Measure holds public contractors accountable for bankrolling extremist lawmakers’ efforts to disenfranchise Black, working-class voters
On Monday night, Ann Arbor City Council passed the “Resolution Regarding Consistency of Corporate Expression of Values and Corporate Action,” an historic resolution that empowers the council to hold its corporate vendors accountable for political activity that jeopardizes our freedom to vote. The resolution targets vendors like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan for their corporate contributions to voter-suppressing legislators passed with near unanimous support after a rally held by Defend Black Voters. It was sponsored by Mayor Christopher Taylor and Council Members Erica Briggs, Jen Eyer, Lisa Disch, Linh Song, and Travis Radina. The only opposing vote came from Council Member Jeff Haynor who was formally asked by the council to resign last year over his use of racist and homophobic slurs. Council Member Ali Ramlawi was absent.
“Silence is not an option for our communities, and we are relieved to know that in these extraordinary times, our voices can still be heard,” said Ponsella Hardaway, Executive Director of MOSES Action and member of the Defend Black Voters coalition steering committee. “Thanks to the tireless efforts of the activists who braved the rain and cold here tonight, Council Members found the courage to stand on the right side of history and send a message to vendors that our tax dollars won’t be used to support racially targeted, voter suppression.”
The resolution mirrored one passed by the Wayne County Commission in July. Ann Arbor’s version went a step further to ask City administrator Milton Dohoney to research concrete options for creating greater transparency in the procurement process. He will report back to the council at the second meeting in January.
Mayor Taylor also called on other municipalities to follow suit, “I believe that we have limited voice here at city council, but aggregated with perhaps the councils elsewhere and the work that can be done outside the city, we can be powerful.”
The company most affected by the new resolution will be Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM). Including their corporate-controlled affiliated entities, BCBSM is the number one corporate contributor to the 79 extremist lawmakers using the Big Lie of voter fraud as an excuse to back the so-called “Secure” MI Vote initiative (SMV), a thinly veiled effort to make it disproportionately harder for Black and low-income Michiganders to vote. BCBSM has given $837,000 to these lawmakers directly and through political committees despite the company having professed values of racial justice and voting rights, even signing a joint statement against the voter suppression bills that were repackaged into SMV. If the signatures submitted in July by SMV pass muster with the Bureau of Elections, these lawmakers would be poised to bypass the Governor’s veto and enact the voting restrictions potentially by the end of the year.
“I thought Blue Cross Blue Shield was on the same page as us,” said council member Eyer. “In 2021, CEO Dan Loepp signed a statement with other CEOs saying, ‘Hey legislators, you shouldn't engage in voter suppression legislation...It was quite the gut punch to find out that while they're saying these lofty things publicly, privately they're lining the campaign coffers of extremist, right-wing, election denying, voter suppressionists.”
Before the meeting, Defend Black Voters, and community leaders stood with Council Members and Washtenaw County Commissioners calling on the need for action. “At this critical moment, we are here to thank and stand behind these elected officials who are willing to show leadership so that Black, brown, and working-class people's voices are heard,” said Reverend Jeffrey Harrold of the Washtenaw Regional Organizing Committee (WeROC) and the Defend Black Voters coalition. “They understand that to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, they can’t look the other way while city and county vendors use the people’s money to fund extremist lawmakers attacking our voting rights.”
“Who you give money to shows us what your values really are,” said State Rep. Yousef Rahbi. “It is time that cities and counties all across our state stand up and put our residents' values first.”
During discussion of the resolution, council members emphasized that political activity fits within the framework of the best value contracting policy that was supported by the majority of Ann Arbor voters and enacted by council at the beginning of the year. While many public entities across the country have responsible contractor policies that allow them to take a more holistic view of their procurement choices, Ann Arbor would be the first to explicitly integrate political activity and contributions into their process.
“We live in an era in which corporations have become overt political actors. They engage with value statements in the public space and direct support for candidates and elected officials,” Mayor Taylor told the council before the vote. “Many corporations, we should all be pleased to say, have indeed made forceful expressions regarding structural racism and the preservation of democracy. These statements truly ought to be nonpartisan, bipartisan, unpartisan. They are American.”
The resolution passed after the council approved a $9 million contract with BCBSM in a separate vote to provide prescription benefits for Ann Arbor employees and retirees. While they approved the contract to make the end-of-year deadline for the benefits, council members used it as an example of why their procurement policies needed to shift to highlight such problems earlier on in the process.
“I know this is not an easy task for our city administrators, procurement office, or our city attorneys, but I hope that they'll work with the coalition and come back with perhaps a model approach to this that could work for other communities across the state that are interested in doing this,” Briggs said.
Meanwhile, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners has submitted language for their own resolution for staff review and is expected to take it up when they meet November 2nd. Commissioner Ricky Jefferson said in a statement last week, “I am not willing to stand idly by as companies the county does business with use my constituents’ tax money to bankroll extremist politicians that remain committed to attacking democracy and civil rights in Michigan. We have to draw a line.”