You’d have to be a serious sourpuss not to feel just a little sorry for Bob Harvey, the amiable, bespectacled Aggie and Harvard MBA who heads the Greater Houston Partnership. The last month has been grim for the city’s thousand-member chamber of commerce-like organization. In April, as some big companies came out in opposition to a spate of legislation around the country making it harder to vote, the question of how to respond to Texas’s “election integrity” bills tore the traditionally congenial group that Harvey helms into something bitterly fractious. Some members wanted to go along to get along with the Lege; others wanted the organization to come out firmly against what they saw as a dangerous intention to subvert voting rights, especially for people of color.
Harvey has been left in the middle, trying to protect the GHP’s legislative agenda in Austin while preserving an uneasy peace among his members in Houston. The fallout has offered a vivid demonstration that diversity and inclusivity are not just buzzwords organizations can affix to their websites and not act on; business leaders now have to learn to work with those—women and minorities, for instance—who may not share their establishment views. As Harvey said to me, with profound understatement, “It’s a lot harder today to establish a consensus than it was in the past.”
The trouble started at the partnership’s regular monthly meeting on April 21. Members of the Lege were debating Senate Bill 7, which, in its form at the time, would have limited early voting hours, restricted the number of voting machines in cities, and emboldened partisan poll watchers to harass those casting ballots. (Versions of the bill would eventually pass both the House and Senate, but the Lege would be unable to pass a reconciled version when Democrats staged a walkout blocking its passage hours before the session ended.) Several members of the GHP, including Kevin Hourican, the white CEO of Sysco, and Mia Mends, a Black woman who is the chief administrative officer of Sodexo North America, a food service company, called on the organization to make a public statement against the bills and in favor of voting rights. To them, it seemed a reasonable ask of an organization of business leaders in a city that touts its reputation as the most diverse in the nation—and one that is specifically targeted by provisions in the bill.
Harvey recalls that he was concerned about his very crowded agenda that day, but agreed to 15 minutes of discussion among the members, which stretched to a spirited 45-minute debate. Some present felt that Harvey tried to rush the speakers who supported making a statement. Two members spoke against making a statement; many others in favor of the “election integrity” bills remained silent, fearing they would be labeled as racists if they spoke up. (I interviewed fifteen people for this story, and Harvey was the only one who agreed to speak on the record. The rest either feared reprisals, had been warned by their companies to stop speaking on the topic, or did not want to risk making things more divisive among the membership than it already was.)
At the close of that meeting, Harvey promised to schedule another meeting within a few days to discuss the issue in depth. In the meantime, ten influential board members submitted a letter containing suggestions for what the GHP might say publicly on the topic of voting rights. Authors included two of the city’s most prominent black businessmen, investment banker Gerald Smith and entrepreneur and law professor Tony Chase; investor and scion Paul Hobby; Carrin Patman, chair of METRO; and Ann Stern, who runs the philanthropic Houston Endowment. The letter included what would seem to be noncontroversial statements such as, “As business leaders, we know that the health of the Houston economy rests on the founding principle of our democracy: free and fair access to vote” and “We all benefit when we have secure and fair access to voting.” The letter stated that the signers did not object to the entire contents of SB 7, but it also reminded members that in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the GHP website prominently featured its walk-the-walk Principles of Racial Equity. (“One Houston Together is our commitment to leverage the power of the business community to reduce inequities.”)
Rather than holding the full board meeting he had promised, Harvey gathered a group of former GHP chairs, cochairs of the organization’s Racial Equity Committee, and others in an ad hoc kitchen cabinet. It was agreed he should respond to the letter with one of his own. Harvey wrote the board that the GHP would not be taking a position “for or against this legislation” even though the organization understood the importance of “maintaining and enhancing the free and fair access to vote.” Yes, he knew that many members took exception to the bills, “believing” they would limit access to the voting booth, particularly in communities of color. “Your perspectives were heartfelt and listening to your concerns helped further my, and others’, understanding of the issue,” he wrote.
But, as Harvey described it to me and others, there was no “consensus” among the members as to the proper path forward. He was under pressure both to act and to not act. While some saw the issue as one of free access to the voting booth, others defined the controversy as “primarily a partisan issue.” So he determined that issuing a vague statement against voter suppression in general, but without mentioning the specific bills in Texas, “seemed proper.”
Those in favor of voicing strong opposition to the bills were frustrated that a decision had been made unilaterally, without the promised discussion with the full board. Harvey defended his process in a subsequent letter. “Calling a board meeting at this time would imply a willingness to entertain a motion to take a position despite the lack of consensus,” he wrote. Doing so “would violate the understanding with our members as to how the partnership takes formal positions.”
Harvey explained to me that in the past he could suss out a general agreement by making “five or six phone calls.” The members of the GHP had agreed to take stands in the past, including one against the 2017 bathroom bill that would have restricted the rights of transgender Texans and that died in the Lege. But times had changed: “That only works if you know the members of your board. In a much more complex world, you have to have your antenna out more broadly to understand where people are coming from,” he told me. He went on to confess that he was “surprised to see how people see issues based on their own life experiences.”
Whether he knew it or not, Harvey and his organization had reached a crossroads. It wasn’t enough to have a diverse board; inclusivity meant not only that the voices of those members would be heard, but that action would be taken on behalf of the people they represented. All over the country, corporations that were once silent on controversial issues have stepped out and up, taking positions on racial equity, policing, climate change, gay rights, and trans rights. To Harvey, this was not the mission of the GHP, at least not yet.
Why was the partnership reluctant to take a stand on voting rights? Racism could have played a part, along with its cousin several times removed, tone deafness. But there was another reason more commonly cited: a profound fear of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and what he would do to companies that opposed him. In early April, after a few Texas-based corporations issued language opposing voting restrictions, Patrick warned them to “Stay outta things you don’t know anything about, and if you want to get involved, then you’re taking that risk,” referring to the possibility of higher corporate taxes or more regulations. Even H-E-B, long known for its commitment to civil rights, remained mum on the voting rights issue. Unlike with the 2017 bathroom bill debate, partnership members expected that the Lege would ultimately pass an election bill, and the organization wouldn’t have cover for its opposition.
By May 3, some members of the board had lost faith in Harvey and decided to take their case against the bill directly to Speaker Dade Phelan and the Legislature at large. More than 175 business leaders signed a letter outlining the now familiar argument that both bills constituted voter suppression and would “inevitably damage [Houston’s] competitiveness in attracting businesses and workers.” The letter got no response. However, Phelan, whose district lies just an hour east of Houston, regularly chats with Harvey and continued to take his calls throughout this period.
It wasn’t long before the squabble within the GHP burst into public view, and was framed as another battle in the forever war between a Republican-dominated state government and the state’s Democrat-run cities. The Houston Chronicle’s editorial board flamed the GHP, and both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal covered the controversy—and not in a way that was good for business. As the fight wore on, some partnership members questioned the wisdom of alienating local officials in favor of the leadership in Austin. What would happen when GHP members needed support in Houston? An early response came swiftly, when Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo dropped the GHP as the longtime sponsors of their major annual addresses. The financial loss from banquet ticket sales was one thing, but the loss of prestige was worse.
As an olive branch to the opposition, the partnership held a full board meeting on May 6 that, in keeping with the times, employed a professional facilitator whose job was to keep the discussion civil. (Several prominent leaders, including two local university presidents, turned down the opportunity to mediate.) Thirteen of the fifteen speakers, prominent community members both Black and white, spoke out against the bills and the GHP’s refusal to strongly support voting rights.
Only two board members spoke in favor of the GHP’s stand: Senator Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi Cruz, whose comments comparing the protest to communism would later be leaked to the Wall Street Journal. She also professed difficulty understanding why these bills were considered racist, according to one person who was there. She was joined by Dick Weekley, the conservative homebuilder and philanthropist, who echoed the Dan Patrick line that the issue was not about voter suppression but about election integrity. (Despite the GOP’s fervent concern for voter fraud, numerous studies and court hearings, many of them in front of Republican-appointed judges, have shown that it is largely nonexistent in Texas and elsewhere, and that the party has yet to provide any evidence of widespread tampering.) As of now, the partnership has posted a both-sides statement on its website: “It is essential that our elections be open to and readily accessible by all, while maintaining confidence in the electoral process itself. We encourage our elected leaders, on both sides of the political aisle, to balance these two ideals, strengthening all Texans’ right to vote in free and fair elections.”
Behind the scenes, the bitterness festers on both sides, especially as state Republicans have indicated they’ll call a special Lege session to revive “election integrity” bills. “This isn’t going away,” one GHP member told me about the clash. Bob Harvey is aware. “We may not have established the right processes for these issues,” he told me. On that point, there is no argument.