Alabama Power and its political action committee have contributed more than $176,000 since January 2021 to Alabama politicians who drove that state’s passage of anti-LGTBQ+ bills, including Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, who signed two discriminatory bills into law on Friday, April 8. The bills come in the wake of a public push by Southern Company, the parent company of Alabama Power, to tout its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
SB 184 could land doctors in jail for providing puberty blockers and hormones to transgender youth and HB 322 requires transgender children to use bathrooms of their sex at birth. HB 322 also bans discussions about “sexual orientation or gender identity” that is “not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” through the fifth grade.
Alabama Power did not respond to a request for comment.
Other utilities, such as Duke Energy in the Carolinas, have attempted to avoid discussion of LGBTQ+ issues. In 2016, North Carolina passed a similar bill to Alabama’s, known as HB 2, which excluded gender identity and sexual orientation from statewide anti-discrimination protections and required that transgender people use restrooms in schools and state government buildings corresponding to their sex at birth. The governor who signed it, Pat McCrory, spent more than three decades working for Duke. The bill cost the state hundreds of new jobs after its passage caused a mass condemnation from dozens of companies and some companies to eliminate or revise their expansion plans in the state.
Anti-LGBTQ+ laws could be a substantial risk to utilities like Southern and Duke who tout their work in economic development as a reason for companies to locate in their respective states. A study from the Williams Institute located at the UCLA School of Law found a “clear positive correlation between per capita GDP [gross domestic product] and legal rights,” for LGBTQ+ people.
Southern Company’s push for diversity, equity and inclusion appears to exclude sexual orientation, gender
Southern Company has advertised a lean into diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. The utility has released reports touting its DEIJ commitments. The commitments speak broadly to “social justice” and ensuring “that all groups are well-represented, included and fairly treated.” Southern’s DEIJ efforts and reports specifically call out racial justice, but are silent on LGBTQ+ issues.
Southern’s 2021 Transformation Report mentioned a new “strengthened values-based criteria in political contribution guidelines”. The utility also said it developed metrics to track its progress on its social justice commitments but has not disclosed those metrics or related performance to the public.
Earlier this year Southern Company won a 100 percent rating on the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation’s 2022 Corporate Equality Index (CEI), but the CEI’s scoring does not account for external activities of the corporation such as the funding of politicians who are openly hostile towards the LGBTQ+ community. Previous HRC President Alphoso David criticized companies who used the CEI to mask their support for anti-LGBTQ+ politicians, saying, “Companies must also reckon honestly with how their donations to politicians who back anti-LGBTQ bills squares with their commitments to our community. The CEI cannot and should not be used as a shield to defend those actions.” Patrick Scarborough, a program manager for Southern Company, serves on the HRC board of directors.
Southern’s racial justice efforts fall flat with advocates
Despite Southern Company’s public pronouncements about DEIJ, the utility did not speak out against voter suppression efforts during the 2021 session of the Georgia Assembly. Southern Company was a top contributor to the sponsors of Georgia’s voter suppression bills in 2021, House Bill 531 and Senate Bill 241, which were later combined and passed as Senate Bill 202.
Southern Company donated $38,700 over a three-year period to 17 Georgia state legislators who co-sponsored voter restriction bills, according to a March 2021 analysis by Popular Information. A Sierra Club analysis later estimated the contributions at $84,000 when including Georgia Power as well as its parent company, Southern Company.
On March 17, 2021 following intense public pressure, Southern Company issued a statement on the Georgia voter suppression bills that sidestepped substantive comment, saying, “We will continue to support efforts that facilitate a balanced approach to the election bills that have been introduced in Georgia.”
Chandra Farley, then-director of the Partnership for Southern Equity’s Just Energy program, was critical of Southern Company’s record on racial justice in an interview with E&E News. “It is a glaring omission to not talk about what you do, and that is deliver electricity to homes,” Farley said. “You [Southern Company] are making commitments that are completely skirting around the core of your business.” Farley is now running for a seat on the Georgia Public Service Commission, which regulates Georgia Power.
Majority Action, an organization that works with shareholders to hold corporations accountable, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) denounced Southern in a March 2021 letter stating that the utility “made a public statement affirming its view that Black Lives Matter” but that actions that Southern “takes that contradict this stated position create substantial risks and raise concerns about the adequacy of your governance and oversight of these issues.” The letter continued, “The onus is now on the Board to comprehensively reassess Southern Company’s corporate-directed political spending policies, practices and risks.”