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Eschewing his previously neutral language on a Georgia law many critics say amounts to voter suppression, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian on Wednesday spoke out forcefully about the bill, saying it was based on faulty premises.
“The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections,” Bastian wrote in a memo to staff. His previous comments about the law last week were seen as too tepid and mealy-mouthed, and the airline became the target of boycott threats, something it can ill afford as air travel remains pressured because of the pandemic.
“I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values,” he wrote in the memo, titled “Your Right to Vote.”
The change in tone came a few hours after a group of 72 prominent Black executives, including former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault and current Merck CEO Ken Frazier, published an open letter in a one-page ad in the The New York Times to urge corporate leaders in general, without singling any company out, to fight the measure as concerns grow other states could follow Georgia’s lead.
Atlanta-based Delta and other major Georgia employers, notably The Home Depot and Coca-Cola have come under pressure to denounce the law passed last week that brought in stricter voter identification requirements for absentee balloting, fewer drop boxes, gave the state legislature more power over elections and criminalized giving out water while voters wait in line. President Joe Biden has called the Georgia law “Jim Crow in the 21st century.”
Speaking to CNBC on Wednesday, Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey called the Georgia voting law “unacceptable” and “a step backward.” Other companies such as Microsoft and Black Rock expressed misgivings about the Georgia law.
As for Home Depot, it took a cautious tack, touting its ‘Get Out the Vote’ efforts and saying, “We believe that all elections should be accessible, fair and secure and support broad voter participation.”
But as most companies had been sticking to generalities and platitudes, fearful of being drawn into yet another political controversy during these polarized times, the group of Black executives mobilized over the weekend to look for ways to push Corporate America to do more.
“Corporations have to stand up — there is no middle ground,” former American Express Ken Chenault told the New York Times, which first reported the open letter. Frazier made waves in 2017 when he abruptly withdrew from former President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council after the latter made comments about a deadly white power march in Charlottesville, Va., seen as sympathetic to white nationalists.
The signatories to the letter represent The Who’s Who of Black Corporate America. They include T.I.A.A. CEO Roger Ferguson Jr., the chief executive of TIAA; Co-CEOs of Ariel Investments John Rogers Jr. and Mellody Hobson (who is also chairman of Starbucks), New York City mayoral candidate and former Citigroup executive, former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, and former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons.