But Critics Say, “Don’t Feed the Hand that Bites You”

Copyright 1997 Bruce Mirken
3030 words

Coors Brewing Co. wants the gay and lesbian community’s business, and with the cracks growing in a two-decade-long gay boycott of the Colorado brewer, they are starting to get it. To many, including some lesbian and gay Coors employees, the community is simply rewarding a company that has cleaned up its act in many ways, becoming a leader in gay-friendly employment practices. But others–including leading experts on the radical right–warn that by buying Coors products queers are helping to finance some of America’s most viciously homophobic far right activists.

Both are right. Yes, Coors’ workplace policies dealing with sexual orientation are now among the best in corporate America. But, despite the company’s claims to the contrary, the S.F. Bay Times has found clear evidence that the brewery’s operations continue to finance the Coors family’s radical right activism in a big way.

Although some minorities, including gay activists, had begun boycotting Coors as early as the late 1960s, the boycott didn’t become a national coalition effort until a 1977 labor dispute got the AFL-CIO involved. Union organizers charged the company with maintaining an oppressive environment where workers were given lie detector tests and questioned about their political beliefs and sexual orientation and where discrimination against women, people of color and gays and lesbians was rampant. For years the gay community, African-Americans, Latinos and labor stood together against the brewery.

But during the eighties the company began mending fences with the aggrieved constituencies, adopting nondiscrimination policies, donating to minority organizations and making peace with the unions. One by one the various groups dropped out of the boycott, leaving the gay community pretty much alone. Lately, gay organizations have also started to waver.

Even the company’s harshest critics agree that the working environment for queer Coors employees has indeed improved dramatically. The company now offers domestic partnership benefits, has a nondiscrimination policy specifically including sexual orientation and a recognized queer employees’ group, known as LAGER (Lesbian And Gay Employee Resource). Coors brags that it is the only U.S. brewery to pass the “Lavender Screen” test of gay-friendly policies developed by investment counselor Howard Tharsing of V Management in Oakland. Tharsing calls the company “one of the most progressive in terms of its employment policies.”

Last year Coors persuaded the California Association of Pride, Inc. (CAPI), the statewide association of lesbian and gay pride celebrations, to end its boycott, and company spokeswoman Cinde Dolphin notes that Coors has sponsored gay pride events in cities around the country, including Boston, Denver and Ft. Lauderdale. In California it has sponsored pride events in San Jose, Santa Barbara and Palm Springs and is actively promoting its products to gay bars and restaurants.

And Coors is beginning to crack longstanding resistance in the queer press, with a growing number of publications accepting advertisements. That includes several Bay Area magazines and newspapers which have accepted what Dolphin calls an “image ad” aimed at polishing the brewery’s reputation. It depicts three handsome young men sitting at a table in a bar, with the caption, “Perception isn’t always reality” and text that touts the company’s gay-friendly employment practices.

Coors, Dolphin says, “has demonstrated true commitment to the gay and lesbian community in action, which other brewers haven’t.”

In terms of employment practices that certainly seems to be the case. But that, critics argue, is only half the story.


The large and wealthy Coors family, whose estimated $770 million fortune was created by the brewery, has long been a major bankroller of homophobic radical right organizations, and the history of Coors support of the far right is extensive and well documented. In “Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States” author Sara Diamond writes, “The archetypical right-wing funding conduit was the Coors beer company. Chief executive Joseph Coors poured millions of dollars into dozens of evangelical and New Right organizations and established a pattern for other corporate funders.”

Among other things, Joseph Coors helped launch the Heritage Foundation, one of Washington’s largest and most influential right-wing think tanks. In recent years Heritage has opposed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gay and lesbian servicemembers, urging Congress to maintain an outright ban, and advocated “parents’ rights”–including shielding kids from AIDS education that discusses “sexual acts traditionally regarded by parents as perverse and immoral.” The foundation’s Web site offers convenient links to other groups, allowing users to download virulently antigay documents from organizations like the Family Research Council.

But the Coors family’s involvement in the radical right is not merely ancient history. Donations to homophobic groups continue, and several family members are actively involved in the movement. Grover Coors, for example, sits on the board of the Heritage Foundation, notes Russ Bellant, author of the 1991 book “The Coors Connection.” And Jeffrey Coors is chairman of the board of the Free Congress Foundation–the group which, according to right wing-watcher Chip Berlet of Cambridge, Massachussetts-based Political Research Associates, “clearly created to a great extent this myth of a ‘homosexual agenda.’” Free Congress’ broadcast and cable TV network, National Empowerment Television, airs a monthly program featuring the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed and another, ominously titled “Straight Talk,” produced in association with the ultra-homophobic Family Research Council.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Coors, Holland (Holly) Coors, Darden Coors and Carin Coors are all members of the secretive Council for National Policy, and Linda Tafoya, executive director of the Adolph Coors Foundation, is believed to be a member as well. Jeffrey and Holly are members of the CNP’s board of governors.

And just what is the CNP? Here is how the Institute for First Amendment Studies describes the group in a report published last August: “Clothed in secrecy since its founding in 1981, the Council for National Policy is a virtual who’s who of the Hard Right. Its membership comprises the Right’s Washington operatives and politicians, its financiers and its hard-core religious arm. The Hard Right utilizes the CNP’s three-times-a-year-secret meetings to plan its strategy for implementing the radical right agenda.” Members include anti-ERA crusader Phyllis Schlafly, Iran-Contra defendant Oliver North, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, Family Research Council head Gary Bauer, Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese, conservative fundraiser Richard Viguerie and two ferociously homophobic ex-Congressmen, Robert Dornan and William Dannemeyer. “It is a great organization,” Schlafly says in a promotional video obtained by IFAS. “It has all the right people in it.”

Holly and Jeffrey Coors also sit on the Board of Advisors of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, another conservative group which, among other things, promotes “school choice” plans under which the government would pay parents to send their children to religious schools.

One of the most important things that Coors family members bring to their radical right involvements is money–money that comes both in the form of personal donations and grants or loans from two Coors-endowed and family-controlled foundations, the Adolph Coors Foundation and the Castle Rock Foundation. And the family’s money comes from the brewery.

According to the company’s 1995 annual report (the 1996 report is not yet available), all 1,260,000 shares of Class A (voting) stock in the Adolph Coors Company is held by the Adolph Coors, Jr. Trust, controlled by William Coors, Joseph Coors, Joseph Coors Jr., Jeffrey Coors and May Coors Tucker. Of the roughly 36 million shares of Class B (nonvoting) stock, the Adolph Coors Foundation (with several family members as trustees) owns 732,413. Various family members, as individuals and through various family trusts, own at least half of the remainder.

In 1995 the company paid dividends to its stockholders of $.50 per share. That means the Coors family bankroll grew by roughly $9.5 million just from stock dividends alone, not including salaries and other business arrangements involving the brewery (which, as will be seen later, can be important).

While Coors family members often reach into their personal checkbooks for donations to the homophobic right, it is the two brewery-endowed foundations that sometimes put up the really big bucks. In the Heritage Foundation’s 1994 financial summary, for example, the Castle Rock Foundation is listed as a “Founder,” signifying a donation of $100,000 or more. In 1995 Castle Rock announced a $700,000 loan to the Free Congress Foundation, and Free Congress’s 1994-95 financial statement notes that an unnamed Castle Rock trustee is also a member of the Free Congress Foundation board, prompting speculation that Jeffrey Coors greased the wheels for the loan.


In its communications with the gay community, Coors representatives stress the separation between the brewery and the foundations and individual family members involved in the activities of the homophobic right. “None of the profits from Coors Brewing Co. go to any organizations that are antigay,” Dolphin declares. As far as family members go, “of course they have the right to choose whoever they would give money to,” but “there are very few family members that are still a part of the Coors Brewing Co. The only one that is on the payroll of the Coors Brewing Co. that I believe has been accused of making some conservative donations is William Coors, who’s the chairman of the board.” She doesn’t deny, though, that many other family members have stock holdings.

Similarly, Dolphin insists, both the Adolph Coors Foundation and the Castle Rock Foundation are entirely separate from the brewery. “None of the profits from Coors Brewing Co. go to the foundations at all,” she declares.

And William Coors, Dolphin adds, “has a son who is very openly gay and I know for a fact that he has made donations to organizations that would be perceived as being very pro-gay.” She adds that another member of this “very diverse family,” the late Dallas Coors, was a founding director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

But specialists who track the radical right remain skeptical of the supposed separation between the brewery and the Coors family’s far-right involvements. “There’s no doubt that members of the Coors family, who make a great deal of money from Class A and Class B stock, continue to fund right-wing organizations that are very homophobic, and sometimes viciously so,” argues Chip Berlet. “To be perfectly honest, the Coors people who are going around and saying there’s no association are simply liars.”

A leading West Coast fundie-watcher, Project Tocsin co-founder Jerry Sloan, doesn’t mince words. “They lie! They lie! They lie!” he exclaims. “The thing is, their reputation was so bad they had to make some of these changes. It’s a smokescreen to deceive people.”

Is Coors being deceptive? A close examination of Jeffrey Coors’ relationship with the brewery suggests that the answer is yes..

Jeffrey is perhaps the most visible radical right activist in the family. As board chair of the Free Congress Foundation and a member of the board of governors of the Council on National Policy, Jeffrey Coors isn’t just a follower of the extreme right, he is a leader. And those positions, Bellant says, by definition mean he is bringing in big bucks to the organizations. “If you’re not giving a lot of money to Free Congress or Heritage, you’re not going to be on the board,” he says. “You’ve got to bring something to these groups,” though now “the money is harder to trace.”

To hear Dolphin tell it, Jeffrey Coors has no relationship to the brewery. “Jeffrey Coors is not associated with Coors Brewing Co. at all,” she declares. “He is an executive–I can’t tell you his exact title–with ACX Technologies, which is a company that deals specifically with ceramics and deals with high-tech industry. He is not associated with Coors Brewing Co. at all. He may have some stock options, but I would think it would be very minimal because he is heavily invested in ACX Technologies.”

Asked if ACX Technologies’ business involves supplying packaging or other products or services to the brewery, Dolphin states flatly. “No. Absolutely not. They’re in ceramics and we use none of their ceramics in our packaging.”

So do any of the proceeds from Coors beer sales go to Jeffrey Coors in any fashion? Hardly any, Dolphin says. “He might be a minority stockholder, so maybe a zillionth of a penny [of the price of a six-pack] might go to Jeff.”

But the 1995 Coors annual report and documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by ACX Technologies tell a different story.

ACX, it turns out, is a direct offspring of the brewery, born in late1992, when “the Adolph Coors Co., the holding company for Coors Brewing Co…. spun off its aluminum, packaging, ceramics and other technology businesses” to form the new company, the Coors statement explains. ACX’s board includes Jeffrey Coors, who doubles as company president, William Coors (chairman of the board and president of Coors Brewing Co.), Joseph Coors, Joseph Coors, Jr. and John K. Coors. (Interestingly, one non-family board member, John D. Beckett, also sits on the Free Congress Foundation board which Jeffrey Coors chairs).

According to SEC documents filed July 30, 1996, Jeffrey Coors is the largest individual stockholder in ACX. All of the other shares in the company are held by Coors family members, various Coors family trusts and the Adolph Coors Foundation (which includes Jeffrey, William and Peter Coors on its board).

And ACX does a whopping business with Coors Brewing Co. According to the Coors annual report, ACX has been a key supplier of almuninum for Coors’ beer cans, while “most of the secondary packaging for Coors Brewing Co.’s products, including bottle labels and paperboard products, is supplied by Graphic Packaging Corporation, an ACX subsidiary.” The brewery also purchases 100 million pounds of refined cornstarch annually from another ACX subsidiary, in an agreement that runs through1997.

This is a substantial enterprise. The statement notes that the cost of aluminum cans constitutes 39% of the purchase price of canned beer, and in 1995 the brewery’s purchases from ACX totalled $240 million. In 1996, with some aluminum contracts shifted to another supplier, purchases were projected at $145 million–and even this reduced amount equals nearly 10 percent of the brewery’s net sales.. The statement gives no hint of any plans to change the ongoing packaging or cornstarch contracts with ACX.

In other words, a big part of Jeffrey Coors’ business depends on sales of Coors beer. Furthermore, the Coors annual report details numerous other business and financial entanglements between ACX and the brewery, involving, among other things, natural gas, wastewater treatment, and real estate management and development.

Another substantial conduit through which Coors brewery money flows to conservative causes is the company’s political action committee, called PACE (Political Action Coors Employees). According to reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission for the 1994 and 1996 election cycles, PACE is funded almost entirely by senior company officials, including board members, executives and managers, with the largest donor being president and board chair William Coors.

While many corporate PACs distribute money to both parties, hoping to stay in good graces no matter who is in power, PACE’s contributions have gone almost exclusively to Republicans. And these Republican contributees are a distinctly conservative lot, with gay-friendly moderates like William Weld of Massachussetts and former Wisconsin Congressman Steve Gunderson notably absent from the list.

Among those who did receive PACE money, though, was New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, often considered the Senate’s second most virulent homophobe after Jesse Helms. Smith is one of the few senators who voted against the Ryan White CARE Act, and was seen in Debra Chassnoff’s 1996 documentary “It’s Elementary” delivering a furious antigay tirade on the Senate floor.

Incumbents receiving PACE contributions in 1996 formed a solid wall of opposition to the narrowly-defeated Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would have barred most employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and an equally solid wall of support for the Defense of Marriage Act. Most received ratings of 90 percent or better from the Christian Coalition and 20 percent or less from groups like AIDS Action Council, Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.


So does all this right wing activity generated by brewery money mean that the queer boycott of Coors should continue? Opinions vary wildly.

“I don’t think that’s a big issue, I really don’t,” investment manager Tharsing says. “I look at the company and its policies. The ownership of Coors by these family members hasn’t created a homophobic environment at the company.” Tharsing urges the gay community to “reward the companies that extend themselves” by providing domestic partner benefits so that other firms will follow.

“America means you can give money anywhere you want to,” adds Coors flavor analyst and outgoing LAGER co-chair Leslie Wright. “I can give my money to all the gay causes I can, and so can someone who’s more conservative… If they gave their personal money I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”

Wright, Dolphin (who also identifies as a member of LAGER), and officials of CAPI also cite another argument: That many large corporations donate to right-wing causes, so it is unfair to single out Coors.

But fundie-watcher Sloan argues, “Some portion of that dollar [spent on Coors beer] is going to be used against me as a gay person. I’m not that suicidal to knowingly buy products where the money ends up being used against me as a gay person.” Acknowledging that some other corporations also fund right wing causes, he adds, “With the corporate conglomerates it is often difficult to trace how companies spend their money… but we know about Coors. Why should translesbigay people buy Coors products knowing the money will be used to try to deny us our rights?”

To Berlet, the choice depends on individual conscience and priorities. “It comes down to whether a particular corporation is so involved in an arena that’s so important to you that you draw the line,” he reflects. “That’s a deeply personal choice. Our point is that there is a misrepresentation of the evidence, a systematic effort to hide the evidence and direct attention elsewhere. What I say is, look at the evidence. Don’t just believe the public relations cover-up.”