The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School almost 10 weeks ago has ushered in a new era of activism. A vocal group of students at Stoneman Douglas has led school walkouts, marches and social media campaigns protesting gun violence. They have inspired student groups across the country to do the same.
The tragedy also led to actions by American businesses not seen after past school mass shootings. Companies like Hertz car rental and Delta Airlines cut ties with the National Rifle Association. Bank of America won’t lend money to gun manufacturers making assault-style weapons. Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling assault weapons and grocery store Kroger has removed "assault-rifle themed periodicals" from its checkout lines.
The Stoneman Douglas shooting changed Florida law and it has changed how some businesses engage on what can be a controversial public policy issue.
And it isn’t limited to the gun debate. As President Trump has made immigration a central issue of his administration, companies from the technology, retail and the financial industries have been outspoken in their support of DACA -- the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy allowing people who came to the U.S. as undocumented children to register and stay. Trump’s effort to cancel the policy has been put on hold by federal court rulings.
WLRN spoke about these two contentious issues and their intersection with business with a trio of South Florida business leaders:
• Irina Vilariño, co-owner, Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine restaurant chain
• Keith Koenig, president, City Furniture
• Victor Mendelson, co-president, Heico
Politics and Business
Vilariño: Politics plays into our daily lives. If people feel confident that the economy is on the up, they're more readily willing to go out and spend. I think that it was a lot worse about eight years ago when we couldn't have any dissension because you would be labeled some type of derogatory name. I think now we feel a little bit more willing to come out and speak.
Koenig: I think people are reticent to take extreme stands either way. But I think business leaders take pro-business, pro-economic growth, pro-U.S.A. stances consistently. When we try to tie down somebody to extreme choices I think most business leaders tend to move towards the middle and shy away from trying to alienate anybody because that's not in our best interest.
Mendelson: In terms of political discourse in our field we don't find it acrimonious. We do find that people are less afraid today than they were to express their opinions in the past few years. And I think there was this notion of political correctness that is peeling back a little bit, but people are careful and we should be respectful. We happen to be in an industry which is probably 90 percent or better aligned with the current party in power -- not necessarily aligned with how the president delivers his message or what he says, but with what he does.
Koenig: Let's understand that our president is a business person and he's used to negotiating. Some of what others think are crazy actually are negotiations. I think a lot of what he does is setting up for an outcome that is far different from where he started. It's consistent in the business world for major issues to be negotiated from polar extremes, and that sounds, in the political arena, outrageous.
Vilariño: Sometimes [business] negotiations may take a year. In that year. You're trying to get together and work it out. This takes time.
Mendelson: When I look at what's happened over successive administrations of both parties, both Republican and Democrat, the conventional way really hasn't gotten us too far. Take China, for example. I think very few people disagree China, for a quarter of a century, abused us in trade. We responded with the same platitudes and the same diplomatic gestures. And finally, it's a departure. As business people, we all take risk. Politicians are loathe to take risk.
Business and the Gun Issue
Koenig: I've had the opportunity to meet with all of the [Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting] victims; the deceased's parents and many of the injured and countless other students that have suffered. It's hit home. I don't see any logic in assault weapons [and] I fully support the Second Amendment. I haven't changed my opinion, but I think it's more topical right now. I'm not afraid to talk about that even at the risk of alienating somebody because it is a strong opinion.
Mendelson: I'm not certain as to why [companies like Dick's Sporting Goods, which stopped selling assault weapons and companies that cut ties to the NRA] have taken the positions they've taken; whether they've done it because they believe in it, which I believe Keith does and is sincere, or doing it in response to political pressure and headline risk. They may be getting pressure from institutional shareholders. I think we've seen corporate America react in the past to different events. Something happened in the 2008 recession where business was knocked off of its pedestal. I will say I don't see the benefit of people running around with automatic weapons in the streets.
Vilariño: How far are we going to allow our corporate culture to indicate what is correct or incorrect in our society? What role do parents have? [These companies] are entitled to take these actions. They have to align their values with their corporate values and see if this is something that is honestly true and dear to their hearts. So be it, but I do not like corporations to tell me what is correct or incorrect. I defend our Second Amendment. I think that it's vitally important for us to protect it.
Business and the Immigration Issue
Koenig: I'm willing to take risks on that stuff like immigration. I'm very pro-immigration. We are going to need more immigration to be able to meet the needs of the economy over the next number of years. For City Furniture, the population growth is something that the company has to count on.
Vilariño: In order to continue having growth we're going to need good immigration to continue flowing in, but we need to be very conscious of the type of immigration we're going to continue to have. The world has changed dramatically and I think our consciousness has to change along with it. We can't be naive to the different influences that we're facing at this moment. I do believe, as our president said, we need to vet prospective immigrants and make sure that they are freedom-loving and willing to adapt to our way of life. Not everybody comes with that forward-thinking mentality. A lot of people come and they want to stay stuck with their native countries' way of doing things.
Mendelson: We believe in a sensible immigration policy, not just wide open borders. We believe in vetting those who come to this country and ensuring our security around our borders and within the country itself. At the same time, immigrants have been crucial to our industry. We need immigrants to build our economy for GDP growth. They are important. They're important for labor and in our industry for intellectual capital. Our country has made a mistake in the last year restricting some of the work visas that were issued. I think we should be going in the opposite direction with high skilled work visas.
Vilariño: Sometimes [President Trump's] bombastic style gets in the way of things a little bit for those of us who support him. Generalizing an entire group of people under one umbrella I don't think is the savviest things to do. But again, I think he was appealing to a certain element of the country that is worried about the demographic change that's occurring in the nation.