Panel: Black Executives Call on Corporations to Fight Restrictive Voting Laws

Andy Serwer and Kristin Myers of Yahoo Finance will be joined by Dick Parsons, former Time Warner Chairman and CEO, Edith Cooper, Co-Founder of Medley, and Ray McGuire, NYC mayoral candidate, to discuss new Georgia laws aimed at this to limit voter turnout.
Video transcript
ANDY SERWER: Welcome to Yahoo! Financial special. I'm editor-in-chief Andy Serwer and, together with me, my colleague Kristin Myers. For the next half hour we will discuss the fight against restrictive electoral laws in Georgia and across the country. An uproar among American companies over electoral laws was sparked by an open letter signed by 72 black business leaders. We'll talk to several of these leaders about why they spoke out, what backlash some Republicans have had, and whether companies are faced with a choice between their policies and their bottom line.
KRISTIN MYERS: Absolutely, Andy. And we have an all-star panel here today. We have Dick Parsons, one of the most powerful leaders in America. Dick was the former chairman of Citigroup who also served as CEO at Time Warner. We also have Edith Cooper, founder of the professional development startup Medley and a board member at Slack and Etsy. We also have Ray McGuire, New York City candidate for mayoral and former Citigroup vice chairman.
So Dick, we want to start with you. In your opinion, what responsibility do companies and their leaders have when they commit to politics and social justice?
DICK PARSONS: Well, I don't know, Kristin, that I would call it that if you meddle in politics per se - social justice for sure. I think you know companies are actually citizens of this country, right? They exist not just to serve the interests of shareholders or, as you know, to create more value for shareholders, but to be responsible citizens to other stakeholders - including employees, including customers, and including the country as a whole.
I believe we have a responsibility - we have always had a responsibility - to be good citizens. And where you see something that ... that tears up the stuff that makes America America, I don't think it's a political problem for me. This is about defending democracy, defending one of the pillars, but making this a unique country in the world. I mean, how ... how can you watch and watch people intentionally try to prevent or prevent other people from exercising their right to vote, exercising the right to vote and not saying anything about it? This is ... this is so easy in my opinion.
ANDY SERWER: Edith, I want to ask you the next question. And - and Dick spoke of the two leaders being Ken and Ken - but you also took a leadership position - at least I get it - by not only being one of the signatories to the letter, but also helping pay for the ad . So I would like to ask you why you feel so passionate about this subject and why you just got up.
EDITH COOPER: Sure. Above all, voting rights are of fundamental importance. But we also know because history has shown that access to equality is not guaranteed when voting. It is not guaranteed. And it is our responsibility as citizens of the United States to speak and speak.
As an African American, it's pretty personal. I personally remember growing up with my grandmother in North Carolina. She was a professor at Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black college that was going out - she was 4'11 "- knocking on doors to put the vote. And I - I remember the debate between [? Lillie?] [? Bell?] [? Blue?] And my mother who just said, Mom, it's just too hot out there. You know? It's ... it's not good for you. Like you're someone bring.
And it also had a small advantage. I can't repeat what she said to my mother other than saying I have gone too long in my life without this access. I won't take it for granted for a minute. Not for a minute will I fail to use the power I have to get more people to vote.
And that's how I reacted when I got the call to get involved. It wasn't about what exactly we were going to say or where it would be positioned. It was ... I am on board as a black leader and I will support the words and pay for whatever we have to do to get this message across. As a black leader, it is my personal responsibility and my goal.
KRISTIN MYERS: We hear a lot that companies and their leaders, you know, really shouldn't be too vocal about social justice issues. Senator Mitch McConnell had indeed said - following recent boycotts and statements published by Delta's CEO Ed Bastian, for example - that frankly business and politics shouldn't mix, that leaders like you shouldn't get involved. People keep saying that it's bad for the bottom line. Do you think this will still be the case in a year like 2021?
RAY MCGUIRE: You know, I understand what the senator said. I think he may be a little ill-informed or just denying what has happened historically. 60- Some Odd Years Voting Rights Act - where many of us as leaders, we all have leaders who recognize the shoulders we stand on, and we recognize that voting rights are fundamental to American rights. There is no middle ground. The right to vote is fundamental, and. Companies need to take a stand.
Now we know that companies - the business roundtable that leads the discussion - have been saying for some time that the priority of shareholders is the only focus of business. We also know that we have made significant progress when the Business Roundtable says that in addition to the primacy of shareholders, we must consider all of our constituents - and therefore all employees and all constituents must - and employees will be first because they make profits - They should have the right to participate in what is essentially America.
And so I understand the observation that most Americans disagree with. There is no sitting on the edge. There are people who fought hard, many who died to get the right to vote. And today, when we see that this is threatened, we must all stand up. We all need to stand up and do the right thing. There is none - there is no debate about it. There is no debate.
ANDY SERWER: Dick, I want to ask you if you should respond to the new law. Because in the beginning black leaders like you signed this letter. But what happened after Major League Baseball decided to postpone the All-Star game changed the game a bit. I think pun intended. For example, Stacey Abrams apparently said she didn't think leaving Atlanta was a great idea for Major League Baseball.
And it kind of comes down to the question - how are boycotts the right thing or not? So these are tough questions, aren't they? And I just want to take your point of view on it - something like that
DICK PARSONS: Well, those are tough questions. And if not, you would see a lot more of it. I think it just starts with the egregious nature of what has just been done in Georgia. I mean really, you can't ... make it criminal to give a drink of water to someone who's standing in line, who's been in the hot sun for five hours trying to vote? Is it now a criminal act to feed them? Food or water? I mean, come on, give me a break.
Let me - let me introduce the word that for me is the key word here - responsibility. We have these politicians. Sometimes, you know, they do things and they ... just no one to hold them accountable.
You know, I don't know what the correct answer is in any corporate boardroom in America, you know? We have values ​​in the companies I've worked with. And you - and you, you know, you've held onto your values ​​and done what your values ​​as a company dictated. And so we would clearly have had a reaction if I had still been running Time Warner in our town.
But someone has to hold these people accountable for what they do. And in Major League Baseball, they found their reaction would be to postpone the game. I get it. Because who knows how many people - players or fans - might not have shown up if they hadn't moved it.
But we have to ... we have to find a way to hold lawmakers accountable for their actions. And if they want to take action that is clearly not in the public interest, the public - whether Republican or Democrat - has the right to demonstrate against it. So I am saying this to characterize this as a corporate America political statement that I consider to be inaccurate. It's not political. It has to do - it could apply either way to any party, to anyone who is in favor of this type of legislation.
RAY MCGUIRE: You know, if we pick up what Dick says, it affects us all. I remember the "letter from a Birmingham jail" that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote. He said, "Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Could it be that we are detaining someone in a crime - a crime by serving them water on a voting line? Just think how deep and how profane this part of the legislation is.
KRISTIN MYERS: Edith, I want to ask you. I heard that - I saw you sooner when I nodded at what Dick was saying, especially about accountability. And it's a word we hear a lot. And if we can't hold lawmakers accountable at the ballot box, how can we hold them accountable?
EDITH COOPER: First of all, let's take a moment and think about what we're talking about. We are talking about voting. By voting, we ensure that elected officials represent the interests of all. That is the basis of the American system, the American democratic system. However, if there are laws restricting access to voting to people who - from color, from women, from - to - to the poor - then - then we lose our ability to influence the direction of our society.
And I nodded when Dick shared his comments earlier because he mentioned it was ... the right thing. It's a moral imperative. It's ... it's something that we must have in our hearts.
But I would also say that I see - and what I believe to be true - that it is imperative for companies to support the right thing as it ultimately has an impact on their bottom line. Your employees will ask for it. Your customers will expect it.
And if you don't have a stand that supports access to equality and other things that represent justice and democracy, how will you be a company that is relevant in the future? And it all starts with the opportunity and access to voting. It's fundamental.
ANDY SERWER: Ray, you're in New York City right now, running for mayor. And I think there is obviously a lot of support for your letter that I should say - objections to the new law, the new Georgia law, in New York City - but maybe that shows that we are very divided as a country. I mean, you're in a very blue state, a blue city. How can Americans come together and - and see these issues for what they are, somehow - Dick describes - which is not really a political issue, but a fundamental right for Americans.
RAY MCGUIRE: Yeah, let's be clear. This is an impartial matter in the context of a divided country. And as scripture tells us, as the great leader told us, a divided nation cannot flourish. It will fall.
So we have to take a subject like this, which many of us have clearly signed up to - and many companies have signed up - as a way to bring this country together. In addition to endorsing the letter, companies can take the step of educating their employees about the history of the right to vote or its lack of importance of voting - and, as Edith says, the impact of voting on legislation and the legislature. And in New York, as you know, the Voting Rights Act - the Voting Rights Act - was renamed to support the right to vote now known as the John R. Lewis Act that we protect that.
KRISTIN MYERS: Dick, what everyone has said here is that - and what you have even said - these are not partisan issues. These are not political questions. It's not Democratic or really Republican.
And yet, especially in this most recent case with Georgia and these voter suppression bills, we've seen companies choose to get in on at least their corporate dollars and who to donate to, when it comes to political candidates. What role should companies then play in the future, at least when it comes to the political arm of their company? When it comes to the corporate donations they make, whether to the GOP or the Democratic Party?
Should they be raising those dollars to really move forward - or pushing legislators who they believe can either overturn some of these bills or put out bills that are more progressive? Or should they take a step back and say - as some companies have done - that we will in fact suspend all of our political giving altogether?
DICK PARSONS: You know, that's a good question. This is where the rubber hits the road if you choose to do it - that you either have to campaign for a specific piece of legislation or a specific policy initiative. So let me ... let me cut these two things in half. What we said in our letter is that these efforts to prevent people who are perfectly legal voters from having the right to vote but from exercising their right to vote are wrong.
And it's unacceptable. That is apolitical. It is not partial.
Now. What people then, like - have been into Major League Baseball since they - they first emerged - people who say, you know, not only is this unacceptable - we don't want to be associated with it. That's why we're going to leave town and boycott. That has to be determined, you know, kind of ship to ship.
Every company has to look into its own soul, so to speak, and say what are our values? And will we stand by our values? And how are we going to express that?
But just - just to sum up what we are really talking about here - and why - why this is so outrageous and why it evokes such a strong reaction - and what - and what disappointing - when we say it is impartial, you know i hate to admit it these days, but i'm ... i'm a lifelong republican. I am a Rockefeller Republican.
There aren't many of us left, but I raise my hand. I'm still a Rockefeller Republican. I believe in many things that the old Republican Party stood for. And I think we kind of got off course here. Because, you know, there is - you know, the last election showed that there was a huge population of people who for some reason hadn't voted in the past - who were encouraged to show it - - This time in 2020.
And now, after discovering this group of people and discovering that they were very partisan in one direction, my party was sort of like, well, look. We have one of two options. We can either fight for these voices - we can tell them why we believe what we stand for is the best way to win hearts and minds that way, or we can just try to prevent them from to show up again.
ANDY SERWER: We'll get in touch with the members of this panel and have a few final thoughts. And Edith, I want to start with you because you have some connections with some startup companies, tech companies. You are on the boards of Slack and Etsy, as Kristin said. And there was another letter that came out after your first letter from a broader cross-section of American company bosses, endorsing the position of the letter you all signed against Georgian electoral laws, including a top manager from Etsy.
But there weren't that many big old-line companies. There was Dow Chemical. Cisco was there. Do more companies need to speak here?
EDITH COOPER: I think if you want to be a company that is relevant now and in the future, not only is it appropriate, but you, as the leader of this organization and as a company, are expected to have a point of view. Silence is indeed a point of view. Is it reasonable to assume that you are familiar with the legislation if you do not say anything?
I would guess this may not be the case for many of these largest organizations. But we don't know. And we are at a time and place where it is not possible to be on the edge.
Organizations that indicate they have a strong culture and commitment to their communities and the countries in which they operate will be held accountable. We have used this term many times, and it is by design. And so I would suggest that if you haven't pronounced yourself to be the head of a new or an established business, then if you haven't pronounced yourself to be the head of a new or an established business, then why not really ask yourself?
And do the work to understand why we believe as black leaders - why so many CEOs have spoken out about really important companies. And it's because it's the only thing to be done - not just the right thing, morality - it's the only thing to be done. Because voting rights are fundamental.
KRISTIN MYERS: Ray, I would like to ask you that, especially if you are now immersing yourself in the political struggle with your mayoral candidacy. You know, voter suppression isn't the only problem plaguing the country right now. There are topics related to criminal justice, climate change, minimum wages and much more. Should business leaders address everyone? Is there one issue that you think should really arise beyond voter suppression - next to be scrutinized?
RAY MCGUIRE: Listen. There is and I wrote about it in a foreword that I wrote before I left Citi. The systemic inequalities that exist in health care, education, the economy, and the criminal justice system - each of them - each of them - are an attack on what we all have aspired to as Americans.
And by definition, if they want to be citizens of this country, companies have to oppose one of these four or one of these four. Do you remember the last time - and maybe I'm a little off here, but the last time we saw such a response, or the opportunity or obligation to respond, was 8 minutes and 46 seconds of the murder of George Floyd - the- - the process I attended last Tuesday or last Tuesday - where companies came out and took a stand. The voting legislation in Georgia is another example of the formidable behavior that a few in this large country would demand.
And when I think about my mayoral campaign and the ... and the priorities that we have, it's economic justice and social justice. But you have to have economic justice. People have to have jobs. You need to be given opportunities. You need to be educated. And then you can have social justice. But they go hand in hand.
And today our city and our country, especially New York City, are under siege. And we need leadership that corresponds to the moment New Yorkers believe in and can trust - who has the right priorities and who has the right values. And standing up against and denouncing this type of outrageous behavior is a step forward to ensure that people understand that our truth is not changing.
We don't need to remember tomorrow what we said today, because that truth is American truth. And it's our truth. And that's exactly why we tried to get into management positions in American companies. And we will take this position in every case that we have.
ANDY SERWER: Dick, we let you have the last word here. I wonder if you think things are better or worse now than they were a few years ago. And where do you go from here?
DICK PARSONS: It's good - it's a good question Andy. I may give you a surprising answer. I think things are better now. And the reason I think things are better now is that we at least have problems on the table.
I mean they show up. There were some unfortunate events that resulted in them showing up. Ray just mentioned one. And there are others.
So the topic is at least discussed and debated and taken into account. While what you call it before, all this stuff was sitting under the surface, right? And we didn't talk about it. But it was there and it festered.
So you can't solve a problem until you realize you have a problem. And we are now a country that recognizes and debates that we have a problem. And what are we going to do about it?
It's another reason I felt compelled to join my peers and sign this letter. That, and the fact that it just so is - such an egregious attempt to reintroduce Jim Crow-type laws in Georgia. But I - you know, I - I am still optimistic that we will find our way through this quagmire and get out of a better place than we started because we recognized the problems and we are - we are dealing with them.
ANDY SERWER: All right, we'll finalize things. It's a fascinating conversation. I would like to thank our panelists Ray McGuire, Dick Parsons, and Edith Cooper. It's a topic we're talking about here at Yahoo! Finances. For me, Andy Serwer, and my colleague Kristin Myers, thank you very much for watching.
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