First-of-its-kind meeting draws more than 100 corporate leaders to discuss state voting laws
(CBS News) - More than 100 of the nation’s top corporate leaders met virtually on Saturday to discuss ways for companies to continue responding to the passage of more restrictive voting laws across the country, a signal that the nation’s premier businesses are preparing a far more robust, organized response to the ongoing debate.
With some CEOs chiming in from Augusta National Golf Course, site of the Masters PGA golf tournament, attendees on the high-level Zoom call included leaders from the health care, media and transportation sectors and some of the nation’s leading law and investment firms.
“The gathering was an enthusiastic voluntary statement of defiance against threats of reprisals for exercising their patriotic voices,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale University management professor who helped organize the confab.
The corporate leaders “recognize that they need to step up to the plate and are not fearful of these reprisals,” he added. “They’re showing a disdain for these political attacks. Not only are they fortifying each other, but they see that this spreading of disease of voter restrictions from Georgia to up to possibly 46 other states is based on a false premise and its’ anti-democratic.”
The nonpartisan Brennan Center, which has been tracking voting law proposals across the country, found that lawmakers in 47 states have introduced 361 bills that would restrict voting access. Of those restrictive bills, at least 55 are currently moving through legislatures in 24 states. So far, 29 of them have passed one chamber, while 26 of them have made it through a committee vote. Overall, five bills have been signed into law, including Georgia’s in late March.
In the wake of Georgia’s new law, Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola and Aflac Insurance, among other companies based in the Peach State, spoke out in opposition to the law. Republican leaders, including former president Trump, have in turn called for boycotts of the companies for speaking out. Liberal organizations, civil rights groups and some Democratic Party leaders have said the firms didn’t speak out forcefully enough or before passage of the law, a move they argue that might have stopped the law’s passage.
That blowback, plus the recent decision by 72 current and former Black executives to speak out more forcefully about proposed changes to election laws inspired those on the call to act, Sonnenfeld said.
“These CEOs said, ‘Enough of that, we’re going to come together and reinforce our fellow CEOs.’ It was a statement of affirmation that the voice of business in the political world is worthwhile,” he said.
Organizers also stressed that the meeting was being put together long before Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last week angrily denounced and criticized corporate leaders he said were being misled by Democratic arguments against the new laws. Traveling in Kentucky last week, McConnell urged corporate leaders to “stay out of politics” and warned there would be unspecified consequences for speaking out against the new laws. He later backed off those comments, but said the corporate leaders were wrong.
Participants in the meeting confirmed McConnell’s comments came up, but were not a central focus of the meeting.
“There was humor and mockery about that,” said one participant, adding that another person on the call “made a reference to ‘just give us your money and stay quiet.’ Another said, ‘isn’t it ironic who’s talking about cancel culture?’”
“It wasn’t a primary area of discussion,” another participant said of McConnell’s comments, “but certainly everyone is cognizant of it and aware of it. In no way was he an impetus for this – talk of doing this meeting started before he spoke out.”
Attendees included Arthur Blank, owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons; James Murdoch and his wife, Kathryn Hufschmid; Adam Aron, CEO of AMC Theatres; Brad Karp, chairman of the law firm, Paul, Weiss; Mellody Hobson, co-CEO of Ariel Investments; Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart; Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines; Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines; Chip Bergh, chairman of Levi Strauss Company; Reid Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn, multiple people familiar with the meeting told CBS News.
Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, and Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines, were also invited but unable to attend, those familiar said.
Bob Bakish, president and CEO of ViacomCBS, also attended the meeting. A spokesman for the company, which operates CBS News, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
“We invited 120 CEO’s with about 50 hours notice. We were praying for 25 and we got 90 CEO’s and another 30 invited guests including legal experts, technology experts and historians,” Sonnenfeld said.
In addition to Sonnenfeld, the meeting was organized by Lynn Forester de Rothschild, the founding partner of Inclusive Capitalism LLC, and Leadership Now, a group of Harvard University alums and corporate leaders focused on sustaining democracy.
Among those who spoke on Saturday’s call were Kenneth Chenault, the former CEO of American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive of Merck, who helped organize the drive by 72 Black executives and encouraged participants to do more.
The meeting ended with no concrete game plan or timetable, but with a general plan to draft potential responses based on a firm’s size and resources.
Sonnenfeld and other participants on the call said that there was no pressure, encouragement or assistance from members of the Democratic or Republican parties, but that some had suggested reaching out “elder statespeople” in both parties to assist with next steps. For now, however, the group is expected to keep political leaders out of their discussions.
“Obviously there’s been a big wake up call over the last few weeks. The business community doesn’t want to be caught on their heels about this. So it’s about protecting leadership and not missing out on an opportunity to do so,” said another person familiar with the meeting.
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