Sandy Springs-based UPS made a splash over the summer when it decided not to sponsor the Republican National Convention as it did in 2012. But with President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration nearing, the shipping giant is planning to help fund the festivities.
UPS is among a growing list of Georgia’s biggest businesses that plan to help fund the activities surrounding the Jan. 20 inauguration after Trump cleared the way for corporations to make large donations for the event.
Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Southern Co. are among the Georgia-based Fortune 500 firms ponying up for the inauguration or one of the many galas or other events revolving around Trump’s swearing-in ceremony.
Trump’s inaugural committee aims to raise as much as $75 million for a slate of events from Jan. 17 to Jan. 21, in part by leaning on giant corporations. Details won’t be made public until after the event, but that would set Trump on the path to exceed the record $53 million raised for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Corporate powers tend to steer clear of partisan politics, lest they alienate wide segments of their potential customer base. But inaugurations give them a unique chance to hobnob with influential politicians while highlighting their work.
The tide of cash is concerning to good government activists who aim to limit the influence of money in politics. After all, the inaugural festivities generally allow big donors access to the incoming administration and other influential politicians.
Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for the Public Citizen transparency advocacy, said donors to the inauguration “barely even disguise the fact that they are giving large sums of money to buy access and possibly influence the new administration.”
“The Atlanta businesses that will be chipping in for Trump’s inauguration are going to be giving very large donations, have business pending before the federal government, and inevitably want to catch the ear and gratitude of the president,” he said, “and hope to get something in return.”
A political challenge
For UPS, the decision to chip in to Trump’s inauguration marks a turnabout. The company didn’t donate to Obama’s inaugural committee in 2013. And it was among a range of powerful companies that sponsored the GOP convention four years ago but decided against doing so again in July.
Although the firm said in a statement at the time that it “was not a political decision,” UPS Chief Executive David Abney was an outspoken critic of Trump’s trade policy and the move was seen as part of a trend of corporate America giants who were wary of associating with Trump’s campaign.
(The company notes it has been more receptive to Trump’s calls for tax cuts, new infrastructure spending and a regulatory overhaul.)
As Trump’s swearing-in nears, UPS spokeswoman Whitney VanMeter said the firm plans to support the inauguration, though she didn’t offer any specifics.
“We are currently working with the committee to figure out our level of support from both a financial and a shipping perspective,” VanMeter said.
Big donations to inaugurations are nothing new, and many companies have long histories of contributing. While millions in public funds will pay for security and the formal swearing-in ceremony, the parties and galas surrounding the event are paid for with private dollars.
Obama banned corporations and political action committees from donating to his inauguration in 2009, and he capped contributions from individuals at $50,000.
Four years later, citing a tapped-out donor base, his committee lifted the cap for individuals and allowed companies to chip in. Among the Georgia corporations that did so were Coca-Cola, which contributed $430,000; Southern Col, which chipped in $100,000; and Aflac, which gave $50,000.
Trump’s inaugural committee allowed corporations and wealthy supporters to make large donations from the get-go, dangling a range of benefits for the biggest donors. They span from an “exclusive” luncheon with Cabinet appointees to a dinner with Mike Pence, the incoming vice president.
Several of the Georgia companies are putting a local spin on their donations. Coca-Cola, Delta, Southern Co. and Cox Enterprises are among the corporate sponsors of the Georgia State Society’s inaugural ball. (Cox Enterprises is the parent company of Cox Communications and has media holdings that include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)
That bash, held the night before the inauguration, will be headlined by pop crooner Andy Grammer and promises to be a “bipartisan black-tie reception with fantastic Georgia food, beverages and lively entertainment,” according to Phil Aftuck, the president of the society.
Others are set to more directly fund the president-elect’s inauguration efforts. Southern Co., which donated $100,000 to Obama’s event, noted a “long history” of supporting the inaugural committee and said the firm was deciding its level of participation.
And Aflac, the Columbus-based insurance firm, said it has long contributed to the inaugural funds for presidents from both parties and plans to do so again.
“Aflac is firmly committed to good governance and corporate citizenship. Part of this commitment involves being fully participatory in the democratic process,” said company spokeswoman Catherine Blades, who noted her company is also a sponsor of the Georgia bash.
Several Georgia firms plan to stay out of the celebration entirely. HD Supply Holdings, First Data Corp. and Veritiv Corp. were among the Fortune 500 firms based in Georgia to say they will have no involvement in the inauguration. Home Depot did not immediately comment.
And then there is SunTrust Bank, which is planning a lower-key way of marking the inauguration. Company spokeswoman Sue Mallino said the bank is inviting a group of employees and clients to watch the inaugural parade from its Washington office.
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