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County commissioners in North Carolina wanted to send a message to Coke by removing its vending machines from county property after the CEO spoke out against changes to Georgia’s voting laws.
But the machines didn’t belong to the Atlanta-based beverage giant.
The 12 Coke vending machines on Surry County property were owned and operated by Coca-Cola Consolidated, an independent bottling company headquartered in Charlotte. Commissioners voted Monday to rescind the previous vote after company representatives pointed out the error during a public forum in which several residents also voiced their objections.
Alison Patient, vice president of government affairs at Coca-Cola Consolidated, told board members one of its 15 facilities in North Carolina is located in Surry County.
“I’m here tonight because the commission has made a decision that directly impacts our business and the livelihood of the 37 employees and their families that work here in Surry County,” she said. “We’re respectfully asking that you reconsider your actions.”
Surry is on the Virginia border, about 93 miles north of Charlotte.
Patient also clarified Coca-Cola Consolidated is “completely separate” from The Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta and has “absolutely no control over their opinions or statements about any issue.”
What started the Coke ban
The decision to ban Coke machines in Surry County stems from comments made by James Quincey, chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Co., after Georgia lawmakers passed legislation in March overhauling voting laws in the state.
The legislation contained sweeping changes to voter ID requirements and absentee ballots that The New York Times reported “will limit ballot access, potentially confuse voters and give more power to Republican lawmakers.”
Dozens of corporations issued statements denouncing the law, including Quincey.
“We want to be crystal clear and state unambiguously that we are disappointed in the outcome of the Georgia voting legislation,” Quincey said on April 1.
In response, Surry County Commissioner Eddie Harris made a motion during a May 17 board meeting to remove Coke machines from county property, calling Quincey’s statement an “attempt by the major corporations and globalists to circumvent our election process.” Harris said the Georgia voting law was an issue of “election integrity” and suggested Quincey, who is British, “go back to England and mind his own business.”
“I don’t believe this will displace any workers in Surry County — 12 drink machines — but you know what, it’ll send a little bitty message that we’re not going to tolerate it in Surry County and you take your Coke machines, load it up, take them back to the house,” Harris said.
The board passed the motion with three commissioners in favor and two against. One commissioner abstained, which was counted as a vote in favor.
Harris was later interviewed on Fox & Friends, where he said the vote stemmed from wanting to “push back against this woke cancel culture.”
“Our citizens support this,” he said. “They’re absolutely sick and tired of this outrageous left-wing mob that is attacking freedom of speech, that is attacking people’s jobs.”
Three representatives from Coca-Cola Consolidated kicked off an hourlong public forum Monday at the start of the board’s regularly scheduled meeting in which they urged commissioners to reconsider.
Patient said leadership has never made public statements about election laws in Georgia or any other state.
“We feel in this instance, we’re really not being treated equally,” she said. “There is a long list of companies that spoke up about the Georgia legislation. I think there were more than 100. The one company that was not on that list was my company, Coca-Cola Consolidated. Yet we’re the only ones that appear to have been impacted in Surry County on that issue.”
Several residents also spoke out against the ban — including Julian Charles Robinson, who described the previous board meeting as “full of conspiracy, hate talk and far right-wing activism.”
“How much will it take for the far-right Republicans sitting here who spoke last week, how much evidence will it take for them to accept and go home having lost the election?” he said. “What’s it going to take?”
West Caudle from Elkin said commissioners passed the vending machine ban against Coca-Cola Consolidated and “didn’t have a clue about what they did.”
He said he also heard commissioners talk about not wanting companies like Amazon to come to the county.
“Quite frankly, if you sit on the Board of Commissioners for Surry County and you would refuse any company to bring economic development to our county, you are a moron,” Caudle said.
At the end of Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Larry Johnson — who abstained the first time — moved to rescind the board’s vote.
Harris, who introduced the first vote, and Commissioner Van Tucker, who seconded it, stood by their initial vote in favor of the ban.
“I am holding my ground because I feel like that’s the right thing for me to do,” Tucker said Monday. “I was trying to send a message to the flagship Coca-Cola and if there were some casualties beneath, sorry about that.”
They were outnumbered by Johnson, Commissioner Bill Goins and board Chairman Mark Marion, who voted in favor of rescinding.
“I think it’s important to remember that the working man sometimes gets the shaft in all this — I think he really does,” Goins said. “We go after somebody, we go after the CEO, he doesn’t really care. But the guy who fills those machines takes pride in what he does. I’ve seen that.”