Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers compared a proposed constitutional amendment that would outlaw gay marriage in North Carolina to the South’s old racist Jim Crow laws.
Bank of America executive Cathy Bessant made a video saying the amendment would “signal that we’re a backward-looking economy” and has the potential to have a “disastrous effect” on the state’s ability to recruit talent.
The two high-profile examples stand out as exceptions among big business in the debate over the proposed marriage amendment on the May 8 ballot.
Publicly, North Carolina’s biggest companies and largest chamber of commerce groups aren’t taking high-profile stands on the amendment proposal, which would define marriage in the state constitution as between one man and one woman.
Krista Tillman, former president of BellSouth Corp.’s N.C. operations (acquired by AT&T in 2007), is now a vocal opponent of the proposed amendment and nothing would please her more than to see more businesses – and their leaders – join her in trying to defeat it.
But she is not surprised by their reticence and admits she’d have less latitude if she were still in her corporate post.
At BellSouth, “we took positions all the time, but always in the telecommunications field,” Tillman said. “Businesses generally take positions only on legislative issues specific to their industry.”
Some smaller businesses and chambers have been more vocal, signing online petitions and passing resolutions urging customers and constituents to vote against the proposal, known as Amendment One.
The varying levels of activism reflect the balance that business leaders, particularly those at large companies, must strike when approaching controversial public-policy issues.
“If you’re a CEO, and concerned with the survival of your business, coming out strongly for or strongly against would without fail alienate some stakeholder group,” said Dr. Steven Rogelberg of UNC Charlotte, who directs a nonprofit unit that provides consulting services to businesses and other organizations.
It’s especially true in conservative-leaning North Carolina, he said. In New York, on the other hand, the business community took the lead in last year’s successful campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.
Supporters and opponents disagree on what impact a ban could have on North Carolina’s business climate. Backers of a ban say the amendment would help preserve a culture that helps attract workers and employers. Proponents also say states with similar amendments top national rankings for business productivity.
Amendment opponents say a ban could drive business away and strip domestic partner benefits from unmarried couples. The ballot statement says one-man one-woman marriages would be “the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”
Segments of the business community spoke up last fall about the wording of the amendment and its potential impact on domestic partner benefits. Bank of America released a statement at the time, touting its own domestic partner benefits and its commitment not to discriminate based on sexual orientation.
‘In a different way’
In speaking out against the amendment, Duke’s Rogers and Bank of America’s Bessant made clear they were speaking on their own, not on behalf of their companies.
Rogers said in his remarks, made at a breakfast club meeting earlier this month , that Duke Energy has employees who come down on both sides of the issue. Bessant’s video has a caption saying the views are her own and do not necessarily reflect the bank’s.
Some business leaders may be working more behind the scenes.
“I can’t say that (businesses) have been largely silent. Some folks do it in a different way, writing letters and writing op eds,” said Gov. Bev Perdue, who has made business recruitment a top priority in her administration. Perdue released a video this month urging voters to follow her in voting against the amendment.
“The business leaders I’ve talked to are very clear to tell me that this would be damaging to our brand, and would affect all the employees’ morale and health care benefits at their companies,” Perdue said. “And so I admire the folks who are standing up and hope more will do that.”
Tillman said she’s seeing a growing number of business leaders taking a stand as individual members of the community. And some are speaking out by putting anti-Amendment One signs in their yards – as founder of Straight Allies Charlotte, some of the 500 signs she’s parceled out have gone to leaders at Wells Fargo & Co. and other businesses.
In a Charlotte Observer email survey of the CEOs of North Carolina’s 50 largest publicly-traded companies, only one weighed in on the potential economic impact of the proposal.
“Without regard to my personal view on this matter, I believe it is important for the North Carolina business community to have access to the very best talent across the diverse sectors of our economy,” emailed Dave King, CEO of Burlington-based Laboratory Corporation of America.
“Policies that may discourage individuals from pursuing careers in our state place North Carolina businesses at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting and retaining talent. In my considered judgment, Amendment One is such a policy.”
Jeff Ansell, who advises businesses on communicating with the public through work with International Association of Business Communicators, said most large corporations have little to gain and much to lose by taking a stand on a political or social issue. Ansell, a media and crisis adviser, is author of “When the Headline Is You: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media.”
Ansell notes Mooresville-based Lowe’s Inc. sparked criticism in December when it pulled ads from the television show “All-American Muslim.”
And retailer Target took heat last year when its political action committee donated to a candidate considered to have anti-gay views.
“It predictably triggered an avalanche of negative feedback principally in social media,” Ansell said – including a YouTube video of a flash mob in a Target store.
Ansell predicts Bessant’s stance will likely lose some business for Bank of America, but not enough to matter. Bessant couldn’t be reached for comment.
Backer: A ‘silly’ expectation
Polls show the amendment passing if the vote were held today, but some surveys find momentum is shifting. Still, on the pro-amendment side, there’s apparently no visible business group lobbying in favor of it.
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition and chairwoman of Vote FOR Marriage N.C., says many amendment supporters, including business leaders, are remaining publicly neutral so they don’t become targets of critics.
Fitzgerald said the amendment is about marriage, not business.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with business,” she said. “…It’s about protecting marriage between one man and one woman. …Any effort to make it about business is undocumented, and unprecedented, and silly.”
On the anti-amendment side, both the Greater Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro chambers of commerce are publicly urging members to vote against the proposed constitutional change, saying the measure would hurt business recruitment.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro, which has a “Vote Against Amendment One” link on its website, reached out to other chambers in an unsuccessful effort to get more supporters, president and CEO Aaron Nelson said. “I think some chambers were worried about the reactions of their members,” he said.
Nelson said response to the stance of the chamber, representing 1,100 businesses and nonprofits, has been overwhelmingly positive. Casey Steinbacher, president and CEO of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, said the group sent out about 4,000 emails outlining its opposition to the amendment, and received only nine replies that disagreed with the stance.
The Charlotte Chamber’s executive committee decided not to take a position on the amendment, a spokeswoman said.
Despite that official silence, Tillman said the local chamber has a “very strongly stated” diversity position that includes sexual orientation, and has been “very supportive” of gays and lesbians.
The Greater Raleigh Chamber’s leadership is divided on the issue, a spokeswoman says, and isn’t taking a stance. The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce also isn’t weighing in on the matter.
A group of nearly 90 businesses, mainly small enterprises, have signed a petition through Protect All NC Families, an anti-amendment coalition. That site features videos made by Bessant and other amendment opponents, including Russell Robinson, a founding partner of Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, P.A. in Charlotte, and his wife, Sally.
The list of anti-amendment businesses on the website has some Charlotte businesses, including Yarnhouse in NoDa, a yarn and fiber arts store. After placing a sign in his store window, owner Christopher Wysocki said a passerby came inside to criticize him.
“He told me, ‘I know how to raise a child. It’s between a man and a woman. ..What you’re doing is offensive.” Wysocki said he told the man to leave.
“I’ve gotten a lot of support from it,” Wysocki said, adding that lots of passersby also give him a thumbs-up for his sign.
Charlotte businessman James Fedele, co-owner of the Soul Gastrolounge restaurant in Plaza-Midwood, is asking fellow business owners to pose with “Vote Against Amendment One” picket signs for photos. He’s posted 28 pictures to his Facebook page so far.
Fedele thought Bessant’s video would raise awareness of the upcoming vote – which he says many still don’t know about – and spur other high-profile voices from the business community. “I’m super surprised and discouraged to find that not a lot of people have followed suit like that,” Fedele said. “…Where the hell is everyone?”
Ansell, the media and crisis adviser, said businesses may be pondering their public stances carefully. “Clearly, companies need to carefully think through the short, medium and long-term consequences of their social and political policies,” Ansell said. “If a company is not determined to ride out the criticism …it’s best to lay low and pass on taking a stand.”
Staff writer Tim Funk contributed.