Georgia corporate powers remain on the sidelines in ‘heartbeat’ debate

Demonstrators who support and oppose abortion rights sit in the lobby at the Capitol in March as members of the Senate debate House Bill 481, now the state’s new anti-abortion “heartbeat” law. The polarizing issue has not triggered the kind of response from Georgia’s corporate powers that they have shown when other controversial legislation was considered. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Demonstrators who support and oppose abortion rights sit in the lobby at the Capitol in March as members of the Senate debate House Bill 481, now the state’s new anti-abortion “heartbeat” law. The polarizing issue has not triggered the kind of response from Georgia’s corporate powers that they have shown when other controversial legislation was considered. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

When Atlanta Hawks owner Tony Ressler went on CNBC to talk about the state’s business climate, he did something that few Georgia corporate leaders have done since the anti-abortion “heartbeat” bill was signed into law: He criticized Gov. Brian Kemp for signing it.

“It’s political malpractice to poke in the eye one of the largest industries that employs your population after spending 15 years attracting them in any way possible, led by tax incentives,” he told CNBC. “How can you say you’re business-friendly while going after one of your largest employers?”

In the weeks after the new abortion restrictions were signed into law, a string of Hollywood studios and local leaders have warned of economic blowback. But the powerful Georgia companies that fiercely opposed a "religious liberty" measure have stayed mum about the anti-abortion law, which faces a certain legal challenge before it is scheduled to take effect in January.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution surveyed many of Georgia’s leading companies, and most declined to comment or said they would steer clear of the deeply personal debate over abortion rights.

“I’m not looking to be a social activist; I’m looking to be the best airline CEO I can be,” Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Ed Bastian said at a recent business meeting. “I’m not looking to run the company for the benefit of politicians or anybody else. The business community can make its own decisions.”

The lack of pushback from powerful corporate voices such as Delta, Home Depot and Southern Co. has left Hollywood and local film industry leaders as some of the lone business voices in opposition to House Bill 481, which would ban most abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

The state’s recent recruitment of a 500-job expansion by the Atlanta-based investment giant Invesco also has given Kemp a counterargument that the law won’t be as damaging to the state’s economy as critics claim.

The company’s chief executive, Martin Flanagan, said the controversy had no role in his decision.

There’s a reason for the edginess over abortion. Businesses cater to the LGBTQ community. They also operate under local, state and federal laws and corporate policies that require equal accommodations and employment rights, said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist.

Public opinion on gay rights also has shifted quickly in Georgia, where it’s now more widely accepted.

“Six or seven years ago it wasn’t,” Swint said. “Whereas abortion, there’s wide division still.”

Boycott threats

The Walt Disney Co., Netflix and WarnerMedia are among the major studios that have said they'll rethink shooting in Georgia if the anti-abortion law goes into effect in January. Stars including Alyssa Milano and director Spike Lee have called for boycotts.

While the chorus of Hollywood figures opposed to the abortion bill seems deafening, it’s a far cry from the crescendo of Hollywood, big tech and corporate powers who lined up three years ago to oppose a religious liberty bill.

Religious liberty supporters said such legislation would add a layer of protection for people of faith. Critics, however, say that religious liberty bills could allow discrimination against groups such as lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

Disney threatened to pull its productions from Georgia when the General Assembly passed a bill in 2016, and the National Football League warned that Atlanta's bid for the Super Bowl could be at riskHome Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus — a GOP megadonor — called it "divisive and distracting."

Perhaps most significantly, a bloc of Georgia-based Fortune 500 firms including Coca-Cola, SunTrust Banks and UPS opposed it. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal ultimately vetoed it.

The AJC recently surveyed those same firms and mostly found a studied silence on the abortion law.

SunTrust Chairman and CEO Bill Rogers said the role of the state’s biggest bank “is to be pro-business, pro-teammate, pro-community and to try to stay in the middle of the fairway, so to speak, and sort of not being in a position of taking a social position.”

“We’re pro-inclusivity versus saying we’re excluding or not including (anyone),” Rogers said. “We want to include everybody in the discussion and not everybody has the same opinion, and that’s what makes this country great.”

Home Depot said through a spokesman that abortion is a “very personal issue to the individual so we don’t see it as our place to weigh in.” UPS, too, noted the “many strongly held beliefs” shaping the debate and said it won’t take a stand for, or against, the legislation.

“UPS aligns its policies with the law,” the company said in a statement. “We encourage our employees to be involved in the political process so that their interests and beliefs are reflected in the laws enacted by their elected representatives.”

While some firms try to walk a tightrope, they could also risk offending abortion rights supporters.

"Of course, it's disappointing, but I'm not surprised," said state Rep. Renitta Shannon, D-Decatur. "Corporations do what is profitable, and I guess they've decided that standing up for women's right to bodily autonomy is not profitable."

‘Radio silence’

Kemp is facing pressure to forcefully respond.

The film industry spent $2.7 billion in Georgia in the 12 months that ended in June 2018 on 455 movie and TV projects. Financial incentives to the film industry have become the state’s biggest individual subsidy, totaling more than $1 billion since 2009.

A group of more than a dozen local film executives recently urged Kemp to meet with them, warning that film workers are "quickly closing their wallets as they sense a sea change in this Georgia success story called film and television production." He has not yet said whether he'll take the meeting.

The governor has said the law preserves the sanctity of life and upholds a campaign vow to sign the nation’s “toughest” abortion restrictions. He told Republican activists in Savannah last month that he would defend the law “even though that makes C-list celebrities squawk.”

But he postponed an annual state visit to Los Angeles in May to court studio executives and instead conducted a closed-door tour of the state-financed Georgia Film Academy. Instead, his Democratic archrival, Stacey Abrams, whom he narrowly beat in November's race for governor, plans to meet with Hollywood leaders in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

Kemp has dismissed concerns about a boycott, saying he’s advocating for Georgia values and isn’t worried what Hollywood thinks about him.

"I know they're mad at me for doing what I said I would do," he said, "but I think most Georgians appreciate that."

Carrie Sagel Burns, who runs Atlanta Movie Tours, said local business leaders privately express fears about how the abortion law might harm the state. She said some are supportive behind the scenes. But she said it’s perplexing that allies who opposed the religious liberty bills haven’t joined this fight.

“It’s almost radio silence from the big companies on these issues,” she said.

Staff writer Jennifer Brett contributed to this article.