Corporate executives played key role in passage of the VRA

When the Voting Rights Act (VRA) came before Congress this month, it enjoyed the vigorous backing of civil-rights advocates, social progressives and other familiar groups.

The measure also attracted support from a surprising constituency: corporate chieftains.

More than 10 top corporate executives urged members of Congress to renew the 1965 law protecting minority voters from discrimination at the polls. Among them were senior officials from AT&T, CBS, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Eli Lilly, Freddie Mac, Pepsi, Tyco, Verizon, Wal-Mart and the Walt Disney Co. Pfizer CEO Hank McKinnell also weighed in on behalf of the Business Roundtable, a group of 150 chief executives.

The CEO support was unusual. Corporate lobby shops typically shy away from social issues, preferring to work on legislation directly affecting their industries or the overall economy.

In this case, however, companies made exceptions, citing reasons as diverse as promoting democracy, fueling the information economy and supporting workplace diversity. Several observers noted that the companies could also score points with like-minded lawmakers or derive positive public attention from the move.

To be sure, companies or their executives often dip their feet in social causes, sponsoring feel-good events for employees, funding corporate charities and lending a hand in benign government efforts to eradicate some social ill. But it is rare for business interests to extend that support to direct advocacy for legislation, especially on bills that have attracted controversy.

A prominent business group, the National Association of Manufacturers, withstood criticism last year when its president, John Engler, announced the group would step into the contentious arena of social issues by pushing for the administration’s judicial nominees.

The VRA passed only after overcoming several hurdles.

A group of conservative House Republicans objected to provisions in the bill requiring bilingual ballots and federal “pre-clearing” of election-law changes in some states. The protests forced House leaders to pull the bill from the floor last month, essentially a concession that they did not yet have sufficient votes to pass it. When it came up again July 13, it passed 390-33, but only after lengthy negotiations among House Republicans.

It was during that uncertain time that several chief executives stepped into the fray after being contacted by civil-rights advocates who had discussed the idea during a July 10 Black Leadership Forum conference call.

The NAACP, the Urban League and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are leading members of the Forum. NAACP head Bruce Gordon is a former Verizon executive.

Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg wrote lawmakers July 11 calling the bill “vital to the continuation of our free and open democracy.”

“As a communications company, Verizon thrives on the robust, rich diversity of our communities,” he wrote.

Writing July 12, Tyco CEO Edward Breen acknowledged that the company rarely weighed in on social matters

“As a company, we generally take positions on public-policy issues only where they have a direct impact on our businesses. But in this case, we believe that ensuring the right to vote is a basic principle of democracy and we have a responsibility to express our support for legislation that protects it,” Breen wrote.

Whether the backing of executives like Seidenberg, Breen and others had any influence on lawmakers’ votes is hard to tell, but CBC Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.) did not rule it out.

“Corporate influence is heavy in this institution for good or bad,” he said. “A lot of members believe that when a corporation takes a position, it gives them the necessary justification and/or cover to support it. These corporations are doing business in some jurisdiction they’re running in. … Some members think if the corporations take a controversial position, it’s easier for them to.”

Wal-Mart was the first high-profile company to back the bill. It did so in 2005 after meeting with CBC members. At that gathering, the black lawmakers asked Wal-Mart executives which part of the CBC’s agenda they could support. Wal-Mart chose the VRA reauthorization.

In June 2005, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott wrote to President Bush calling for renewal. He then wrote to congressional leaders July 10.

“Wal-Mart is the largest private employer of African-Americans and Hispanics and we, therefore, have a particular interest in this issue. On behalf of them as well as our millions of customers whose lives are touched by this landmark statute, we believe it is important to move forward expeditiously,” Scott wrote.

Celia Wexler, vice president for advocacy at consumer group Common Cause, said supporting the VRA was a wise move for Wal-Mart.

“It’s not a bad idea from a public-relations perspective, especially for a company like Wal-Mart that has faced criticism for a lot of its practices” she said. Wal-Mart is the target of a massive class-action suit alleging discrimination against female employees.

In his July 12 letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), CBS chief Les Moonves argued that the VRA directly affects his company because it allows a free society to thrive: “The company that is CBS … could not exist in anything other than a free society. The daily exchange of ideas and conflicting views, whether in news, sports or entertainment programming, would not be nearly as robust … without the cornerstone of our society … the utterly free flow of ideas.”

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