SpartanNash CEO offers apparent criticism of abortion rights proposal in company email

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — The CEO of SpartanNash in a company email was seemingly critical of a ballot proposal to enshrine abortion rights in the Michigan Constitution, saying it would “significantly infringe on parental rights but isn’t being marketed as such.”

Tony Sarsam, who was hired in 2020 to lead the Byron Township-based grocery store and food distribution chain, made the comment in a message to employees that urged them to make a plan to vote, to do their research, and think critically about the issues and candidates on the ballot.

However, one portion of the email, seemingly related to Proposal 3, is generating attention after being posted Wednesday, Oct. 26, on the online forum Reddit.

In that section of the email, Sarsam urges employees to “think critically” about ballot proposals because their “language isn’t always clear and can be overly broad, which is likely to result in litigation at taxpayers’ expense.”

He then adds: “For example, one of the proposals, if adopted, would significantly infringe on parental rights but isn’t being marketed as such.”

That line, an apparent reference to Proposal 3, is a frequent criticism of the ballot proposal by groups such as Right to Life of Michigan and the Michigan Catholic Conference. Both groups say the proposal would invalidate a 1990 state law requiring minors seeking an abortion to get parental consent or have a judge waive the requirement.

That claim stems from a summary of the ballot proposal stating that it will “invalidate state laws conflicting with this amendment.”

Dr. Aljeeta Sangtani, an Ann Arbor OB-GYN and physician advocate for Proposal 3, previously told MLive that the “intent” of the invalidate section is to overrule laws like the state’s 1931 abortion ban. She said abortion regulations currently on Michigan’s books will be unaffected, including parental consent.

“It’s not that abortion is going to be like a free-for-all procedure,” Sangtani said. “It’s just going to allow people to continue to practice the medicine that they have practiced in the State of Michigan since Roe.”

SpartanNash said in a statement that Sarsam’s email was not an attempt to encourage employees to vote no on Proposal 3.

“The email urges Associates to exercise their privilege to vote and to prepare by learning in advance what’s on the ballot,” the statement said. “The message encourages careful review of all proposal language but does not direct anyone to vote in a specific way. Our CEO reveres the democratic process and appreciates every citizen’s right to make their own decisions on Election Day.”

There’s no law prohibiting private employers from “urging employees to vote for/against a proposal or candidate,” said Michael C.H. McDaniel, a professor of constitutional law at Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

However, appearing to do so can be risky from a public relations standpoint, two experts said.

“I think it’s risky for the brand seeing that they don’t have political stances, especially a brand’s position on proposal 3 and abortion rights in their mission, vision, values,” said Allie Walker, vice president of Truscott Rossman, a Detroit-based public relations firm.

Sarsam starts out his email by discussing SpartanNash’s company value of “We Serve,” and that one way employees can serve the community is by “exercising our civic right to vote.”

Urging employees to make a plan to vote and to do their research on the candidates and ballot measures fits with that message, Walker said.

“But it is risky to go beyond that for a public company, for a company this size with this many employees on a very polarizing issue that has smart, passionate people on both sides,” she said.

Tim Penning, a professor of public relations and communications at Grand Valley State University, said more CEOs at large businesses are taking stances on social issues, but it can backfire.

“If you’re an employee who’s inclined to vote yes, you would be upset by this,” he said.

Penning said it’s not controversial to urge employees to vote or to make plans to vote. But executives should “definitely tread lightly” if they begin speaking with their employees about specific candidates or policies, especially if those candidates or policies have little to do with the executive’s business.

“I think when it comes to voting on ballot proposals, those are really dangerous situations for a CEO to speak,” he said.

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