Monday, September 27News That Matters

Corporate Leaders Discuss How to Address Georgia’s Voting Laws

With Republicans in Texas and other states continuing to advance restrictive election legislation, corporate chieftains around the country have stepped up their efforts in recent days to oppose such laws and defend voting rights.

Two prominent Black executives are enlisting major corporations to sign a new statement opposing “discriminatory legislation,” and PayPal and Twilio said Monday that they had agreed to add their names. BlackRock, the investment firm, was likely to sign the statement but had not yet committed, according to a person familiar with the situation. Other companies were also in discussion to sign on, two people familiar with the deliberations said.

A group of major law firms formed a coalition “to challenge voter suppression legislation.”

And a film starring Will Smith and financed by Apple pulled its production out of Georgia on Monday in protest of the state’s new voting law, a warning shot to other legislatures.

“Corporations are always reticent to get engaged in partisan battling,” said Richard A. Gephardt, a Democrat and former House majority leader who is in conversation with corporate leaders about their responses. “But this is about whether we’re going to protect the democracy. If you lose the democracy, you lose capitalism.”

Texas is quickly shaping up as the next major battleground in the fight over voting access. Two omnibus bills that would introduce a raft of voting restrictions are working their way through the Legislature there.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, has signaled staunch support for both bills, an indication that Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican, will swiftly sign them if they make it to his desk.

Major corporations based in Texas, including American Airlines and Dell Technologies, have already voiced opposition to the bills. And AT&T, which has its headquarters in Dallas, has said it does not support bills that restrict access to voting, though it did not specifically mention Texas.

The statements angered Republicans in Texas, and Mr. Patrick delivered a harsh rebuke, taking specific aim at American Airlines.

“Well, let me tell you what, Mr. American Airlines: I take it personally,” he said in a news conference last week. “You’re questioning my integrity and the integrity of the governor and the integrity of the 18 Republicans who voted for this,” he added, referring to the 18-to-13 vote that passed one of the bills in the State Senate.

The Texas bills were central to a discussion on Saturday afternoon when more than 100 corporate leaders met on Zoom to discuss what, if anything, they should do to shape the debate around voting rights.

Several on the call, which was organized by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale professor who regularly gathers executives to discuss politics, spoke forcefully about the need for companies to use their clout to oppose new state legislation that would make it harder to vote.

Mia Mends, the chief administrative officer at Sodexo, who is Black and based in Houston, called on the other executives to focus their energies in Texas, and said she was doing the same.

“One of the things I’m doing this week is getting on the phone with many of our leaders to say: ‘We need you to take a stand. We need your company to take a stand,’” Ms. Mends said in a later interview. “And that means not just saying we support voting rights, but to talk concretely about what we need, what we’d like to see change in the bill.”

The Zoom meeting began with statements from Ken Chenault, a former American Express chief, and Ken Frazier, the chief executive of Merck, who said they were asking companies to sign a statement opposing restrictive voting laws, according to several people who attended the meeting.

Last month, Mr. Chenault and Mr. Frazier organized 70 fellow Black leaders to sign a letter calling on companies to fight bills that restrict voting rights, like the one that Georgia passed.

Later in the Zoom meeting, Chip Bergh, the chief executive of Levi Strauss & Company, called the bills a threat to democracy, and toward the end, Reid Hoffman, the LinkedIn co-founder, discussed the importance of having corporate leaders affirm that the 2020 election was secure. One of the last speakers was James Murdoch, the former chief executive of 21st Century Fox, who talked about the importance of a healthy democracy.

Also on the call was Brad Karp, the chairman of the law firm Paul Weiss. On Monday, Mr. Karp said he had organized the coalition of law firms, which also include Skadden; Cravath, Swaine & Moore; and Wachtell Lipton.

“It puts legislators on notice that if there are laws that are unconstitutional or illegal they will face pushback from the legal community,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York think tank that is working with the coalition. “This is beyond the pale. You’re hearing that from the business community, and you’re hearing it from the legal community.”

The voting-rights debate is putting companies at the center of an increasingly heated partisan battle.

“C.E.O.s are grappling right now with what to do and how to respond,” said Daniella Ballou-Aares, who is chief executive of the Leadership Now Project, a consortium that promotes democratic principles, and who helped organize the Zoom call. “There is a lot of confusion.”

Beyond making statements, business leaders are weighing what actions they can take to influence the policy decisions made by Republican lawmakers who have embraced overhauling voting rights as a priority.

One drastic step is taking business out of a state. Major League Baseball moved its 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver because of the Georgia law, and Mr. Smith and the director Antoine Fuqua said on Monday that they no longer planned to shoot their film, “Emancipation,” in the state.

“Emancipation” was the first major production to cite the law as a reason to leave the state, which has become a film and television production hub. In the film, set to begin production this summer, Mr. Smith will play a real-life enslaved man who emancipated himself from a Southern plantation and joined the Union Army.

“We cannot in good conscience provide economic support to a government that enacts regressive voting laws that are designed to restrict voter access,” Mr. Smith and Mr. Fuqua said in a joint statement. “The new Georgia voting laws are reminiscent of voting impediments that were passed at the end of Reconstruction to prevent many Americans from voting.”

Several years ago, when Republicans advanced so-called bathroom bills that discriminated against transgender people, major companies threatened to take their business out of states including Indiana, North Carolina and Texas. Those laws failed to gain traction.

Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, both based in Atlanta, lobbied behind the scenes for changes in the Georgia legislation before it was passed last month, and said their efforts had a hand in removing some of the most restrictive provisions, such as an elimination of Sunday voting.

The companies did not voice public opposition before the law was passed. But when Delta and Coca-Cola criticized it afterward, and other corporations began sounding the alarm about the voting legislation being proposed in nearly every state, Republican leaders lashed out.

“My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said last week. “It’s not what you’re designed for. And don’t be intimidated by the left into taking up causes that put you right in the middle of America’s greatest political debates.”

Yet the business community does not appear to be standing down, with more companies and business groups preparing to get involved.

“All these C.E.O.s came together days after McConnell admonished corporations to stay out of politics,” said Tom Rogers, founder of CNBC, who attended the Zoom meeting. “In convening, they were saying as a group that they were not going to be intimidated into not voicing their views on their issues.”

Like Georgia, Texas is an important state for big business, with companies and their employees drawn in part by tax incentives and the promise of affordable real estate. Several Silicon Valley companies have moved to Texas or expanded their presence there in recent years.

Apple plans to open a $1 billion campus in Austin next year, and produces some of its high-end computers at a plant in the area.

In December, Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced that it would move its headquarters from California to the Houston area, while the software company Oracle said it would take its headquarters to Austin. And last month, Elon Musk issued a plea on Twitter for engineers to move to Texas and take jobs at SpaceX, his aerospace company.

Mr. Musk’s other companies, Tesla and the Boring Company, have also expanded their presences in the state in recent months.

None of those companies have so far voiced opposition to the Texas legislation. And at least for now, there is little indication that the growing outcry from big business is changing Republicans’ priorities.

“Texas is the next one up,” said one chief executive who attended the Zoom meeting but asked to remain anonymous. “Whether the business commitments will have a meaningful impact there, we’ll see.”

Reporting was contributed by Nick Corasaniti, Kate Conger, Lauren Hirsch and Nicole Sperling.