CEOs plan new push on voting legislation
Dozens of chief executives and other senior leaders gathered on Zoom this weekend to plot what several said big businesses should do next about new voting laws under way in Texas and other states.
Kenneth Chenault, the former chief executive of American Express Co. , and Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck & Co., urged the leaders to collectively call for greater voting access, according to several people who attended. Messrs. Chenault and Frazier warned businesses against dropping the issue and asked CEOs to sign a statement opposing what they view as discriminatory legislation on voting, the people said.
The new statement could come early this week, the people said, and would build on one that 72 Black executives signed last month in the wake of changes to Georgia’s voting laws.
Mr. Chenault told executives on the call that several leaders had signaled they would sign on, including executives at PepsiCo Inc., PayPal Holdings Inc., T. Rowe Price Group Inc. and Hess Corp. , among others, according to the people. PayPal confirmed it has signed the statement. PepsiCo, T. Rowe Price and Hess didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
As more companies and their leaders have spoken out on the issue in recent weeks, their stands have drawn the ire of Republican state and federal legislators who say companies are miscasting the matter and shouldn’t act as shadow lawmakers. Meanwhile, activists and others have said that the actions leaders are taking aren’t strong enough. Many CEOs now feel a duty, or pressure, to make their views explicitly known to employees and others, executive advisers said.
Plenty of companies remain wary of wading into politically charged areas. One executive from a Fortune 100 consumer-products company said board members, employees and vendors are pressing leaders to speak out, but doing so could put a bull’s-eye on the company.
“It’s really a no-win situation from a corporate standpoint,” the executive said.
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who also owns the Atlanta United soccer team and PGA Tour Superstore, said on the call he believes a large share of fans of the National Football League, Major League Soccer and Professional Golfers’ Association want the groups to make their positions known on voting rights, people on the call said.
Mr. Blank, a co-founder of Home Depot Inc., also said some fans are expecting the NFL to say more now compared with five years ago when NFL player Colin Kaepernick first spoke out on racial justice, the people said.
Mellody Hobson, the chairwoman of Starbucks Corp. , said on the call that political unrest is bad for business and executives should work together on voting issues as states consider legislation and as the trial over George Floyd’s killing continues, the people said. Ms. Hobson declined to comment through a spokeswoman.
Some leaders spoke out in favor of signing on to the new statement, including AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. CEO Adam Aron, Inclusive Capital Partners head and Estée Lauder Cos. director Lynn Forester de Rothschild and CyberCore Technologies CEO Tina Kuhn, according to people familiar with the call. Others didn’t.
Mr. Aron and an AMC spokesman didn’t respond to requests for comment. Ms. Kuhn and Ms. Forester de Rothschild said they were proud to support the statement.
The issue is unlikely to dissipate soon. More than 350 different voting bills are under consideration in dozens of states, according to a tally from the Brennan Center for Justice, a public-policy think tank.
Some executives on the call described some bills as either racist or restrictive, and several participants described their efforts as critical to democracy, rather than partisan.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale School of Management professor, convened the CEO gathering and said many corporate leaders are concerned that voting legislation could affect employees or other stakeholders. “They don’t want wedge issues,” he said. “They just don’t want angry constituencies. It’s not in the interest of business.”
Brad Karp, chairman of law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, has organized dozens of large law firm leaders to put out a separate statement that will call on government officials to make voting easier and challenge bills that impose unnecessary obstacles, according to people on the call and people familiar with the efforts.
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, who plans to sign the new statement, said that in his conversations with CEOs, including Republican chief executives, most have said they don’t see the need for laws to tighten voter access, though many are fearful of speaking out.
“There is no more difficult job in America today than leading a public company,” Mr. Walker said.
“There are so many stakeholders who have a point of view about what ought to be the priority of your company, and have views that are sometimes diametrically opposed.”
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