By Julie Bolcer
Originally published on Advocate.com May 04 2012 6:50 PM ET
North Carolina, the only southern state without a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, is home to 15 Fortune 500 companies. While the companies have remained neutral, individual corporate leaders have personally spoken against Amendment One, the proposed constitutional measure that would make marriage between a man and woman the only legally recognized domestic union in the state. Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, has compared the amendment to the Jim Crow laws, and Cathy Bessant, technology chief at Bank of America, taped a video saying that the amendment would signal a “backward-looking economy.”
Mark Stephanz, vice chairman of the global financial sponsors group at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has also joined the conversation behind the scenes. The Greensboro native spoke with The Advocate during the Out on the Street conference, the first LGBT leadership summit for Wall Street professionals. More than 200 senior executives attended the event Wednesday at the Bank of America offices in Midtown Manhattan, where discussions focused on the role that Wall Street plays in the larger fight for equality.
“It’s surprising to me how many people think that this amendment is specifically about gay marriage,” he said. “It is a much broader civil rights amendment and touches many more people in terms of all domestic partnerships and children of domestic partnerships. North Carolina, of all the southern states, has been more progressive on all of these issues, and it would be heartbreaking to see the state take a step back.”
Stephanz has spent his entire career with Bank of America. A divorced father of three now with a partner for 18 months, he came out four years ago at age 47 to a “very positive” response in the industry. In the past few months, he has amplified his involvement with the campaign to defeat Amendment One, which voters will decide this Tuesday. His “grassroots-level” activities have included registering to vote in his home state and submitting the ballot, and getting his oldest daughter and her Duke classmates to vote.
He also has contributed financially to Protect Families NC, the coalition that opposes the amendment. Fund-raising reports filed this week show contributions from Stephanz ($5,500) and Bessant ($1,500) leading about 20 individual donors who listed Bank of America as their employer. As of Monday, the coalition had raised some $2.3 million, fueled by almost 10,000 individual donations, more than 75% of them from North Carolinians. By comparison, Vote for Marriage NC, the coalition that wants to pass the amendment, has raised $1.2 million, with fewer than 800 separate donations. (Updated reports released Friday are expected to show $2.7 million raised by Protect Families NC and $1.4 million for Vote For Marriage NC.) Most of the money raised by Vote for Marriage NC comes from groups, such as the National Organization for Marriage and the Roman Catholic Church.
Stephanz said that no organized employee opposition has formed against the amendment, but the issue has received significant internal attention. Bank of America is headquartered in Charlotte, the nation’s second-largest banking center, where it employs 15,000 workers and holds a position as one of the city’s largest and most prominent employers.
“There’s certainly conversation about it,” he said. “I couldn’t point you to a network specific to this, but because there are a lot of North Carolinians who work for this company, either who live in North Carolina and work for the company down there, or are transplanted North Carolinians such as myself, there is a lot of discussion to try to defeat this.”
According to the latest survey from Public Policy Polling, 55% of respondents favor Amendment One and 41% oppose it. However, when respondents were informed that the amendment would ban more than same-sex marriage, including civil unions, only 38% supported it, compared to 46% opposed. Protect NC Families has focused on reaching that segment with TV and online advertisements that educate voters about the “unintended consequences” of the amendment for vulnerable groups such as domestic violence survivors and the children of domestic partners.
Stephanz agreed that approach represented the winning strategy for North Carolina. He visited Greensboro last weekend and the number of yards signs against Amendment One gave him a sense of “optimism.”
“I actually think there is a shot,” he said. “I just hope it’s not false optimism.”
The individual corporate voices from North Carolina contrast with the higher-profile stands taken by companies such as Starbucks and Microsoft, which threw the full weight of their brands behind lobbying for the marriage equality bill in Washington State this year. When Bessant released her video in March, Bank of America issued a statement that said it took no position on Amendment One, although employees are “allowed and encouraged to be involved in their personal capacity” on that and other public issues.
“That’s potentially as close as I think you’ll see some of these companies feeling comfortable,” said Todd Sears, founder of Out on the Street. “Do I think that’s enough? I don’t actually think that is. But in some ways, I think that’s actually as impactful. By not shutting them down, it’s sort of a tacit way of saying, ‘We agree with our employees.’”
Sears, a former investment banker and North Carolina native, said that many leading companies are wrestling with the question of how involved to become against measures like Amendment One. Corporate leadership in domestic-partner benefits over the past decade puts their policies at odds with less advanced federal, state and local laws, even as the companies weigh political involvement against multiple bottom lines.
“I think absolutely and I think it’s really an interesting evolution if you look at it,” he said. “Ten, 12, 15 years ago, when domestic-partnership benefits were just coming to fruition and no one had them, there was no way a corporate entity was going to be butting heads against a state marriage amendment.”
Out on the Street participants expressed a range of views on the question. Stephanz moderated a morning session with hedge fund CEO Paul Singer and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. He mentioned Amendment One and asked what role they thought Wall Street should take in federal and state policy.
“I think it’s best done as people stand up for equality of opportunity within their own firms,” said Singer. A self-described proponent of “libertarianism and personal liberty,” he helped raise “gobs of money” for the Republican lawmakers instrumental to passing the marriage equality bill in New York last year. His gay son and son-in-law married in Massachusetts in 2009.
“I’m not sure that it’s going to be easy for large corporations that are operating in a number of states to create policies that advance the ball across states,” he said. “I think it’s much easier and much more effective to pick your spots.”
Blankfein agreed, saying that the involvement of Wall Street firms could backfire in a nation with fervent, competing traditions of personal and religious liberty. He said that allowing the campaigns to play out without corporate involvement could be preferable for equality.
“Some of these things will evolve anyway, and if it’s going in the right way, to turn it into a political confrontation, you might be arming instead of disarming people, and it might actually be counterproductive,” he said.
Blankfein assumed a very high-profile role in the marriage equality campaign in New York, where polls showed that 58% of voters supported the effort. He and other business leaders lobbied the state Senate, and this year, he became the first national corporate spokesman on marriage equality for the Human Rights Campaign.
“I never saw another side to this issue and I could never imagine a debate on this issue,” he said. “It is not heavy lifting. It is not anything I regard as a burden at all. I feel quite the other way.”
Reaction has been “generally positive,” he told the audience. He said one client wanted to end a relationship with Goldman Sachs over the stand, but he declined to identify them.
“I won’t say the name, but if you heard the name, it wouldn’t surprise you,” he said.
Blankfein acknowledged that not every CEO can take the stand he has, but he said that whatever position they take, it will likely translate as the view of the company, not just the individual.
“One of the reasons why you’re attracted to get the CEOs is because they have a big platform, and they’re high profile,” he said. “And so for other companies that operate in places, I think you have to respect that they’re going to be bound by their sense of duty to the organization that provides them the platform that made them interesting you in the first place.”
Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan spoke in broad terms about the company’s efforts to advance equality during his welcome remarks to the conference. He touted the company’s long-running 100% score on the HRC Corporate Equality Index and said that the bank’s diversity efforts are guided by a “simple goal.”
“I want to come in to work every day and not have to leave who I am at the door on the way in,” he said. “That’s how we gear our whole diversity and inclusion efforts in our company. You can come in, be yourself, be successful, be all you want to be.”
He said part of that philosophy includes the equalization of health benefits for gay employees. The bank announced last year that it would reimburse employees with same-sex partners for extra taxes paid on health insurance.
Stephanz said such changes in benefits policy represent the easiest and best way for corporations that reach across geographies to make a statement on equality. Although Bank of America is headquartered in North Carolina, the state is home to about 5% of employees, who number around 300,000 across the world.
“Companies want to reflect their customers, their clients, and their shareholders, and so all of those constituents are from various regions,” he said. “With Bank of America or Goldman Sachs or other big banks, they’re global corporations. I can understand why it’s difficult, on what I personally don’t find any gray area on, it’s very black-and-white, but why it’s difficult for these big global companies to take one position or the other.”
Observers offer various explanations for why top corporations have kept a lower profile in North Carolina compared to states like Washington and New York. The conservative leanings of the region could play a part, as could the more buttoned-up attitude of the financial industry compared to coffee and technology companies. Even among banks, there are different considerations, where Goldman primarily serves institutional investors, but Bank of America serves a broad consumer base. Also, professional campaigns around ballot initiatives like those seen with Amendment One are rare in North Carolina.
“North Carolina companies are not used to speaking out publicly,” said Nation Hahn, director of online engagement for Protect Families NC. “Of course, we would like for a corporation to make a statement, but I think it’s a flawed prism to use for looking at North Carolina.”
He said that from the perspective of those fighting the amendment, when a corporate leader speaks, even as an individual, it still carries significant weight. And notably, far more members of the North Carolina business community have spoken against Amendment One than in support of it.
“We’ve received incredible support and press based off the business leaders,” said Hahn. “The story is the willingness of business and civic leaders to speak against the amendment, and how few have spoken for it.”