As his peers at other companies worried about their summer vacations, Eastern Bank CEO Bob Rivers had a different kind of concern: a ballot question to undo the state’s 2016 transgender rights law.
In June, the Boston business community’s focus was on preventing three ballot questions — involving paid family leave, a hike in the minimum wage, and a sales tax cut — from going forward. A “grand bargain” deal between business, labor, and activists took care of that.
Meanwhile, polls showed that the transgender ballot question would be a close one. Rivers worried it would fly under the radar until after Election Day, after it was too late.
Not anymore. The Yes on 3 campaign launched its first TV spots in the Boston market Monday, thanks in part to Rivers and his thick Rolodex. (Springfield TV viewers started seeing ads last week.) The newest campaign finance documents, filed Monday, show the campaign raised $3.7 million through Oct. 15. Sure, activist groups and unions made some big gifts. But corporate donations proved to be crucial: A spokesman estimates one-fourth of that money came from the business community.
The gifts came from a cross-section of Greater Boston’s industries, from finance (State Street, MassMutual) to health care (Harvard Pilgrim, Blue Cross Blue Shield). Hedge fund king Seth Klarman kicked in $200,000. C&S Wholesale Grocers in Keene, N.H., and its owner gave $250,000. And those are just some of the biggest donors.
Rivers played a key role, holding a fund-raiser/rally at Eastern’s headquarters in July. He nagged basically everyone he knows about Question 3 in the subsequent weeks. (A yes vote keeps the 2016 law as is.) Rivers downplays his role: Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO Jim Rooney took a leadership position early on, for example, and Attorney General Maura Healey helped persuade many law firms to give.
Business leaders saw what happened in North Carolina after lawmakers passed a bill requiring people to use public bathrooms that correspond to their birth genders. The canceled games, shows, and deals that followed reportedly cost the Tar Heel State hundreds of millions in lost business. The blowback prompted legislators there to tone down their “bathroom bill” last year.
Massachusetts, of course, went the other way. Its 2016 law bans gender-identity discrimination in “places of public accommodation” like hotels, stores, and restaurants.
The No on 3 campaign says this law poses a safety risk by opening the door to convicted sex offenders using women’s bathrooms and locker rooms. And a spokeswoman with that campaign said the economic effects in North Carolina have been wildly overblown; she pointed to the state’s high spot in various business climate rankings, including a number one pick by Site Selection Magazine for 2017 and 2018.
Rivers, for one, doesn’t want to take chances. His side vastly outraised the No on 3 campaign, which had collected nearly $450,000 as of Oct. 15. The polls are in his favor now. But he’ll keep calling and e-mailing: He doesn’t want a nail-biter. Instead, he wants voters to send a resounding message that Massachusetts welcomes all.