and the understanding,” Brinegar said. “But you know, was there a way to do that in a business setting or on behalf of the business community?”
He had met the tax and fiscal policy lobbyist with the Indiana Chamber at the time in the halls of the Statehouse and learned that he would be leaving. Brinegar went for the job and worked his way up to president and CEO by 2002.
“It’s been great really, as I said in other media accounts,” Brinegar said. “Perfect job for me because I get to continue to pursue my passion for public policy and making a difference, you know, for the state of Indiana and the people of Indiana and the businesses that are our members.”
The date of his retirement was selected early to allow the Chamber to form a search committee for the new president and for Brinegar to be around to train his replacement.
Thirty years of the Chamber
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce has 25,000 members and investors from 92 counties, according to Brinegar. The group is a major player in legislation due to the span of its membership.
Brinegar spent most of his time at the Chamber in support of Republican policies and legislators, especially as they advocated for business tax cuts.
Overall, Andy Downs, director of Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, said the Indiana Chamber usually gets what it wants.
“I think if you looked at the overall score sheet, while there may have been some sessions where the Chamber did better than other sessions, on the whole, easily, they can say, ‘we have a winning record,’” Downs said.
The Republican supermajority and support from previous governors Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence and especially current Gov. Eric Holcomb has helped to support the group, Downs said. Holcomb’s prioritizing of workforce development and of economic issues over social issues have been beneficial for the group, he said.
“If you go back further, even when the Democrats occasionally did have control of the House of Representatives, it was usually a pretty narrow control, so there had to be some compromise between the D’s and the R’s,” Downs said. “Additionally, there are plenty of D’s who understand that the economy needs to be moving in order for the state to do well.”
The Chamber’s position on the vaccine legislation was that businesses should be able to impose vaccine mandates but not be required. Brinegar and his colleagues worked to get the portion of the bill that required employers to pay for the testing of unvaccinated employees removed.
“Ultimately, that’s the direction Sen. Messmer went, and we were very grateful to him and his colleagues for pushing it that way,” Brinegar said.
Downs cited the Chamber’s stand against Gov. Mike Pence’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, as an example of how the Chamber has evolved its politics. The Chamber was against the legislation, which was viewed by many as being discriminatory and had the potential to drive businesses away from the state.
“The modifications to the original legislation were a great example of a coalition of organizations coming together that nobody would have normally put together,” Downs said. “The Chamber of Commerce was there with certain civil rights organizations and LGBTQ organizations. That’s not where they normally exist.”
Downs spoke specifically of Brinegar’s willingness to work with different people to change the legislation.
“He, as the leader of the organization, was willing to go out and form some of those strange partnerships, but in the end, he was about businesses,” Downs said.
The Chamber also repeatedly advocated for an increase in the state’s cigarette tax, a goal that was never fully realized.
Brinegar ran the 400-meter dash in track in high school, where his coach would tell him to “run all the way through the tape” across the finish line. He plans to apply this advice to the remainder of his time with the Chamber.
“That is exactly what I intend to do and what I promised my staff, my board, my executive committee,” Brinegar said. “Close to the end, we’ll keep running hard and do all I can to put this Chamber in a great position moving forward.”
In this final stretch, the Chamber will be building out its Institute for Workforce Excellence, specifically in creating a talent resource navigator that will help workplaces address challenges and everyday Hoosiers find training programs and funding to help get jobs.
In his retirement, Brinegar doesn’t necessarily plan to slow down. He’s thinking of teaching an IUPUI class to help business students see the benefits of government and help students who may work in government understand the business perspective.
“My working title is ‘The Intersection of Business and Government’ or ‘Why Businesses Hate Government So Much,’” Brinegar said. “I may drop that last part but, trying to show how government works, show the future bureaucrats the perspective of the businesses.”
As a lifelong Pacers fan, he wants to find a way to spend more time at Gainbridge Fieldhouse by potentially working with the team or the Indiana Sports Corp.
He also wants to play more golf, be with his family and spend a little more time throwing a tennis ball for his two Labrador retrievers.