CEOs Opposing Election Integrity

News: US News
by Kristine Christlieb  •  •  April 22, 2021   

Who's behind it?

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Professor Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld

DETROIT ( - CEOs are facing backlash after they massed their forces to oppose state election reforms.

Florida Republican senator Rick Scott on Tuesday released a letter titled "Dear Woke Corporate America." In the letter, he warned business tycoons, "Backlash is coming."

"You are, in fact, morally inferior to the working men and women of this great country, who are not racist people and who, unlike you, care about truth," Scott went on to say. 

The man who credits himself with leading the CEOs in a full-frontal assault on America is Yale School of Management Professor Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece last week, Sonnenfeld told WSJ readers, "I am proud to have had a role in helping trigger some of this activity."

Saying that he helped "trigger" CEO activism is an uncharacteristically modest assessment of his role. In the last three weeks, Sonnenfeld has been busy organizing CEOs against the state legislatures seeking to ensure election integrity.

Leader of the Pack

Sonnenfeld has been schooling America's CEOs since 1989, when he left Harvard Business School to launch his school of incumbent CEOs at Emory University. The move to Emory followed the success of his 1988 book The Hero's Farewell: What Happens When Chief Executives Retire

In the course of writing the book, Sonnenfeld interviewed 50 CEOs of America's largest companies — including the executives of Ford Motor Company, IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank, Lever Brothers and Raytheon. He leveraged that experience and those relationships at Emory. 

The Wall Street Journal reports, "Since 1990, nearly 5,000 senior executives — mostly CEOs — have attended his off-the-record conferences, paying up to $2,500 a head."

Sonnenfeld was on a roll until 1997 when Ronald Frank, dean of Emory's business school, announced he would retire — and Sonnenfeld was passed over for the post. He became unhinged. In late 1997, he was forced to resign from Emory, and Georgia Tech retracted its offer for Sonnenfeld to assume leadership of its business school.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Sonnenfeld was accused of vandalizing Emory's new $25 million business school building, and there was security video footage to back it up. Colleagues and friends say in the final weeks of 1997, Sonnenfeld's behavior was erratic.

In the last three weeks, Sonnenfeld has been busy organizing CEOs against state legislatures wanting to ensure election integrity.

Sonnenfeld sued Emory for wrongful termination. After two years of legal wrangling, Sonnenfeld won a multi-million dollar settlement. Emory withdrew all accusations, as did Sonnenfeld. Sonnenfeld emerged from the dust-up with an appointment at Yale School of Management and was potentially inspired to write his 2007 book Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters.

Stirring the Pot

From his post at Yale, Sonnenfeld is rallying the troops. On March 30, he retweeted a New York Times article: "Corporations, Vocal About Racial Justice, Go Quiet on Voting Rights." He introduced the tweet with a quote chastising the sheep in his CEO flock: "The voice of individual leaders is oddly muted." The New York Times piece made the point for Sonnenfeld when it quoted LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter — "This shows that they [CEOs] lack a real commitment to racial equity. They are complicit in their silence."

Mitch McConnell

A number of CEOs got the message and signed onto Civic Alliance's April 2 "Joint Statement on Protecting Voting Access."  

Sonnenfeld is the man pulling the levers behind the corporate veil, and few Americans are aware of his influence. In his 40-year teaching career, dozens of his students have gone on to corporate leadership.

On Saturday, April 10, Sonnenfeld organized a Zoom conference with roughly 100 CEOs. Their topic for discussion was so-called voter restrictions in states like Georgia. Writing on Politico, Zack Stanton claimed most of the CEOs on the call were Republicans. Stanton also alleged that Sonnenfeld has been an informal adviser to both Republican and Democrat presidents. 

Then he dropped a nuclear bomb: Sonnenfeld and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell have had a long friendship. In fact, Sonnenfeld even spoke at McConnell's wedding to Elaine Chao. 

Perhaps fearful that a tweet and a Zoom conference wouldn't be enough pressure on CEOs to take up the cause of so-called voter restrictions, Sonnenfeld wrote an April 15 op-ed piece for Wall Street Journal readers, telling them, "Ensuring social cohesion in democracy is part of a CEO's job of managing the strategic environment."

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