Minnesota CEO Rallying Fellow Execs to Publicly Oppose Marriage Amendment

Author: Julie Forster and Tom Webb
Publication: Bloomberg Businessweek
Publication Date: June 17th, 2012

 

When he talks privately to other corporate executives, John Taft says he's noticed two things.

First, he finds that almost none of Minnesota's business leaders support the marriage amendment. That amendment would add to the state constitution, "only a union between one man and one woman will be recognized as a marriage in Minnesota."

But second, Taft finds that almost no CEOs are eager to take a public stand on a controversial issue such as same-sex marriage, wary of seeing their companies caught up in a culture war.

So Taft, chief executive of RBC Wealth Management in Minneapolis, is working quietly behind the scenes, hoping to amass the safety in numbers that will allow Minnesota business leaders to say -- in public -- what they're now saying only in private.

"They don't want to be the first ones in the pool. Well, guess what? I jumped in the pool first. The water's just fine," Taft said in an interview at his downtown Minneapolis office.

"My goal is to have several hundred high-profile business executives declare themselves in opposition to the marriage amendment sometime between now and the election," Taft added. "And I am very confident we are going to be able to do that."

The question will go to Minnesota voters in November.

General Mills leapt into the pool last week, opposing the amendment and saying it would hurt the state's business climate and harm gay and lesbian employees. Earlier, St. Jude Medical voiced its opposition, saying it would be harmful to "economic and job growth in Minnesota." They're the only two major corporations to take a stand so far, on either side of the issue.

Meanwhile, the pro-amendment side is lobbying Minnesota's business community, too -- to remain quiet.

"The bottom line with us is that we think corporations should stay out of the debate," said Chuck Darrell, spokesman for Minnesota For Marriage, the coalition promoting the amendment. "It's a cultural matter that has little to do with a corporate mission to earn profits, serve customers and provide good jobs for people in Minnesota."

An arm of the National Organization for Marriage has sent 150 letters to Minnesota businesses, warning against a "public backlash" if companies oppose the amendment.

"We are carefully watching," the letters say.

MULTIPLE FRONTS

The fight over the marriage amendment is being waged on multiple fronts: religious congregations, ethnic communities, neighborhoods, social groups.

In a state rich with corporate headquarters, one of the most intriguing battlegrounds is inside the executive suite. This is a group that tends to lean free-market Republican, and it was Republicans in the Legislature who put the marriage amendment on the ballot.

But on this issue, the old political lines don't necessarily apply.

Take Taft, for example. A life-long Republican, he's the great-grandson of U.S. President William Howard Taft, as well as CEO of brokerage that administers $227 billion in assets.

He's also a father, with a daughter and a stepdaughter who both are lesbians. So he's talking to his fellow CEOs to enlist their help, aided by business leaders like Carlson Cos. CEO Marilyn Carlson Nelson and communications executive Tom Horner, a former political candidate.

They're pitching what Taft calls "the business case" for opposing the marriage amendment.

Taft argues that in today's competitive market, companies need to recruit the best talent; that gays and lesbians are "a critical source of quality employees"; and that Minnesota has long prospered by fostering a welcoming and inclusive culture -- "the brand promise of Minnesota," Taft calls it.

Increasingly, this argument has become part of the gay-marriage debate.

Marc Solomon, national campaign director of the group Freedom To Marry, notes that big corporations didn't used to take sides in gay-marriage fights. Lately, that has begun to change.

"We had a few in New York (in 2011), and we've had a significant amount more (this year) in Washington state," where corporations including Starbucks, Microsoft, Nike and Boeing have spoken out on a ballot measure also coming to a vote in November, Solomon said.

"They sort of speak for the type of civic climate they want to see in their states, so it is important symbolically, and it sends a powerful message," Solomon added.

But it's not happening in every state. In the recent contest in North Carolina, "not a single large company in North Carolina took a position in opposition to the amendment," said Darrell, of Minnesota For Marriage.

The North Carolina marriage amendment passed last month by a wide margin, 61 percent to 39 percent. That makes 32 state ballot measures that supporters of traditional marriage have won.

Darrell believes Minnesota will be the 33rd.

"Our polls show that support for the Minnesota Marriage Amendment is about 56 percent," Darrell said. Given that polling, he believes, "It's just smarter for the corporations to stay out of this battle."

INCLUSIVE CORPORATE CULTURE

And yet, Minnesota's major corporations view gay-rights issues far differently than the religious communities spearheading the amendment push, who tend to regard homosexuality as sinful.

The vast majority of Minnesota's 21 Fortune 500-sized corporations welcome gay and lesbian employees as one of their corporate values. Most have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, offer health care benefits to gay couples and their families, and many sponsor in-house affinity groups for gay and lesbian employees.

Some companies have gone further to make their gay employees feel welcome. Some support gay community events and organizations, including Twin Cities Pride.

Target and Best Buy have released videos for the "It Gets Better" campaign, in which gay and lesbian employees talk about how they were bullied for their sexual orientation as youngsters, but later on, their lives as adults greatly improved. Those messages are directed to young people now in similar circumstances.

For gay-friendly corporations, the marriage amendment presents a corporate conflict. Mollie Young, a founder of Nametag International, a brand consulting business in Minneapolis, understands why corporations are wary.

"Controversial topics of any type, companies are really staying away from, because they have seen several things happen," she said. "One is, with social media, things can go viral very quickly and companies just have minimal control about how that message gets out. It can be twisted, distorted, in many particular ways."

It's no longer just fears of a boycott, she added.

Gay-marriage opponents have started a boycott of Starbucks for its position on the issue in Washington state.

"The way you can be hurt today is a lot more insidious than how you used to be hurt," Young added. "It used to be that a boycott meant loss of sales. Now, a boycott via social media can be a lot more damaging to a brand, because people can change the discourse on a brand, which can taint the brand. It's harder to erase."

Given the tensions, Taft is encouraging a middle way for business: urging top executives to personally oppose the marriage amendment, then donate money to its defeat.

Some executives have followed this path: Doug Baker, CEO of Ecolab; James Pohlad, owner of the Minnesota Twins; and Bruce Dayton, retired CEO of Dayton-Hudson (now Target). This week, the latest contribution reports will become public.

Horner, a one-time candidate for governor, thinks Minnesota business is crucial to the campaign against the amendment.

"It's important for business leaders to make that case that this is an economic issue," Horner said. "It's not just about gays and lesbians, it's about the kind of state we want and it's about attracting young, well-educated, talented workers to the state. 
"We want to make the case that having a welcoming community is in everyone's best economic interest."