Sunday Phone Calls Mobilized Black Business Elite on Voting Rights
(Bloomberg) -- After long careers and arduous ascensions to the top of corporate America, some 72 Black executives found themselves in recent days facing a unique moment -- an opportunity to emerge from the comfort of executive suites, boardrooms, and inner sanctums of Wall Street, and take a stand on an issue that they say greatly impacts all Americans, especially those of color.
This new Black power began to take shape Sunday. Three days earlier, the Georgia state legislature had passed a sweeping GOP-backed voting rights bill, which critics say seeks to disenfranchise Black voters by making it more difficult to participate in elections. Republicans are pushing similar bills that opponents say will restrict voting for ethnic-minority voters in dozens of more states.
On Sunday, Ken Chenault, the former longtime chief executive officer of American Express Co. spoke by phone with Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of drugmaker Merck & Co. The two began to sketch out a plan to write an open letter addressed directly to “Corporate America,” demanding it publicly oppose discriminatory measures designed to limit Americans’ ability to vote.
“We decided that what we could do that will be most impactful was to put together for the first time a group of African-American executives in the corporate sector, have them come together on a social issue, and there was no more important issue than the right to vote,” Chenault said in an interview. “There are no excuses this time.”
Chenault and Frazier began making calls and sending emails to the relative few others who have attained the kind of power that they have, and within hours they amassed an ad-hoc coalition of the Black power elite -- including Starbucks Corp. Chairwoman Mellody Hobson, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald, and former Citigroup Inc. vice chairman and New York City mayoral candidate Ray McGuire. The purpose of reaching out to the others was a very necessary, perhaps overdue, call-to-action, said Chenault.
Frazier, who has been a staunch voice on racial justice while serving as one of only a handful of Black executives helming a Fortune 500 company, called Debra Lee, former CEO of ViacomCBS Inc.’s BET Networks. Lee was immediately engaged in the idea. After George Floyd’s death last year, Lee said, it became clear that “if government is going to fail to act, it falls upon corporate leaders to act.”
Co-founder of Gennx360 Capital Partners Ronald Blaylock said his communications lines were buzzing Sunday. He received text messages from Charles Phillips, the co-chair of the Black Economic Alliance and the former president of Oracle Corp. And, Blaylock had an email from the “two Kens,” he recalled. “If you get a note from Ken Frazier and Ken Chenault, you know it’s worth paying attention to,” he said.
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Upon reading more about the recent legislation, Blaylock knew immediately that the open letter was something he needed to be very visible in supporting. “Business executives now feel they can’t be bystanders,” he said in an interview.
Blaylock added that the list of signatories is a tight-knit group, because “unfortunately” there aren’t many more Black executives like them. “I know probably 90% of the people on that list fairly well,” he said. “It was a quick groundswell.”
There will be just five Black CEOs in the S&P 500 after Frazier retires from Merck at the end of June, including Roz Brewer, who took over at Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. on March 15, the only Black woman.
Ultimately, the group partnered with the BEA -- a political action committee that some of them are members of -- and together they published a full-page advertisement in Wednesday’s New York Times. It called on corporate America to take a “non-partisan” stance “against those who seek to employ unjust and undemocratic laws in order to divide us and thwart the will of the people.” The group said that the state of “Georgia is backtracking on the hard-won right to vote.”
The new Georgia law requires voters to provide a state-issued identification card when requesting an absentee ballot, limits drop boxes, and lets any Georgian challenge the voting eligibility of an unlimited number of voters, among other restrictions.
Before and after the bill’s passage, most major corporations took no public position on it. Some Atlanta-based firms, including Delta Air Lines Inc. and Coca-Cola Co., were criticized for their failure to oppose the bill, prompting voting rights activists to threaten boycotts.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian changed course Wednesday, saying in a memo to employees that Georgia’s new voting law “does not match Delta’s values.” Bastian said Delta and other companies had some success in eliminating the law’s “most suppressive tactics,” but he said the final version of the bill remained unacceptable.
Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey said on CNBC on Wednesday that the company has “always opposed” legislation that restricts voter access in Georgia. He said that Coke decided to share its stance publicly now that the bill has passed and that the company will continue to advocate for change both privately and publicly.
After the Black leaders spoke, other companies also began to take public positions on the legislation:
- Microsoft Corp. President Brad Smith issued a statement saying the company recently decided to invest “substantially” in Atlanta, and is “concerned” about the election law.
- MetLife Inc. defended everyone’s right to vote, but did not mention Georgia.
- In a LinkedIn post, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock Inc., said that “voting is not just a right, but a vital component of civil activity.”
- Steve Squeri, the CEO of AmEx, said in a statement that the company will stand against any efforts to suppress voting.
The Georgia law is reverberating with Black corporate leaders beyond the list of those who signed the letter. Citigroup Inc. Chief Financial Officer Mark Mason, one of the most powerful Black executives on Wall Street, called the new voting law in Georgia a disgrace and vowed to fight similar efforts afoot in other states. Citigroup employs thousands of workers in places including Texas, Missouri and Kentucky where similar legislation has been proposed.
With similar GOP-backed legislation brewing in some 43 other states, the group of Black executives, most of whom grew up during the Civil Rights era, have found in this moment an opportunity to together leverage all of the power that they have worked so hard to obtain.
Chenault said they did not want to see companies simply release statements in opposition to the new legislation. Instead, he said, they want those at the seat of power inside corporations to wield their influential resources, dispatch their lobbyists, and utilize other powerful tools to make their position known.
Corporate leaders “don’t need to be taught how to do this,” Chenault said. “They do it every day. We’re asking they use their influence.”
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