OLYMPIA, Wash. — Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos waded into a developing corporate culture war over gay marriage Friday with a $2.5 million donation to keep same-sex unions legal in Washington, becoming the latest in a list of high-profile executives to take public stands on a hot election issue.
Bezos joins Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and companies like Starbucks Inc. and Nike Inc. with support to the campaign to uphold Washington's law. And while fast-food chain Chick-fil-A set off a furor opposing same-sex unions this month, other companies — including big names like General Mills and Nabisco — are brushing off fears that support for gay marriage could hurt their bottom line.
Gay rights advocates say the activism sends a strong message.
"Companies are a bellwether of what is in the mainstream," said Marc Solomon, the national campaign manager for Freedom to Marry, a New York-based group that advocates for same-sex marriage. "When you have some of the mainstays of corporate leadership stand up, that's important. It sends a powerful message about where our society is right now."
Solomon and other national advocates say the donation by Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, is the largest publicly reported gift to support a gay marriage ballot measure, noting that some gay marriage opponents have tried to shield their donor lists.
Washington is one of four states with gay marriage measures on the ballot this November. Washington and Maryland both legalized gay marriage this year, but will also have public referendums this fall. In Maine, voters will decide on an initiative to approve same-sex marriage three years after voters overturned a state law. And in Minnesota, voters will decide whether to pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Same-sex marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C.
Food giant General Mills Inc., based in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley, Minn., publicly spoke out against the state's proposed amendment that would ban gay marriage, as well as Thomson Reuters, and St. Jude Medical, and executives including the co-owners of the Minnesota Twins. Even more national brands — Nabisco, J.C. Penney and Minnesota-based Target among them — have stuck with recent, gay-themed advertising.
Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy angered gay rights advocates earlier this month with another position, saying the company was "guilty as charged" for backing "the biblical definition of a family." He later added, "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.' "
In Minnesota, a number of executives have donated large sums to defeating Minnesota's amendment that would ban gay marriage. State law already outlaws gay marriage, but supporters say the amendment is needed to fend off future legal challenges.
Jim, Bill and Bob Pohlad, the brothers whose holdings include the Minnesota Twins, together donated more than $300,000 to defeat the amendment. General Mills CEO Ken Powell personally donated $10,000, as did Michael Davis, the company's senior vice president for human resources. Greg Page, the CEO of agribusiness giant Cargill, donated $1,000, while Doug Baker — the CEO of chemical products company Ecolab — donated $500.
Recent demonstrations against General Mills drew opponents who turned in their boxes of Old El Paso taco shells and cans of Green Giant corn and other General Mills products.
Janet Bezdicek, a suburban Minnesota mother of five, said she has taken Cheerios off of her shopping list because of General Mills' stance.
"We're talking about a definition of something that's been upheld for centuries. To be challenged by a corporation, that's not appropriate," she said.
"My mother and I are always saying we're not going to have any place to shop anymore," she said.