Big corporate donors claim to support racial justice — but fund Republicans pushing voting limits

Companies that virtue-signaled on BLM are funding the very lawmakers "stripping voting rights" from Black people

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published April 17, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)

Corporate America is taking a stand against new voting restrictions around the country, boycotting states that imposed harsh new laws and speaking out against proposed limits in others. But many top corporate political donors who have touted their commitments to racial equity and diversity have also funded the Republican lawmakers who are pushing bills aimed at making it more difficult to vote.

Three of the top five corporate donors to state lawmakers in Texas promoted their commitments to racial justice — but have also donated $493,000 to state senators who sponsored Senate Bill 7. That legislation would limit early voting and absentee voting while empowering partisan poll watchers and clearly targets Houston, the state's densest population center, where a majority of voters are people of color, according to a new report from the left-leaning government watchdog Accountable.US.

Top corporate donors in Arizona, including defense contracting giant Raytheon, which made a $25 million commitment to help "racially and ethnically marginalized communities," have donated $76,647 to three sponsors of state Senate bills that would limit mail-in voting and purge residents from voter rolls, as the state tilts blue as a result of quickly changing demographics.

Four of the top five corporate donors in Florida, including Disney, have contributed more than $230,000 to state legislators behind bills that would restrict mail-in voting and make it a crime to give water or food to voters in long lines — despite vowing their support for inclusion, racial equity and Black Lives Matter.

The effect these laws may have on voter turnout is not entirely clear, but the bills — which are among more than 360 introduced across the country in response to former President Trump's and his allies' baseless claims of election fraud — will inherently make it more difficult to vote. Some, like many of Trump's election lawsuits, appear directly targeted at areas with large numbers of voters of color. One Black Texas pastor has condemned the Texas legislation as Jim Crow "in a tuxedo."

"These corporations tout commitments to diversity and racial equity, then they turn around and donate thousands to lawmakers responsible for stripping voting rights away from Black and brown Americans," Accountable.US President Kyle Herrig said in a statement to Salon. "As these states actively attempt to suppress voter participation, corporations need to live up to their values and disavow racist attacks on our democracy."

Utility firms Exelon Corp. and Oncor and the tax firm Ryan LLC, the three biggest corporate donors in Texas behind Blackridge and AT&T, all expressed commitment to equality and diversity in the wake of the 2020 racial justice protests. Exelon even features a Black Lives Matter page on its website to highlight its "fierce commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity." But the companies have given nearly a half-million to sponsors of SB 7, including some that have "troubling prior histories of racism, discrimination, or voter suppression," according to the Accountable report. The voting bill has sparked concerns that lawmakers are targeting "innovations that were especially effective last year in reaching voters of color," according to the Austin American-Statesman, and could contribute to a "surge in voter intimidation" by empowering partisan poll watchers.

"This bill is anti-democratic, anti-voter, and once again, demonstrates how far current leadership is willing to go to protect their own partisan interests," the nonpartisan government watchdog group Common Cause Texas said in a statement.

Exelon CEO Chris Crane vowed to "speak up if I see behavior that isn't consistent" with the company's commitment to diversity and inclusion. Ryan LLC has also touted its commitment to these values after it was named to Fortune Magazine's "Best Workplaces for Diversity" list for the fourth time in five years in 2019. Oncor promotes its dedication to diversity and disadvantaged communities and commemorated Black History Month by posting Martin Luther King Jr.'s quote, "It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people."

All three firms have contributed to SB 7 sponsors, including some who have supported controversial bills and made offensive statements well before the voting restriction effort. State Sen. Charles Creighton, a sponsor of SB 7, previously sponsored a failed bill that would ban local governments from taking down Confederate monuments. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who is backing seven bills that would impose new voting restrictions, previously resigned as a Harris County official after he was accused of voter suppression for delaying thousands of voter applications that were disproportionately Democratic. State Sen. Bob Hall defended a self-declared "white nationalist" in 2018 after he called for a "rope and a tree" for a Black lawmaker.

The top five corporate donors in Arizona have also touted their racial justice credentials. Utility firm Pinnacle West says on its website that "equity and inclusion is a key force driving" the company's principles and promotes its inclusion in the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's 2020 Corporate Equality Index. Salt River Project, another utility company, trumpets its contributions to racial justice groups and support for diversity and underserved populations. Defense contractor Raytheon committed $25 million to support racial justice programs and support for "racially and ethnically marginalized communities." Southwest Gas, the largest distributor of natural gas in the state, says it prides itself on "our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion." The mining company Freeport  McMoRan has an entire page devoted to "inclusion and diversity."

All five firms have contributed to Republican state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, who sponsored several bills that drew alarm from voting rights groups. Senate Bill 1485, which would purge inactive voters, "could lead to voters being tossed off the rolls for missing a single election," voting rights groups warn. Ugenti-Rita also co-sponsored Senate Bill 1713, which would increase voter ID burdens for mail voters. The senator previously sponsored a 2016 "ballot harvesting" law struck down by a federal court for violating the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by disproportionately impacting Native American, Hispanic and Black voters. Ugenti-Rita made headlines last year when she called to expand the rights of business owners to shoot vandals during the 2020 racial justice protests.

The five firms have also contributed more than $45,000 to state Sen. Javan Mesnard, the lead sponsor of SB 1713. Mesnard, the former speaker of the Arizona House, in 2018 formally reprimanded the only two Black members of the Arizona legislature for calling out a Republican colleague who used a racial slur.

All five companies have also donated to state Sen. David Gowan, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1593, which would limit the mail voting window. The bill could disproportionately impact Native American voters, many of whom do not have home mail service. Gowan, another former Arizona House Speaker, previously came under criticism in 2016 for authorizing a "civil rights conference" on the House floor held by a group that claims the civil rights movement had been "hijacked" by Black people and denigrates "English-speaking white citizens."

A similar trend is playing out in Florida, where lawmakers have unveiled a laundry list of proposed voter restrictions that Democrats have decried as a "voter suppression tactic" and a "backlash" to record vote-by-mail turnout that favored Democrats. Four of the five top corporate donors to state lawmakers have funneled $230,500 to legislators pushing the restrictions despite espousing their commitment to racial justice.

HCA Healthcare last year said it was "united in the public outcry to put an end to systemic racism." Walt Disney released a video last year in support of Black Lives Matter and promoted messages of racial justice from the company's Black employees. FCCI Insurance says that diversity, equity and inclusion are "integral" to the company's mission. The GEO Group, a real estate firm that invests in private prisons, includes "embracing diversity and inclusion" among its core values.

HCA and Disney have both contributed to state Sen. Dennis Baxley, the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 90. Baxley was accused by advocacy groups in 2019 of "proudly parrot[ing] white supremacist" rhetoric by echoing the white "replacement" theory, claiming that Europeans are being "replaced by" immigrants. Baxley was the only member of the Senate Education Committee to vote against renaming a Florida State University building named for a segregationist in 2019.

These contributions underscore the cognitive dissonance between corporate statements and their political spending, which has drawn increasing public scrutiny in the wake of Republican lies about election fraud that led to the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and a slew of restrictive legislation. Major companies like Coca-Cola, Delta and Home Depot are among dozens that spoke out against Georgia's new sweeping restrictive law, drawing complaints and retaliation from Republicans who previously sought to increase corporate influence in politics. But Coke, Delta, Home Depot and numerous other corporate critics all contributed tens of thousands to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Republican state lawmakers who sponsored the law.

It's possible that the growing internal pressure from inside corporate America could prompt more firms to back away from supporting lawmakers that back divisive and often racist policies. Hundreds of companies signed a statement led by Black corporate executives condemning the Republican effort to restrict ballot access.

"We all should feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote and to oppose any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot," the statement said. "Voting is the lifeblood of our democracy and we call upon all Americans to join us in taking a nonpartisan stand for this most basic fundamental rights of all Americans."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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