RALEIGH — Former Secretary of State Colin Powell shook up North Carolina’s annual CEO Forum on Thursday with pointed criticisms of the state’s new voting law, which critics say was designed to make it harder for minorities and students to vote.
Powell’s brief remarks, coming at the end of a 45-minute speech about his storied military career, riveted the largely corporate audience that had come to hear executive exhortations on leadership, innovation and competition.
Saying he was speaking as a Republican, Powell warned that North Carolina’s new voting restrictions will hurt the Republican Party, punish minority voters and make it more difficult for North Carolinians to cast a vote.
“I want to see policies that encourage every American to vote, not make it more difficult to vote,” Powell told an audience of 430 at Raleigh’s North Ridge Country Club.
“It immediately turns off a voting bloc the Republican Party needs,” Powell continued in his keynote speech. “These kinds of actions do not build on the base. It just turns people away.”
The retired general, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton and secretary of state under President George W. Bush, spoke moments after Gov. Pat McCrory concluded his opening remarks. McCrory’s office later said the governor left the event before Powell made his political remarks.
Powell’s comments represent one of the most high-profile criticisms to date of the Republican-crafted law that requires voters to show photo identification at the polls, cuts early voting days and ends same-day registration.
That law – along with measures to limit Medicaid coverage, increase regulation of abortion clinics and cut the corporate income tax – led to weekly protests and arrests in Raleigh and national media coverage.
After Powell’s speech, McCrory’s office issued a statement thanking Powell for complimenting the governor’s policy initiatives since taking office in January.
“The Governor appreciates the warm compliments Secretary Powell made today regarding many of the Governor’s initiatives and on voter ID we respectfully disagree,” the statement said.
Sen. Phil Berger’s staff said the Senate president was unavailable for comment, and instead offered his statement from July that the “measure restores confidence in our election process.”
Powell, who twice endorsed Barack Obama for president, limited his rebuke to the voter law, rejecting the Republican argument that it was designed to curb voter fraud. McCrory, who signed the law earlier this month, had compared the alleged ballot fraud to insider trading.
“You can say what you like, but there is no voter fraud,” Powell said. “How can it be widespread and undetected?”
Powell also said the new law sends the wrong message to minority voters. “What it really says to the minority voters is ... ‘We really are sort-of punishing you,’ ” he said. “North Carolina has a pretty fine system without photo ID.”
The CEO Forum, the state’s fifth such event, was created to bring executives together to share ideas. This year’s speakers included Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers, Blue Cross and Blue Shield CEO Brad Wilson, Quintiles CEO Tom Pike as well as senior executives from GlaxoSmithKline, Oracle and Duke Energy.
Organizers would not say how much Powell was paid for his speech. But in 2010, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported that he earned between $100,000 and $200,000 per speech.
Attendees Thursday paid $495 to attend the daylong event and were treated to a buffet lunch of a top round of beef with a forestière sauce, and grilled salmon with dill and caper cream.
After the general’s upbraiding, a number of the executives in the audience said they found Powell’s remarks apt and refreshing.
Wilson, the Blue Cross CEO, said wherever he travels, people ask him, “What’s going on in North Carolina?” He noted that the state’s rightward lurch has hurt the state’s image.
“Broadly speaking and all things considered, it has not been helpful to the North Carolina brand nationally,” Wilson said. “Anything that tarnishes the brand by definition has the potential of eroding the state’s economic development story.”
Jessica Creamer, a partner at Cary-based CFO Enterprise, said the controversies have sullied the state’s politically moderate reputation.
“It’s frightening to me,” Creamer said. “As we’re trying to invite and encourage people to come to North Carolina, some policies are giving people a reason to think twice about that.”
McCrory preceded Powell and delivered the event’s opening remarks but didn’t address the election law directly. Instead, he focused on the challenges of state government’s day-to-day operations.
“It’s boring stuff – operations – but that’s what I spend 80 percent of my time on,” McCrory told the audience.
He also said the state’s greatest challenge is making sure the community college system trains people for jobs.
“There’s a disconnect between what we’re teaching and what employers need,” the governor said. “What’s happening is, the tech courses are leaving and the liberal arts are coming in.”
However, McCrory, who earned degrees in education and political science from Catawba College, referred to himself as “a liberal arts guy.”
During his speech, Powell also blamed the political impasse in Washington on the influence of the Internet, cable TV and extremist advocacy groups. And he defended the teaching of the arts, music and theater as essential disciplines that give people a sense of place in the world.
But it was Powell’s direct criticism of the state’s newly enacted voting laws that generated the most chatter at the country club – though some defended other Republican policies.
Chad Hankinson, president of RCH Consulting in Wilmington, said that while some of the social policies were questionable, lowering taxes puts the state “on a better playing field.”
Steve Greene, CEO of Raleigh marketing firm Alpha, said the verdict is still out.
“It’s a bit like a garden, pruning and weeding,” Greene said of GOP-led changes. “It’s a little early to see which plants are going to die and which ones are going to thrive.
“Rightly or wrongly, we’ve elected these people to be the gardeners.”