How We’ll Know If Corporations Backslide on Jan. 6 Pledges

Four days after insurrectionists stormed the Capitol and 147 Republicans voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election, Judd Legum reported in his newsletter that three major corporations had decided to stop contributing to the federal legislators.

Legum and his research assistant had contacted 146 companies that supported some of the lawmakers, but only the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Marriott International Inc. and Commerce Bancshares Inc. said they would stop giving. Legum’s disclosure prompted dozens of other Fortune 500 companies to follow suit. Citigroup Inc. told its employees in an internal memo it would “not support candidates who do not respect the rule of law,” language that approximated other companies’ stances. As Bloomberg News put it in a headline, “Corporations’ Political Reckoning Began With a Newsletter.”

The events of Jan. 6 touched off an existential crisis in corporate America, which had long been a dependable Republican ally, a generous contributor to Democrats and a behind-the-scenes force around contentious political issues. Upheavals during Donald Trump’s presidency, culminating in the January riot, upended that cozy arrangement — for the time being at least. The Republican Party has taken to mocking businesses for being too woke. Businesses are navigating unfamiliar political waters, still deciding what to do with the piles of money they typically funnel into the electoral system.

And Legum remains in the middle of the debate. On any given day, his newsletter, Popular Information, and his Twitter feed offer the most attentive accounting of the businesses community’s support for politicians who refused to acknowledge President Joe Biden’s election. Legum also monitors how corporations respond to legislators’ voter-suppression efforts.

He recently took Google, Deloitte and Citigroup to task for funding and collaborating with the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group that has pushed new laws meant to suppress voting rights. Businesses’ positions on voting rights came under a spotlight in April, after Delta Air Lines Inc., Coca-Cola Co., United Parcel Service Inc., several other corporations and a group of 72 Black business executives condemned Republican legislators’ efforts to restrict voting rights in Georgia. The issue has since intensified, with companies struggling to maintain neutrality as states such as Arizona, Florida and Texas also put voting rights in play and federal legislation aimed at protecting those rights winds through Congress.

“This ‘neutral’ posture on voting legislation is a myth,” Legum wrote last week. “AT&T and other large corporations are currently spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat federal legislation that scholars say is required to save American democracy.”

Legum told me that despite some recent disappointments he has been impressed by some of the stances corporations have taken since Jan. 6. Before passing any final judgments, he plans to continue digging into quarterly disclosure of political donations. It’s still too soon to know whether businesses will permanently reorient their political spending.

“The overwhelming majority kept their pledges over the first three months,” he said. “We’ll really find the answer after two years or four years if we want to know if there’s systemic change.”

Legum, 42, launched Popular Information in 2018, drawing inspiration from an 1822 letter written by James Madison. “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it,” Madison wrote, “is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” One of Legum’s goals is to provide “news for people who give a damn.”

“I never really envisioned myself getting into journalism,” he said. “I grew up watching C-Span and thinking about a career in politics.”

He grew up in Maryland, studied public policy at Pomona College in California and then earned a degree from Georgetown Law. He later worked for a left-leaning policy institute, the Center for American Progress, and then as a research director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. After making his own unsuccessful bid for public office, he started a popular politics and policy blog called Think Progress.

The blog thrived for more than a decade and attracted as many as 13 million readers a month. But because Think Progress relied on social media traction to drive growth, Legum and his team were forced to stock it with breezy, quick hits. Managing the site eventually wore him down. He started Popular Information to get back to deep research and writing.

I asked him if setting out on his own had unnerved him. “I definitely did not feel fearless about it,” he said, noting that he and his wife have a child. “I didn’t really know what I was doing.”

But the launch coincided with the growth of Substack, the platform that provides publishing and other logistical support to independent newsletter writers. It also coincided with intense public interest in Trump and the topsy-turvy political landscape. Popular Information was well suited to both moments. The newsletter has become one of Substack’s top publications, with thousands of subscribers paying $6 a month.

Legum originally thought he would offer a mix of question-and-answer items and briefer pieces to break up the longer articles he loves to write. But his audience has responded so well to deeper reporting, he has emphasized his prodigious digging. That has presented time-management challenges as he scrambles to publish four times a week, but he remains enthusiastic.

“I do like the idea of tracking these mundane tasks and plowing through them and then kicking out something of value into the world — and these reverberations from the work are kind of electric,” he said.

At the beginning of the pandemic last year, Legum looked into whether companies were providing paid sick leave for employees. Darden Restaurants Inc., which owns a collection of eateries including Olive Garden, was one that wasn’t. After Legum’s inquiry, the company reversed course and began offering the benefit to its 170,000 hourly employees.

A bigger reverberation came from his examination of corporate political spending. “The reason I decided to focus on corporations is because corporations, particularly at the state level, have a huge influence on policy issues, especially in the states where they’re based,” he said.

He began paying closer attention to the issue last December, when 126 Republicans in Congress signed onto a legal brief in Texas seeking to overturn the 2020 election results in four swing states. Shortly before Jan. 6, he published a list of the companies that donated to those legislators. He called some of the companies for comment, but none got back to him.

The insurrection at the Capitol convinced him to focus on the six Republican senators who objected to the certification of the election and their corporate donors. This time, three companies responded. After he published an article about those senators on Jan. 10, mainstream news outlets picked up his work, and the issue snowballed. Many more companies began returning his calls.

More important, employees inside the companies began sending him internal communiques about political donations. He published as many as he could. At that point, “the companies began contacting me without me even getting in touch with them,” he said.

Microsoft Corp., goaded by some current and former employees, toughened its policies on political giving after Jan. 6, as did Hallmark Cards Inc. The greeting card company asked Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Roger Marshall of Kansas to return its donations after they challenged Biden’s victory. Legum sees both Microsoft and Hallmark as exemplars of correct corporate behavior. He also applauds companies that pushed back against voter suppression initiatives in Georgia and Texas.

Nevertheless, he worries about complacency.

“Sometimes I think there’s an attitude that this is just the way things are done and this isn’t news,” he said. “And I’m not sure that’s the best way to think about these things.”

Legum recently excoriated Walmart Inc. for donating to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which supports at least 130 members of Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 election, after saying in January it would indefinitely suspend contributions to some of those same lawmakers.

Legume has been equally troubled by the willingness of corporations such as Merck & Co. to donate to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is chaired by Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who voted against certifying the 2020 election.

“These corporations are banking on people losing interest in their political activity,” Legum recently tweeted. Perhaps. Though probably not while Popular Information is around.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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