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

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Yahoo Finance's Andy Serwer and Kristin Myers are joined by Former Time Warner Chairman & CEO Dick Parsons, Medley Co-founder Edith Cooper, and NYC Mayoral Candidate Ray McGuire to discuss new legislation in Georgia which aims to limit voter turnout.

Video Transcript

ANDY SERWER: Welcome to Yahoo! Finance Special. I'm Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer, and along with me is my colleague, Kristin Myers. In the next half hour we will discuss the fight against the restrictive voting laws in Georgia and across the country. An uproar from corporate America over the voting laws were set off by an open letter signed by 72 Black business leaders. We'll talk to several of those leaders about why they spoke out, the backlash from some Republicans, and whether companies face a choice between their politics and their bottom line.

KRISTIN MYERS: Absolutely, Andy. And we have an all-star panel here with us today. We have Dick Parsons, one of the most powerful executives in America. Dick was the former Citigroup Chairman who also served as CEO at Time Warner. We also have Edith Cooper, founder of professional development startup Medley and a member of the boards at Slack and Etsy. We also have Ray McGuire, New York City mayoral candidate and former Vice Chairman at Citigroup.

So Dick, we want to start with you. What responsibility do you think businesses and its leadership have in getting involved in politics and social justice?

DICK PARSONS: Well, I don't know, Kristin, that I would call it getting involved in politics per se-- social justice for sure. I think, you know, corporations are effectively citizens of this country, right? They exist not just to serve the interests of shareholders or to, you know, to create more value for shareholders, but to be responsible citizens with respect to other stakeholders-- including employees, including customers, and including the-- the country at large.

So we have a responsibility in my judgment-- always have had a responsibility-- to be good citizens. And where you see something that-- that tears at the fabric of what makes America America, I don't think for me it's a political issue. This is-- this is about defending democracy-- defending one of the keystones but make this a unique country in the world. I mean, how-- how can you sit by and-- and watch people intentionally try and prevent or discourage other people from exercising their franchise, the right to vote, and not say something about it? That's-- that's my view it's quite that simple.

ANDY SERWER: Edith, I want to ask you the next question. And-- and Dick was talking about the two leaders being Ken and Ken-- but you also took a leadership position-- at least that's my understanding-- in that not only were you one of the signers of the letter, but you also helped pay for the ad. And so I want to ask you why you feel so passionate about this issue, and what made you stand up right now.

EDITH COOPER: Sure. First of all, voting rights are fundamental. But we also know, because history has shown, that access to equality in voting is not guaranteed. It's not guaranteed. And it's our responsibility as citizens of the United States of America to speak up and speak out.

As a-- an African-American, it is quite personal. I personally recall growing up visiting my grandmother in North Carolina. She was a professor at Johnson C. Smith University, a historically Black college, who would go out-- she was 4'11"-- and knock on doors to register to vote. And I-- I recall the debate between [? Lillie ?] [? Bell ?] [? Blue ?] and my mom, who was just saying, mama, it's just too hot out there. You know? It's-- it's not good for you. Like bring someone with you.

And she also had a little bit of an edge. I can't actually repeat what I heard her saying to my mom other than to say, I have gone too long in my life without having that access. Not for a minute will I take it for granted. Not for a minute will I not use whatever power I have to get more people out to vote.

And that's how I reacted when I got the call to get involved. It wasn't a question of what exactly we would 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 need to do to get this message out. As a Black leader, it's my personal responsibility and purpose.

KRISTIN MYERS: We often hear that businesses and their leaders, you know, really shouldn't be too vocal about social justice issues. Senator Mitch McConnell actually-- after the recent boycotts and statements that had been put out, for example, by Delta's CEO, Ed Bastian, had said that frankly business and politics shouldn't mix, that leaders like yourself shouldn't be getting involved. Folks say all the time that it's bad for the bottom line. Do you think that that is still true in a year like 2021?

RAY MCGUIRE: You know, I understand what the Senator said. I think he may be a little bit ill informed, or just in denial of what has taken place historically. 60-some odd years Voting Rights Act-- where many of us as leaders, all of us have leaders, recognize the shoulders on which we stand, and we recognize that voting rights are fundamental to American rights. There's no middle ground. The right to vote is fundamental, and. Corporations must take a position.

Now we do know that for some time corporations-- Business Roundtable leading the discussion-- have said that shareholder primacy is the sole focus of corporations. We also know that we have advanced significantly when the Business Roundtable says that in addition to shareholder primacy, we must take in consideration all of our constituents-- and therefore it must be the case that all the employees and all the constituents-- and the employees are going to be the first, because they generate the profits-- ought to have a right to participate in what is fundamentally America.

And so I understand the observation, which is not an observation with which most Americans will agree. There's no sitting on the sidelines. There are people who fought hard, many who died, in order for the right to vote. And today, whenever we see that coming under threat, we all must stand up. We all must stand up and do the right thing. There is no-- there's no debate about this. There's no debate.

ANDY SERWER: Dick, I want to ask you about responding to the new law. Because initially, yes, black leaders like yourself signed this letter. But what happened after Major League Baseball decided to move the All-Star Game kind of changed the game a little bit. I guess pun intended. As-- for instance, Stacey Abrams apparently said that she didn't think it was a great idea for Major League Baseball to leave Atlanta.

And it sort of gets to the question-- like are boycotts the right thing to do or not? So these are tough questions, right? And I just want to get your take on-- on that kind of thing

DICK PARSONS: Well, they are tough questions. And if they weren't, you'd see a lot more of this. I think it starts with just the egregious nature of-- of what was just done in Georgia. I mean really, you can't-- to make it criminal to give somebody a sip of water who's standing on line, who's been out in the hot sun for five hours trying to vote? It's a criminal act now to give them sustenance? Food or water? I mean, come on, give me a break.

Let me-- let me introduce the word that to me is the key word here-- accountability. We have, you know, 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 right response is in each corporate boardroom in America, you know? We have values in the corporations that I was involved with. And you-- and you, you know, you stuck with your values and you did what your values as a company dictated. And so we would have clearly had some reaction were I still running, you know, Time Warner in our city.

But somebody has to hold these people accountable for what they do. And Major League Baseball, they determined that-- that their reaction would be to move the game. I get it. Because who knows how many people-- players or fans-- might not have shown up had they not moved it.

But we've got to-- we've got to find a way to hold legislators accountable for their actions. And if they want to take actions that are clearly not in the public interest, the public has a right to demonstrate against that-- whether Republican or Democrat. That's why I say this-- to-- to characterize this as a political statement by corporate America I think is inaccurate. It's not political. It has to do-- it could apply either way, to either party, anybody who is for this kind of legislation.

RAY MCGUIRE: You know, in picking up on what Dick says, it affects all of us. I remember the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" that Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote. He said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Can it be the case that we're gonna hold someone in criminal-- in a criminal offense by serving water to them in a voting line? Just think about how profound and how profane that piece of-- that piece of the legislation is.

KRISTIN MYERS: Edith, I want to ask you. This I heard you-- I saw you, rather, nodding along to-- to what Dick was saying, particularly on the point of accountability. And it's a word that we hear a lot. And if we can't hold, you know, legislators accountable at the ballot box, for example, how do we hold them accountable?

EDITH COOPER: First and foremost, let's just take a moment and think about what we're talking about. We're talking about the vote. It's through the vote that we ensure that elected officials represent the interests of all. That is what is the underpinning of the American system, the American democratic system. If, however, there are laws that are put in place that restrict access to vote to people who-- of color, to women, to-- to-- to the poor, then-- then we lose our ability to influence the direction of our society.

And I was nodding as Dick was sharing his comments earlier because he mentioned that it's-- it's the right thing to do. It's a moral imperative. It's-- it's something that we must own in our heart.

But I also would say that what I'm seeing-- and what I believe to true-- is that it's imperative for organizations to support the right thing, because ultimately it will impact their bottom line. Your employees will demand it. Your customers will expect it.

And if you do not have a point of view that supports access equality and other things that represent justice and democracy, how will you be a company that's relevant going forward? And it all starts with the opportunity and the access to vote. It's fundamental.

ANDY SERWER: Ray, you're sitting in New York City running for mayor right now. And I think there is obviously a lot of support for your letter, which 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 up as a country. I mean, you're sitting in a very blue state, blue city. How can Americans come together and-- and sort of see these issues for what they are, sort of-- Dick describes-- which is not really a political issue, but a fundamental right for Americans.

RAY MCGUIRE: Yeah, let's be clear. This is a nonpartisan issue in the context of a country divided. And as the scripture tells us, as the great leader told us, a nation divided cannot-- cannot prosper. It will fall.

And so we need to take an issue like this, which many of us have clearly signed onto-- and many corporations have signed onto-- as a way to bring this country together. In addition to being supportive of the letter, corporations can now take the-- the-- the-- the-- the step of moving forward and educating their employees on the history of the right to vote or of the lack thereof-- the importance of voting-- and as Edith says, the impact that voting has on legislation, and it has on legislators. And in New York, as you know, the Voting Rights Act-- there's been a renaming of the Voting Rights Act, which was intended to support the right to vote, which is now called the John R. Lewis Act-- to make sure that we protect that.

KRISTIN MYERS: Dick, what everyone here has been saying is that-- and what you have even been saying-- is that these are not partisan issues. These are not political issues. It's not Democratic or really Republican.

And yet we have seen, especially in-- in this most recent case with Georgia and these voter suppression bills, that companies have decided to wade in, at least when it comes to their corporate dollars and who they're choosing to donate to when it comes to political candidates. What role then should companies have going forward, at least when it comes to that political arm of their companies? When it comes to those corporate donations that they are making, whether it's to the the GOP or the Democratic Party?

Should they be levying those those dollars to really push forward-- or push legislators that they think can either repeal some of these bills or put forth bills that are more progressive? Or should they take a step back and say-- like some companies have done-- we're actually going to suspend all of our political donations altogether?

DICK PARSONS: Well, you know, that's a good question. That's where the rubber meets the road if you decide that-- that you do need to take a stand around either a certain bill or a certain political initiative. So let me-- let me cut these two things in half. What we have said in our letter is that this effort to-- to prevent folks who-- perfectly legal voters, have the right to vote, but-- from exercising their franchise is wrong.

And it's unacceptable. That is apolitical. That is not partisan.

Now. What people who then-- like-- like Major League Baseball, since they-- they stepped up first-- people who say, you know, that's not only not acceptable-- we don't want to be associated with it. Therefore, we're going to leave town and we're gonna boycott. That has to be determined, you know, sort of ship to ship.

Each corporation has to look into its own soul, so to speak, and say, what are our values? And are we going to stand by our values? And how are we going to express that?

But just-- just to break it down, what we're really talking about here-- and why-- why this is so outrageous and why it's engendered such a strong response-- and what-- and what's disappointing-- when we say it's nonpartisan, you know, I hate to admit it nowadays, but I'm-- I'm a lifelong Republican. I'm what they call a Rockefeller Republican.

There aren't many of us left, but, you know, I put my hand up. I'm still a Rockefeller Republican. I believe in a lot of the things that the old Republican Party stood for. And I think we've kind of gone off course here. Because, you know, there is-- you know, the last election showed that there was a huge population of people who, for whatever reason, had not showed up at the polls in the past-- who were encouraged to show up this-- this time, in 2020.

And so now, having-- having discovered this group of folks, and having discovered that they were highly partisan in one direction, the-- my party has sort of said, well, look. We got one of two choices. We can either battle for those votes going forward-- we can tell them why we think what we stand for is the best way to go and hope to win hearts and minds in that way, or we can just try and preclude them from showing up again.

ANDY SERWER: We're going to check in with the members of this panel and get some final thoughts. And Edith, I want to start with you, because you have some connections to some startup companies, tech companies. You're on the board, as Kristin said, of Slack and Etsy. And there was another letter that came out after your first letter from a broader cross-section of American company CEOs supporting the position of the letter that you all signed against the Georgia voting laws, including a top executive from Etsy.

But there weren't so many big, old-line companies. There was Dow Chemical. Cisco was on there. Do more companies still need to speak up here?

EDITH COOPER: I think if you are going to be a company that's relevant now and going forward, it is not only appropriate, but it is expected for you as the leader of that organization and as a company to have a point of view. Silence, in effect, is a point of view. By not saying anything, is it reasonable to assume that you are comfortable with the legislation?

I would suspect that for many of these largest organizations that might not be the case. But we don't know. And we are at a time and place where standing on the sidelines is not an option.

Organizations that suggest that they have strong cultures and commitment to their communities and to the countries that they operate in are going to be held accountable. We've used that term often, and it's by design. And so I would suggest that if you haven't spoken up as a leader of a new company or an established one, you should really ask yourself the question, why not.

And do the work to understand why we believe, as Black leaders-- why so many CEOs of really important companies have spoken up. And it is because it is the only thing to do-- not just the right, moral-- it's the only thing to do. Because voting rights are fundamental.

KRISTIN MYERS: Ray, I want to ask you this, especially as you're wading into the political fray now with your mayoral candidacy. You know, voter suppression isn't the only issue right now plaguing the country. There's issues around criminal justice, climate change, minimum wage, and so much more. Should corporate leaders be addressing all of them? Is there any one issue that you think beyond voter suppression really should perhaps get-- be put under the microscope next?

RAY MCGUIRE: Listen. There-- there are-- and I've written about this in a foreward that I wrote before I left Citi. The systemic inequities that exist in health care, in education, in the economy, and in the criminal justice system-- each of those-- each of those-- is an attack on what we have all aspired to as Americans.

And corporations must by definition-- if they're going to be citizens of this country-- take a stand against any one of those four, or with any one of those four. Remember the last time-- and maybe I'm a little off here, but the last time we saw such response, or the opportunity, or the obligation, to respond was 8 minutes and 46 seconds of the George Floyd murder-- the-- the trial to which I attended last Tuesday, or this past Tuesday-- where corporations came out and took a stand. The Voting Rights legislation in Georgia is yet another example of the egregious kind of behavior that a small few would exact on this great country.

And so as 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 need to have jobs. They need to be given opportunities. They 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, is under siege. And we need leadership that meets the moment in whom the New Yorkers can believe and whom they can trust-- who has the right priorities and who's got the right values. And going up against-- and denouncing-- standing up for denouncing this kind of egregious behavior is one step forward in making certain that people understand that our truth doesn't change.

We don't have to remember tomorrow what we said today, because that truth is the American truth. And it's our truth. And it's that for which we've attempted to stand in positions of leadership in corporate America. And that's a position that we will uphold in every instance that we have.

ANDY SERWER: Dick, we're gonna let you have the last word here. I'm wondering whether you think things are better now or worse now than, say, they were a couple of years ago. And where things go from here.

DICK PARSONS: It's a good-- it's a good question, Andy. I actually-- give you maybe a little bit of a surprise answer. I think things are better now. And the reason I think things are better now is because at least we have problems up on the table.

I mean they're surfacing. It's been some unfortunate events that have caused them to surface. Ray just-- just mentioned one. And there are others.

So the issue is at least being discussed and debated and considered. Whereas, as you call it before-- all of this stuff sat below the surface, right? And we didn't speak about it. But it was there and it was festering.

And so you can't solve a problem until you acknowledge that you have a problem. And we're now as a country acknowledging and debating that we have a problem. And what are we going to do about it?

It's another reason why, you know, I felt compelled to-- to join with my colleagues and sign this letter. That, plus the fact that it's just such-- such an egregious, you know, attempt to reinstate Jim Crow-type laws in Georgia. But I-- you know, I-- I remain optimistic that we'll find our way through this morass, and that we'll come out in a better place than we started, because we've acknowledged the problems and we're-- we're dealing with them.

ANDY SERWER: All right, we're gonna wrap things up. It's a fascinating conversation. I want to thank our panelists Ray McGuire, Dick Parsons, and Edith Cooper. It's an issue we will be following here at Yahoo! Finance. For myself, Andy Serwer, and my colleague, Kristin Myers, thank you so much for watching.