A politician said she would stand in the front row of a public hanging. And that was enough for companies to back away.
Walmart on Tuesday joined Boston Scientific, the medical devices manufacturer, and the railroad franchise Union Pacific in asking for the return of campaign donations they made to Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi. In recent days it has come to light that on a Nov. 2 campaign stop in Tupelo, Miss., Hyde-Smith said that if a local rancher standing next to her “invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Each of the companies says the donations were made before they became aware of Hyde-Smith’s comment, which was spoken in a state with one of the nation’s most shameful records of lynching.
Hyde-Smith is in a runoff against Mike Espy, a former U.S. agriculture secretary who is black. The election is Tuesday.
On Nov. 3, Hyde-Smith was recorded on video saying that it would be a good idea to keep some groups from being able to vote.
“There’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who that maybe we don’t want to vote,” Hyde-Smith said in the video, posted by the Bayou Brief, a news publication based in Louisiana. “Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. And I think that’s a great idea.”
Hyde-Smith’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. On Tuesday night, the Associated Press reported that Hyde-Smith had apologized for her “public hanging” comment, saying there was “no ill will.”
“I’ve never been hurtful to anyone,” Hyde-Smith said in a debate against Espy, according to the AP. “This comment was twisted. It was turned into a weapon to be used against me.”
Also on Tuesday, Politico reported that Hyde-Smith had posed for a photo wearing the hat of a Confederate soldier and holding a rifle. The photo, which was posted on Facebook, was taken during a 2014 visit to the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library. During the Civil War, Davis was the president of the Confederacy.
“Mississippi history at its best!” wrote Hyde-Smith in the Facebook post.
At the White House on Tuesday, before leaving for Florida, President Trump said that Hyde-Smith’s comment about attending a public hanging was made “in jest” and that she “feels bad” about it. He went on to predict that she will still win the Mississippi runoff against Espy.
Historically, Mississippi had one of the highest statewide rates of lynching in the United States, according to extensive research by the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to end mass incarceration and racial injustice in the country. Between 1877 and 1950, 614 African Americans were lynched in Mississippi, according to the EJI.
In a statement Tuesday, the Espy campaign said it was confident that “voters will follow Walmart’s lead.”
“Cindy Hyde-Smith’s comments have embarrassed Mississippi, and shown why she can’t be trusted to work with the businesses Mississippi needs to grow good-paying jobs,” said Danny Blanton, communications director for the Espy campaign.
Walmart spokeswoman LeMia Jenkins said the retailer made three donations to Hyde-Smith’s campaign, including one in June and one in September for $1,000 each. On Nov. 8, two days after the midterm elections, Walmart made a third campaign donation for $2,000. Walmart has asked that all $4,000 be returned.
Jenkins said this was the first time, for any candidate in any race, that Walmart requested a donation be returned.
“When we are made aware of comments like this, we have to do what’s best for our company and our core values,” Jenkins said.
Kate Haranis, a spokeswoman for Boston Scientific, said a $2,500 contribution was made to Hyde-Smith’s campaign on Nov. 8. Haranis said that the company wasn’t aware of Hyde-Smith’s remarks about public hangings before the donation was made and that Boston Scientific hadn’t given to the campaign previously.
Union Pacific is also requesting a refund and said the company “in no way, shape or form condones or supports divisive or perceived to be divisive statements.”
Hyde-Smith’s comments about public hangings were made before the Nov. 6 election. But it took roughly one week for her comments to circulate and even longer for Walmart, Boston Scientific and Union Pacific’s donations to come under fire on Twitter. On Monday, for example, “Will & Grace” actress Debra Messing tweeted a story about Walmart’s donation from the site Popular Information. The tweet quickly went viral.
Businesses have always had to tread carefully when it comes to wading into social or political issues. Most recently, U.S. companies have come under pressure to take stances on immigration policy and gun control.
But the decision to come out against one person is unique, said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at the public relations firm Weber Shandwick. Rather than have a CEO come out with a critical statement and then quietly walk away, Walmart, Boston Scientific and Union Pacific went a step further, she said.
Typically, to take a moral stance on a social issue, companies “donate to the [American Civil Liberties Union], or they take action with an amicus brief on the immigration ban,” Gaines-Ross said. “This is different. They’re asking for a refund.”
The strategy could also align with what the public increasingly expects from corporations and their leaders. According to a June 2018 survey by Weber Shandwick, 74 percent of Americans agreed that when CEOs take a public position on a hotly debated issue, they should back up their words with actions.
Still, what ultimately motivates those actions isn’t always clear, said Joseph Holt, an expert on business ethics at the University of Notre Dame. Often, it’s only after a public outcry that a company will sever ties with a person or group, as many tech companies did this summer with Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and prominent right-wing talk show host.
Plus, Holt said, simply withdrawing a campaign contribution doesn’t clarify exactly how Hyde-Smith’s comments conflict with the companies' “core values.” Holt gave the example of how when Merck chief executive Kenneth Frazier resigned from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council in August 2017, following Trump’s response to the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Frazier clearly explained that he was taking “a stand against intolerance and extremism.”
When asked specifically what company values Hyde-Smith violated when she spoke about public hangings, Boston Scientific pointed to a list of six values, including global collaboration and diversity. Union Pacific said it could not comment. Walmart also would not elaborate.
“If you’re not saying why, and which value it violates,” Holt said, “then that is an indication that you don’t have a clearly held set of values in mind."