Board diversity expands political spectrum

At Marriott International, Chairman Bill Marriott has not only contributed the maximum $4,600 to Republican John McCain's presidential campaign, he's also an active McCain "bundler," who has raised between $100,000 and $250,000 from others.

At the table at Marriott board meetings is director Debra Lee, chairwoman of BET Holdings, parent company of Black Entertainment Television. Lee not only has given the maximum to Democrat Barack Obama, but is a bundler for his camp and has raised nearly $100,000. The Marriott board is a conglomerate of political givers: four other directors to Obama and/or Hillary Clinton, three others to McCain and/or Mitt Romney.

For 20 years, large companies have recruited directors of color to their boards, and by doing so, they have installed into the corporate system an unforeseen byproduct: political diversity. Among the 200 largest Standard & Poor's 500 companies, 78% have at least one African-American director, says executive search firm Spencer Stuart. Executive search firm Korn/Ferry International says that 78% of Fortune 1000 companies have a director who is a minority, up from 47% in 1995.

And while Obama has substantial support among white business leaders, too, the outcome of efforts at Marriott and elsewhere to diversify the board has meant that at most quarterly meetings, staunch Obama supporters sit congenially, but eye to eye, with those staunchly supporting McCain.

There are strange political boardfellows at Commonwealth Edison, The Gap, General Electric, McDonald's, Time Warner and Wal-Mart, among others. Even Halliburton, where Dick Cheney was chairman before becoming George Bush's running mate eight years ago, has on its board two Obama contributors, including Milton Carroll, African-American chairman of CenterPoint Energy.

Dow Chemical Chairman Andrew Liveris, an Australian citizen who can't vote here, has contributed to McCain and Romney. Dow Chemical director James Bell, an African-American chief financial officer at Boeing, has contributed to Obama. At General Mills, white Chairman Kendall Powell is a McCain contributor. African-American director Dorothy Terrell, an accomplished technology executive, is an Obama bundler who has raised between $50,000 and $100,000.

Nationwide, about 90% of African Americans say they will vote for Obama, vs. 3% for McCain, according to the latest polling by Gallup. African-American directors appear almost as solid in their support, USA TODAY research finds. There are 191 African Americans on the boards of the largest 250 companies, according to Black Enterprise.

Using the Center for Responsive Politics Internet site, USA TODAY was able to identify 99 of the 191 who contributed to at least one presidential candidate during this election cycle. Of those 99, 83% contributed to Obama, and 95% contributed to Obama or Clinton, or both.

Mary Bush, an African American and the newest member of the Marriott board, is a childhood friend of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and was appointed by President Bush to chair a commission to reform foreign aid.

"I don't think she will be supporting Obama," Bill Marriott said without knowing that Mary Bush contributed to Obama first, then to McCain. Mary Bush declined comment.

Of the 82 directors who contributed to Obama, six have also contributed to McCain. Three African-American directors contributed to McCain but not to Obama: Time Warner Chairman Richard Parsons; former Republican congressman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma; and Michael Powell, former Federal Communications Commission chairman under President Bush and son of former secretary of State Colin Powell. Herman Cain, former chairman of Godfather's Pizza and now a conservative radio talk-show host, contributed to Republican candidate Mike Huckabee.

Floretta McKenzie, an African-American Democrat who retired from the Marriott board this year, remembers times when it was "a little rough and lonesome politically," but boards of most large companies now have multiple Democratic supporters.

Many white business leaders have contributed to Obama, including Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz and DreamWorks co-founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. But the majority of the marquee names of business either do not contribute or are found in the McCain camp, including August Busch III, John Thain of Merrill Lynch and former Hewlett-Packard chairwoman Carly Fiorina, mentioned sometimes as a potential running mate for McCain.

Cain, who says he contributed to Huckabee largely because of his position on tax policy, says the overwhelming support for Obama among business leaders of color is more out of pride and excitement than ideology. He says that successful African-American business leaders tend to be more conservative on the economy because they understand the implications of bad economic policy.

"Some African Americans are closet conservatives. I'm not," Cain says. "Some think that I have turned my back on a brother."

Getting insight

John Rogers, chairman of mutual fund company Ariel Capital Management and co-founder of the Black Corporate Directors Conference, grew up with parents active in the civil rights movement, but says he is more liberal today than he was before he was successful.

Rogers is an Obama bundler of significance, one of only 36 people who have raised more than $500,000, according to Obama's website. He sits on the McDonald's board with CEO and Vice Chairman James Skinner, a contributor to McCain and Romney. "Having people who are close to the leadership of campaigns can give … important insights to where the country might be in three to five years," Rogers said.

Directors are community leaders and involved politically, General Mills' Powell says. "That's positive. However, when the board meets, they … ensure that strategies are in place to create value. I have never personally witnessed a substantive political discussion."

All directors interviewed agree that their allegiance is to shareholders and their mission is to verify that company leaders are executing their duties within the boundaries of legal and ethical limits. Connie Mack, a white former Republican senator from Florida, is a director at Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster) and Genzyme. He says directors get along much better than Washington politicians.

"I've seen Republican board members push environmental, education and medical issues. I've seen Democrats on boards who will pursue what's best for the company from a tax standpoint," Mack says.

Political passions do sometimes come up during board dinners and other casual settings. Rogers is on the Exelon board with former Republican Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, and they have had conversations about the McCain-Obama race, Rogers says.

Marriott is one of Black Enterprise magazine's 40 best companies for diversity. Romney was on the Marriott board for nine years until he resigned in 2002 to run for governor of Massachusetts. It wasn't long before Bill Marriott invited then-governor Romney back to speak at a board dinner.

"We had a bunch of Democrats," Marriott said. "They had a lot of respect for (Romney), and some contributed to his campaign when he ran for president."

True? BET Chairman Lee hesitates, then says she gave a "little bit ($500)" to Romney out of friendship to Marriott and because Marriott spoke highly of his friend.

"We run businesses and want good relationships," Lee said.

Covering bases

When Bill Marriott was told that director Lawrence Kellner, chairman of Continental Airlines, had contributed first to Romney, then to Obama, Marriott laughed and said he knew of no reason for it except to cover bases and claim support for whoever wins.

Continental did not reply to requests for comment.

Among others who have made mixed contributions are Clarence Otis (African American), chairman of Darden Restaurants (Obama and McCain), and Jeffrey Immelt (white), chairman of General Electric (Clinton, Giuliani, McCain and Romney, but not Obama).

Darden Restaurants did not respond to requests for comment. GE confirmed Immelt's contributions but otherwise declined to comment.

Most common is to give to no presidential candidate. That list includes Chairwoman Andrea Jung of Avon Products and Chairman Alan Lafley of Procter & Gamble, as well as American Express Chairman Ken Chennault, Aetna Chairman Ronald Williams, Delphi CEO Rodney O'Neal and former Sears CEO Aylwin Lewis, four of the most powerful African-American business leaders.

Non-giving maintains neutrality and also signals the absence of political ambition. There are about 3,000 presidential appointees, and New York University public service professor Paul Light says ambassadorships and the like go to those who write checks.

Lee laughs when asked if she feels pressure to raise a dollar for Obama for every dollar raised for McCain by Bill Marriott. She recalls a Marriott quarterly meeting that came soon after President Bush had defeated John Kerry in 2004.

Sensing that the atmosphere might be a little strained, Marriott opened with a joke: "I see all the Democrats are wearing black today," Lee recalls Marriott saying.

Then Marriott passed along some encouragement that his father had once given to him: "You'll have another chance in four years."