Jay Hughes, a Democratic state senator in Mississippi, could use a little help.
"It's more fucked up down here than you know," he told Fusion in a recent interview, referring to the recent actions of the state's Republican-led legislature.
Hughes is leading an uphill battle to repeal a discriminatory law signed by the governor last week. The so-called “religious freedom” act allows religious groups and some private businesses to refuse service to gay or transgender people based on "a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction."
Last week, under mounting public pressure, the governor of Georgia vetoed a bill much like the one passed in Mississippi. But unfortunately for Hughes, opponents of Georgia’s bill had a powerful ally that doesn’t exist in Mississippi: big business.
In Georgia—and in states like Indiana, Arkansas, and North Carolina —corporations have been able to exert pressure against discriminatory pieces of legislation, threatening to take jobs away from the states if they’re not vetoed or repealed. In a few cases, their side won, and states backpedaled.
Not so in Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, and ranked by Forbes as the second least business-friendly state in the nation.
"We're a desert when it comes to big national companies operating here," said Hughes, who represents the state's suburban 12th District. "Throughout this whole process, there's been a void of serious corporate objections from the businesses that do business here."
This week, Hughes introduced legislation to reverse the law. "But absent big businesses and companies getting involved, I don't see it happening," he admitted to me.
There was some initial support from corporations, Hughes said, but mostly they’ve handled the issue with “cotton gloves." The Mississippi Manufacturer's Association, which includes members like Nissan, the state’s largest employer, Toyota, and Ingalls Shipbuilding—issued a statement voicing opposition to the law before it was passed. But after it went through, it softened its stance, saying in a release that "the MMA respects the wishes of the legislature and governor." The group says it remains concerned about the law.
Still, Hughes, who believes the religious freedom law is already hurting Mississippi’s tourism revenue, is bent on making an economic case against the legislation. The only thing that could change minds of congressional Republicans, he said, are "economic voices and the fear of not getting elected.”
Just a few weeks ago in Georgia, a storm of corporate pressure preceded Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoing a religious freedom bill in his state.
Disney and Marvel indicated that they would take their ongoing and future productions elsewhere if the bill passed. (Georgia has some of the broadest tax incentives to host movie productions in the nation.) Major corporations headquartered in the state—Coca-Cola, UPS, Home Depot, to name a few—also called for the governor to reject the bill. The NFL even chimed in, saying “that such a law in Georgia could affect Atlanta’s attempts” to host an upcoming Super Bowl.
As a socially conservative, pro-business Republican Governor, all eyes were on Deal to see which way he would sway. Money won.
In North Carolina, a new law stipulates that people are only permitted to go into the bathroom that coincides with the sex they were assigned at birth. The state is a diametric opposite to Mississippi—it is ranked as the second most business friendly state by Forbes—and the corporate pushback against the law is mounting big time.
Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr canceled planned concerts. PayPal broke ice in the business community when it announced that it will not move forward with a planned expansion that would have brought 400 jobs to the state because the law "violates the values and principles that are at the core" of the company. Deutsche Bank soon after announced a halt on a 250 job project, for the same reasons. Charles Barkley suggested on ESPN that the NBA find another venue for the All-Star game. Nearly 300 North Carolinian authors voiced their opposition to the bill. At least major four business groups have canceled events in the state because of the contents of the law, putting a serious damper on the local economy, the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau told a local paper. As many as 16 other groups are reportedly reconsidering hosting conferences in the state, the group said.
It's not clear if all this movement will ultimately reverse the course of the North Carolina law, but recent history tells us that to some degree, this level of corporate activism is changing the dynamics of conservatism, as it pins pro-business conservatives against social conservatives.
We saw this in action when last year, Indiana passed a religious freedom law, similar to what Mississippi just passed. In that case, the business community played a major role in getting the government to backpedal its stance. Again, at least 12 conventions backed out in protest of the law. Officials estimated that the row cost the state up to $60 million.
The day after Indiana revised its religious freedom law, Arkansas did the same, facing a similar outcry.
To be sure, a few things have happened in Mississippi. Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and country singer Billy Ray Cyrus have canceled planned shows. A group of 95 authors wrote a joint letter condemning the law. An exposition-style picnic celebrating Mississippi's food and culture in New York City's Central Park was cancelled by organizers in protest.
Despite all the hoopla over the new law, Hughes wants the world to know that Mississippi is actually a nice place. There are progressive, forward thinking people there, who want to move the poor state into the 21st century, even if the state government only seems to be concerned with legislating "God, gays and guns," as he put it, instead of concentrating on the state's real issues, which are many.
"If we had one-tenth of the negative coverage that we had this week in a positive light, it could have made such a difference," said Hughes. "Instead, we get all this negativity, reinforcing what some people already think about our state."
Corporate America—come bail out the liberals for once.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.