Two of a kind make a pair?

Most of the state’s major corporations apparently believe the referendum on gay marriage is none of their business.
By Ken Otterbourg

 

Plenty of groups are weighing in on the May 8 referendum that seeks to amend the state constitution and define marriage as being only between a man and a woman. There are churches, mental-health associations and community groups. But one bloc is largely silent. It’s the state’s business community, which by most indications is sitting this one out.

Not all businesses, of course, are on the sidelines. Equality NC, the Raleigh-based organization that is coordinating the opposition to the amendment, has a hefty list of businesses on its side, and campaign manager Jeremy Kennedy, a veteran strategist who has experience with similar efforts in Maine and Rhode Island, says his group is working hard on recruiting companies to its side. But the list of current recruits is notable for the absence of the state’s largest corporations, the big banks, utilities and tech companies that now define North Carolina’s economy. And that’s not expected to change between now and the primary.

Contrast that to Washington state, which just concluded a fervent debate over legislation to allow gay marriage. There, the region’s emblematic corporations — Microsoft Corp., Starbucks Corp. and Nike Inc. — threw their support behind the measure, which passed in mid-February. Many of North Carolina’s largest companies have nondiscrimination rules that include sexual orientation, and they also offer partner benefits. But they’re not taking a stand on marriage.

Take Winston-Salem-based Reynolds American Inc. A spokesman says the tobacco company doesn’t plan to take a position. “The matter is coming before a public vote, and thus all North Carolinians will have an opportunity to express their view on the issue.” Reynolds has an active and well-funded political action committee that gets involved in politics on the state and federal level. What’s different this time, the spokesman says, is relevance. “A referendum on an amendment to the state constitution addressing marriage and legal unions is not a matter that is related to the manufacture and marketing of tobacco products.”

Ken Eudy, a veteran lobbyist and political strategist in Raleigh, helped orchestrate the passage in 2004 of what was known as Amendment One, which permitted the use of tax-increment financing. The effort included substantial help from the business community. “Amendment One was a fair bit more complicated, but it was also an issue with something for everyone,” from bankers and builders to union workers, which allowed supporters to build a broad and public coalition. “Truthfully, it’s hard to get any company to spend political capital that is not specific to their core issue,” says Eudy, who is advising his clients not to wade into the scrum over defining marriage.

North Carolina law already bans gay marriage. The amendment would put that prohibition in the constitution while also attempting to make clear that companies can continue to offer domestic-partner benefits. Public employees would have no such guarantee.

Martin Eakes, chief executive of the nonprofit Center for Community Self-Help in Durham, is a key opponent of the amendment. He says its approval would hurt the state’s ability to recruit the knowledge-based businesses and employees that are essential to growing the economy. “If you wanted to provide an incentive for Bank of America to move its headquarters to New York, this is it. Even voting on it is harmful.” As proof, he notes that an official with the American Institute of CPAs, which moved to the Triangle from northern New Jersey in 2005, said last year that if this amendment had been on the books, the organization would have looked elsewhere for a new headquarters location.

But that’s hypothetical. The truth is, there’s little research on whether a state’s legal receptiveness to same-sex couples has an impact on economic growth. A UCLA study concluded that Massachusetts’ decision to allow gay marriage had a small positive impact on such couples — particularly females — moving there but found no evidence that it made a difference for other adults.

In addition, the majority of states have amendments banning gay marriage. It’s already on the books in places such as Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia, the states North Carolina competes most vigorously against for jobs. Indeed, supporters of the amendment cite a study by the Washington, D.C.-based American Legislative Exchange Council that ranked the economic vitality of the 50 states. North Carolina was 26th, and the top 10 states all have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

“The jobs issue is a bit of a red herring,” says Republican state Sen. Pete Brunstetter, a lawyer with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP in Winston-Salem. “You just can’t find a correlation.” He supports the amendment and isn’t surprised that business leaders are keeping such a low profile. “In general, they prefer not to have hot-button issues on the front of the paper.”

Tami Fitzgerald is executive director of North Carolina Values Coalition and a founding member of Vote for Marriage NC, which is in favor of the amendment’s passage. Her Raleigh-based organizations sent a letter requesting support from business groups, and the response was — in Fitzgerald’s view — thankfully underwhelming. “The state chamber [of commerce] has chosen to not take a position, and we’re satisfied with that. We understand they want to remain neutral.” Businesses, she says, are afraid to support the amendment for fear of boycotts.

There is, of course, another potential reason why big business isn’t a part of the fight. The political strategists don’t think company clout matters on what is seen as a social issue, and the battle for the hearts and minds of voters will be fought at churches and college campuses, beyond the corporate realm.

Ken Otterbourg is a Winston-Salem freelance writer.