JUNE 5, 2011 12:52PM

On the Heroics at Home Depot

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A video making the rounds on YouTube and on progressive blogs features the American Family Association’s Buddy Smith telling the story of his run-in with Home Depot Chairman and CEO Fred Blake at the annual shareholders meeting on June 2nd.

Smith, whose organization also runs a site called BoycottTheHomeDepot.com, came to the shareholders meeting to present a petition asking Blake to “stop sponsoring gay pride parades and making direct contributions to gay activist organizations.” “A corporate company like Home Depot,” he complains, “is just not being a good citizen,” because they are “spreading the word” about a “lifestyle that is just a trap of Satan.” Good corporate citizenship, in Smith’s view, requires “standing for God’s truth” out of “love” for “our neighbors.”

How’s that for a theory of corporate social responsibility?

To Smith’s dismay, Fred Blake wasn’t having any of it. The Home Depot CEO responded “very briefly” to Smith. Blake went on, in Smith's account, to say that he “was very proud of Home Depot’s diversity"; and the CEO "made a recommitment just to continue down the very track that they’re going.” So Blake sent Smith packing.

Whether this showed “some real backbone,” as blogger Cory Doctorow puts it, is up for debate: how much courage does it take to dismiss a crazy old coot like Smith, or double down on diversity policies for which there is a strong business case? Discrimination unnecessarily limits the labor pool and risks offending potential customers.

If the buzz on Twitter is any indication, the issue seems settled; and Blake is a champion of diversity and a model of socially responsible corporate leadership. Most people were retweeting @RightWingWatch’s tweet: “AFA brings boycott to Home Depot board meeting & CEO tells AFA to take a hike, reiterates commitment to diversity.” One poster, a Lady Gaga fan, called Blake “bad ass”; others said they now preferred Home Depot to its competitor, Lowes. @biggkhalil took up AFA’s theme of corporate citizenship: “Dear AFA, Home Depot is a great citizen. I pledge to continue shopping there. You people are pathetic.” Yet another poster thanked the company “for standing up for equality! Let's send a Village People construction worker with a gift basket!” Others used more colorful language to denounce Smith and praise Blake.

Everybody agrees Blake made the right call; nobody seems too concerned that he made an easy call. I guess people like to see these holy-rollers get their comeuppance. But it’s worth noting that there was another item on the agenda at the Home Depot meeting that deserves more attention than Blake’s rebuff of Smith. It has to do not with Home Depot policy but Home Depot politics – specifically with the money Home Depot gives through its PAC to candidates and their refusal to give shareholders a say in how that money gets spent.

It turns out some of the company's spending doesn't jive with their much-celebrated commitment to diversity. As Andy Kroll reports in Mother Jones:

in 2006, the PAC donated $1,000 to Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, now the state's governor and a supporter of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and gave $10,000 to help Bob McDonnell's gubernatorial campaign in Virginia. McDonnell is a staunch opponent of workplace protections for LGBT state employees.

Arguing that Blake and his executive team at Home Depot “were giving to candidates who were actively rolling back the rights of GLBT people in the states in which they did business” and that this put the company’s reputation at risk, Julie Goodridge and Northstar Management brought a resolution to give shareholders an advisory vote on corporate political spending.

I’ve written about this resolution in a previous post. It is at best a first step, but it's a step in the right direction. Some people believe that requiring full disclosure and giving investors a say may help check corporate political spending in the wake of the Citizens United ruling.

That's the hope. In fact, CEO Fred Blake and the Home Depot management team opposed the Northstar resolution from the very start. It gained a place on the annual meeting agenda only after an SEC ruling required the company to include it. And at the June 2nd shareholders meeting, the resolution (not surprisingly) went down in defeat.

Fred Blake has promised to announce the final tally soon. It would be a sign of real courage, or at least consistency, if he took the occasion to distance himself and his company from the bigotry of Brownback, McDonnell and their ilk.

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