Imagine you are the CEO of a supermarket and a longtime customer sends you an e-mail to tell you she is “depressed.”

It’s not because of the cost of milk and beer or because the checkout lines lines are too long. Rather, it’s because your company wants the governor to veto legislation important to her.

In the case of Foodland Super Market, such an e-mail came in mid-June from loyal customer Eileen McKee of Kihei, Maui.

“I am depressed to read that Foodland is one of the companies listed as part of the Hawaii Business Roundtable, who recently sent a letter to the governor, requesting that she veto the civil unions bill. I feel so sad about not being able to shop at your store anymore. I love the people, and always sensed that your company was open to diversity.”

McKee wanted to know if Foodland stood behind the roundtable’s action, a letter from its executive committee to the governor urging her to veto House Bill 444.

“Please advise, so I can still enter your store with my head held high,” she concluded

Juliet Garcia, Foodland’s community relations coordinator, promptly responded to McKee: “While Foodland is a member of the Hawaii Roundtable, we had no part in asking for a veto of this bill. We were not consulted regarding the letter sent to Governor Lingle.”

It’s not clear exactly how many similar e-mails, letters and phone calls were directed at other roundtable members. But it is clear that the backlash against the roundtable’s June 4 letter to Lingle was considerable.

In the end, the 46 members of the elite roundtable — presidents and CEOs of local companies as familiar to Hawaii residents as malasadas and loco moco — couldn’t abide being perceived as discriminatory. And on Wednesday, the group sent Lingle another letter, this time backing away from any appearance of opposition to civil unions.

To be fair, the roundtable’s executive committee never said it opposed civil unions for opposite and same-sex couples, just language in HB 444.

But how it was said was telling.

The executive committee — the leaders of First Hawaiian Bank, Outrigger Enterprises, Kaneohe Ranch Company, Kamehameha Schools, Bank of Hawaii, Castle & Cooke Hawaii, Oceanic Cablevision, Queen’s Health Systems, Hawaiian Electric Industries and First Insurance Co. of Hawaii — did not contact all the roundtable’s members before writing the letter to Lingle, though it said it had “consensus.”

The group also chose not to disclose what the internal vote was, even as more than a dozen members soon began to publicly air their dissent. Executive director Gary Kai, a former executive with First Hawaiian and Finance Factors, was left with the unenviable task of being the roundtable’s public face.

Behind the scenes discussions between members took place as the roundtable struggled to refine its position. Even as Civil Beat reported that the roundtable was working on an update, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser was reporting that the business group stood by its veto request.

Nineteen days after its first letter, another letter emerged. The June 23 letter to Lingle acknowledged, “Unfortunately, the use of the word veto has become equivalent to some, as a position against civil unions. We would like to make it clear that the Hawaii Business Roundtable opposes any form of discrimination, including any based on race, religion, political or sexual orientation.”

You’d think the cream of Hawaii’s businesses could afford to pay for a better PR pitch.

The roundtable’s first letter, a four paragraph document, said the bill would create “many more new problems” for business. But it did not include any legal or financial backup, and ran counter to dozens of recent scholarly studies that showed recognizing same-sex relationships actually helps businesses, not hurts them.

Indeed, many of the roundtable businesses already provide benefits for their gay employees.

The number of couples expected to enter a civil union if HB 444 becomes law, meanwhile, is about 2,300 over the next six years, according to a study by Sumner La Croix, a University of Hawaii at Manoa economist.

“Why it jumped the gun by recommending veto instead of seeking answers to its questions remains a mystery,” said Alan Spector, legislative affairs co-chair of Equality Hawaii. “Ten other states plus the District of Columbia have already effectively addressed all the questions raised by HBR. Next month marks 10 years since civil unions were first legalized in Vermont.”

Now the two-decades long battle over the civil rights of same-sex couples is on Lingle’s koa desk. However she ends up deciding, it’s unlikely that the Hawaii Business Roundtable will have much impact.

Foodland customers like Eileen McKee, meanwhile, will be able to go on using their discount Makai Card.

About the Author