Lloyd C. Blankfein, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s chief executive officer, heard from a partner at his firm yesterday about the dilemma Wall Street gay-rights advocates face in this year’s presidential race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.
“One of my straight, male partners yesterday gave me permission to vote for Obama, but he told me I’m the only partner at Goldman Sachs who has permission,” said Susan Scher, who said she’s a lesbian as she spoke from the audience at the “Out on the Street” LGBT Leadership Conference. Gay rights is “the only issue that he sees as an issue that it’s kind of OK for someone who works on Wall Street to vote for Obama.”
While Blankfein, who has campaigned for gay rights, quickly reminded her she has the right to vote for anyone, her anecdote -- which was told humorously and drew laughs in the audience -- summed up a quandary he said he also faces: Should Wall Street workers back Romney for his support of lighter regulation and lower taxes, even though Republicans have been less progressive on some social issues such as gay rights?
For gay rights, “I don’t think it’s going to be a harsh environment in a Romney administration,” said Paul Singer, the 67-year-old founder of hedge-fund firm Elliott Management Corp. and a Republican activist who pushed for the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York state. “It’s a process if Mitt Romney is elected -- it’s a process of pressure, education,” said Singer, who shared the stage with Blankfein, 57.
Wall Street firms, many of which offer same-sex couples health-care benefits, have led corporate America in supporting gay rights, said Mark Stephanz, vice chairman of the global financial sponsors group at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Blankfein and Singer discussed the financial industry’s role in advancing gay rights during the forum at Bank of America Corp.’s midtown Manhattan offices, where barricades remained from the May 1 Occupy Wall Street protests.
Blankfein predicted support for same-sex marriage will grow as positive results in states that legalized the practice trump “fear mongering.” The financial industry’s focus on “numeric” performance makes its culture consistent with the push for equality, he said.
“When you’re wrestling with the market, the market doesn’t care whether you’re black or white, tall or short, gay or straight,” Blankfein said. “I always thought that the best forum for democracy and meritocracy was a trading-room floor.”
Blankfein starred this year in an advertisement by the Human Rights Campaign endorsing gay marriages. Last year, he joined more than 30 New York business leaders, including Morgan Stanley’s then-Chairman John Mack, in signing a letter urging the state to legalize them. Goldman Sachs employs about 32,000 people.
“It was important for our recruiting, for being able to move people around the world, for a number of business reasons, and then of course, last but not least, how could you not be on the side of what to me seems like a basic civil rights movement?” Blankfein said yesterday.
Client reaction was “generally positive,” Blankfein said. One client wanted to end a relationship with the firm in money management over the stand, he said. “I won’t say the name, but if you heard the name it wouldn’t surprise you.”
North Carolina lawmakers are considering a measure that would constitutionally ban gay marriage, cementing a state law that already bars the government from granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Bank of America’s technology chief, Catherine Bessant, said the initiative would make it harder for companies to attract talent to the state.
“We gear our whole diversity and inclusion efforts so that you can come in, be yourself and be successful,” Bank of America CEO Brian T. Moynihan said yesterday at the event.
Goldman Sachs as an institution doesn’t have a view on who should be elected U.S. president in November, Blankfein said in an April 25 interview on CNBC. While the banker publicly supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president in 2008, he said he hasn’t made up his mind about whom to support this time.
“I’m a Rockefeller Republican -- a registered Democrat and a Rockefeller Republican,” he told CNBC, referring to a person whose views on fiscal policy tend to align with Republicans and positions on social issues align with Democrats. “Where that will get me, I’m not sure yet.”
Obama’s campaign manager has assured some financial-industry donors that the president won’t demonize Wall Street in his re-election pursuit after previously criticizing pay for “fat cat” bankers. His 2012 budget calls for big financial institutions to pay $61 billion over 10 years in a “Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee.”
Romney has called for a rollback of the Dodd-Frank Act that boosted regulation and threatens to crimp banks’ profitability. He also has opposed Obama’s push to increase tax rates on the richest Americans, a group that includes many Wall Streeters.
Romney’s spokesman on national security matters, Richard Grenell, who is openly gay, resigned from his campaign post this week after attacks by anti-gay activists within his own party.
“My ability to speak clearly and forcefully on the issues has been greatly diminished by the hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues that sometimes comes from a presidential campaign,” Grenell said, according to a statement obtained by the Washington Post, which earlier reported the resignation.
Neither candidate has been constructive on gay marriage rights, Singer said. Obama has said that while he “struggles” with his views on the issue, he backs civil unions for gay couples.