Capping a two-week brouhaha over Microsoft's fluid position on a state gay-rights bill, Chief Executive Steve Ballmer yesterday reversed...

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Capping a two-week brouhaha over Microsoft’s fluid position on a state gay-rights bill, Chief Executive Steve Ballmer yesterday reversed course and said the company will support the legislation in the future.


Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee and other supporters of the bill cheered the move. But people on both sides of the issue said Microsoft has had limited effect on the perennial legislation, despite national publicity the company received for its flip-flopping.


House Bill 1515, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, failed by one vote in the state Senate on April 21. Microsoft’s decision to withdraw its support for the bill was publicized the day of the vote, but several lawmakers said that didn’t change their minds.


Microsoft supported similar bills in the past but shifted to a neutral stance this year. The company said it was trying to focus on business-specific issues and was not responding to the political climate or pressure from an evangelical pastor, Ken Hutcherson of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond, who had threatened a national boycott.


Hutcherson did not return calls yesterday seeking comment.


Ballmer, in an e-mail to Microsoft’s U.S. employees, said he decided that encouraging a diverse workplace is an important business issue and should be part of the company’s legislative agenda.


“Therefore, it’s appropriate for the company to support legislation that will promote and protect diversity in the workplace,” he wrote.


Two weeks earlier, he told employees the company shouldn’t be “picking sides on social-policy issues” even though he personally favored the legislation. Ballmer was not available for comment.


Microsoft will also continue supporting similar measures at the federal level. Ballmer said the company is working to improve the way it communicates its legislative positions, and he asked employees to do an even better job pursuing diversity and an atmosphere of mutual respect within the company.


“To me, this situation underscores the importance of having clearly defined principles on which we base our actions,” he wrote yesterday. “It all boils down to trust. Even when people disagree with something that we do, they need to have confidence that we based our action on thoughtful principles, because that is how we run our business.”


It remains to be seen what effect Microsoft will have on the measure during the next legislative session. The company is unlikely to engage its Olympia lobbyist directly on the issue, said Pamela Passman, vice president of global corporate affairs.


“We will do what most companies do and that is send a letter of support,” she said. The letter to lawmakers will be similar to one the company submitted in 2004, when the measure also failed. The legislation has been around in some form for at least a quarter-century.


Gay-rights activists congratulated Microsoft for saying it would endorse the legislation again.


“It goes a very long way toward repairing the damage,” said Lorri Jean, head of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, a prominent gay and lesbian group. “It’s a rare leader in this day who makes a misstep and then is willing to immediately say, ‘I made a misstep and I’m willing to reverse my position again.’ ”


Last month the center asked Microsoft to return the “corporate vision award” it gave the company in 2001. Jean said she told Microsoft executives yesterday they can keep it now. “We are very appreciative they’ve done the right thing here. We feel they continue to be worthy of recognition,” she said.


Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, sponsor of HB 1515, said Microsoft’s endorsement “sends a positive message to other corporations and it sends a message to suburban Democrats and Republicans because Microsoft is a pretty significant employer in suburban Washington.”


But Murray said Microsoft took too much heat for the failure of the anti-discrimination bill this year. News of Microsoft taking a neutral position on the bill came the day of the vote when an article in The Stranger alternative newspaper suggested the company had caved to pressure from Hutcherson.


Senate Republicans, with the help of two conservative Democrats, killed the measure.


“The story broke too late to have a direct effect. It hit the newsstands the same day as the vote,” Murray said. “I don’t know of anyone who knew about it.”


Senate Republican floor leader Luke Esser of Bellevue said copies of The Stranger article were circulating among GOP members before the vote, but like Murray, he doesn’t think Microsoft’s position changed the outcome.


“It’s unlikely anybody would change their vote because of a recommendation from Microsoft,” said Esser, who opposed the bill. “It wouldn’t have changed my mind.”


The Rev. Joseph Fuiten, president of Washington Evangelicals for Responsible Government, a group that lobbied against the bill, also questions Microsoft’s influence.


“I guarantee if the vote were held today, it would turn out the same way,” he said. “Microsoft is not that big of a player on this issue in the House or the Senate.”


Fuiten said Microsoft’s role was overblown by the media and made the company look foolish and “like they’re being whipped around by homosexuals.”


“Now they’ve got everybody annoyed; it’s a great gift to be able to annoy all sides equally,” he said. “Are the homosexuals going to think [Microsoft is] really in their corner? I don’t think so.”


Murray said Microsoft’s decision to endorse the bill next year could help influence undecided lawmakers.


However, “Microsoft’s actions by themselves didn’t kill the bill. And Microsoft’s support of the bill by itself won’t pass the bill,” he said. “When you’re dealing with an issue of conscience, which this is, no single action by itself will change elected officials’ minds.”


Murray and Jean, of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, attribute Microsoft’s flip-flops to political inexperience. Although it’s one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world, Microsoft hasn’t had much of a political presence in Olympia until recently.


“We forget this is a young company that has grown rapidly. They are new to handling most of this stuff,” Murray said. “At the state level, they just didn’t lobby. You talk to anybody in politics in Olympia, they have been latecomers on the political scene.”


Murray said he saw signs of that inexperience firsthand when Microsoft officials talked to him about their neutral stance on the bill during the legislative session. “When I talked to them, they kept saying no one will know. It won’t matter. They also said it wouldn’t be a story.”


Ballmer said he reconsidered the company’s position after hearing from numerous employees “with a wide range of views” on the issue. Among the feedback was a petition calling for support of the bill and a letter from the 700-person Gay and Lesbian Employees at Microsoft group.


But Ballmer also cautioned employees not to expect Microsoft to become a social-issues activist.


“I also want to be clear about some limits to this approach,” he wrote in his e-mail. “Many other countries have different political traditions for public advocacy by corporations, and I’m not prepared to involve the company in debates outside the U.S. in such circumstances. And, based on the principles I’ve just outlined, the company should not and will not take a position on most other public policy issues, either in the U.S. or internationally.”


Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com


Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com