- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2013

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then conservatives have begun paying tribute to the success of liberals and environmentalists in putting pressure on America’s corporations.

Some on the right are now embracing shareholder activism, using tactics pioneered on the left that have turned America’s corporate boardrooms and annual meetings into battlegrounds over causes ranging from climate change and gay rights to universal health care and campaign spending reform.

Labor unions, civil rights and environmental groups for years have waged proxy battles at annual shareholder meetings to try to force companies to adopt more “clean” and “progressive” policies — or risk being slapped with labels like “dirty,” “greedy” and “racist.” These campaigns have often been successful in prompting the targeted corporations to at least try to appease the groups through token changes and public relations efforts, while some of the boardroom assaults have resulted in significant corporate initiatives, such as a recent decision by Bank of America to devote $70 billion toward financing “green energy” projects.

Liberals have backed up their noisy boardroom appearances with the quieter but far more effective tactic of investing only in companies that toe the line, a trend that has gone global. A study this year found that more than a fifth of global-investment funds — a total of $13.6 trillion — are directed toward companies deemed “socially responsible” by liberal groups.

After having ignored the burgeoning social investment movement for years, conservatives are starting to react.

Led by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a free-market conservative think tank, they are starting to imitate the liberals’ tactics by sponsoring initiatives at corporate board meetings, partly to act as a counterweight on liberal issues, but also to push conservative causes such as lower taxes and smaller government.

The conservative research group, for example, recently lectured Bank of America executives — a favorite target of the left — for “cowering to left-wing radicals” who label conservative initiatives requiring voters to obtain identity cards as “racist.”

“Bending to the twisted will of radical left organizations is not a solid business strategy,” said Justin Danhof, said the center’s free enterprise project director, adding that the bank will find its efforts to mollify environmental critics to be “a never-ending endeavor” because “environmental zealots are never satisfied.”

In fact, Mr. Danhof said he got drowned out at BofA’s spring meeting in Charlotte, N.C., by a small army of environmentalists who monopolized more than 90 percent of the time allotted for questions and answers with a series of tirades from activists denouncing the bank’s funding of coal-fired power plants.

Bank of America’s leadership touted their $70 billion commitment to green programs, yet scores of environmental activists were at the meeting and protesting outside demanding ever more. And if history is an indicator, they will likely get their way,” Mr. Danhof said.

Outgunned

Although badly outgunned by left-leaning groups, the center’s activists had more success at ExxonMobil’s recent meeting in Dallas. Shareholders there voted down a union-sponsored resolution that would have forced the company to disclose details of how much it spends on political campaigns, lobbying and funding for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that has been influential in writing bills passed by state legislatures around the country.

Exxon, another perennial target of the left, has mostly stood up to their pressure over the years, unlike other big oil companies like BP and Shell, which have carefully cultivated “green” images to counter their critics. Arguably, BP’s success at mollifying environmentalists is one reason it handily survived the fallout from its role in causing the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history — the Gulf of Mexico well blow-out in 2010. Exxon, by contrast, continues to be censured for its Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, though that disaster, in retrospect, looks minor by comparison.

Despite many defeats, liberal groups seem drawn to Exxon meetings like moths to a flame. They brought up a cornucopia of controversial issues last month, ranging from campaign spending reform to gay rights and the risks of hydraulic fracturing, to little avail. GetEqual, a group fighting for gay rights, excoriated the oil giant’s shareholders for overwhelmingly defeating for the 14th straight year a bid to reinstate rules prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals that Mobil had in place before its merger with Exxon.

“Even among its Big Oil peers, ExxonMobil has an abysmal record,” the group complained, vowing to take another tack and pressure President Obama to bar Exxon from getting federal contracts until it changes its ways.

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