There's taking the company line, and then there's the job Microsoft spokeswoman Tami Begasse has to do when called upon to defend the company's flip-flop on a Washington state bill that would have outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Microsoft has a good reputation on gay rights issues, and it clearly would like to keep it. Thus, when we talked to Begasse this afternoon, we heard a lot about the benefits Microsoft provides to domestic partners and such. But when we asked for an explanation for why Microsoft went from supporting the Washington bill to being neutral on it, we got variations on the same two sentences -- over and over again -- that Microsoft provided to the New York Times yesterday. "We made a decision before this legislative session, as we do each year, that we would focus our energy on a limited number of issues that are directly related to our business," Begasse told us. "That decision was not influenced by external factors."
The "outside factors" in question would be threats of a boycott Microsoft received from Ken Hutcherson, the minister of a mega-church in Redmond, Wash. Begasse insisted that Microsoft made its decision to switch from supporting the anti-discrimination bill to being neutral on it before meeting with Hutcherson. The reason? We got the line about "focusing our energy on a limited number of issues" again.
But here's the part that doesn't make sense. If Microsoft wanted to "focus" its "energy" on a "limited number of issues" in the current legislative session, it could have just left matters as they were. Begasse told us that, while Microsoft sent out a letter last year in support of the bill, it had never lobbied actively on its behalf. So why not leave it at that? Microsoft didn't have to do anything more, and it would have been free to "focus" its energy on other legislation. But by changing its position on the anti-discrimination bill from "support" to "neutral," Microsoft did focus on the issue -- it had to inform the sponsor of the legislation, it had to meet with gay and lesbian employees, and now it's had to take a lot of criticism for the late-game switch. If Microsoft really wanted to preserve its resources to "focus" on issues closer to the core of its business, wouldn't it have been better to remain in support of the bill and leave it at that?
We asked Begasse that question as many ways as we could, and the answer was always the same. "We did move to a neutral position on the bill, but it was in order to focus our energies on legislative issues that are directly related to our business," Begasse said. "It wasn't influenced by external factors."