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One of many images produced to protest Target’s perceived anti-gay donations. [Source: Village Voice]The Target Corporation, owner of Target department stores, donates $150,000 to a fund with close ties to the campaign of Tom Emmer (R-MN), the GOP’s presumptive nominee for Minnesota’s governor, through its federal PAC TargetCitizens. The donation is $100,000 in cash and $50,000 in “brand consulting.” Another Minnesota-based retail chain, Best Buy Co., gives $100,000 to the group MN Forward, which describes itself as “nonpartisan” but only donates money to Emmer. The money is to be used primarily for ads supporting Emmer, a state legislator. The donations are allowable under the controversial Citizens United ruling that allows corporations to give unrestricted amounts to political organizations (see January 21, 2010). Emmer is a controversial candidate with a record of fiery opposition to gay rights and other stances not popular with moderate and liberal voters, and some are talking about organizing a boycott of Target and Best Buy. Target is the primary focus of the criticism, in part because it has promoted itself as a progressive alternative to corporate retailers such as Wal-Mart, according to an official with progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org. A Target spokesperson, Lena Michaud, says the company supports causes and candidates “based strictly on issues that affect our retail and business objectives.” TargetCitizens, according to Michaud, donates money to both Democratic and Republican candidates. Though Michaud says Target spreads its donations equally between candidates of the two parties, the $150,000 donation exceeds the amount TargetCitizens has donated in all other federal campaigns this year; Target executives have donated primarily to Republicans as well. Emmer, aside from his opposition to gay rights, favors a strict stance on immigration and has advocated slashing the wages of food service workers, whom he claims often make six-figure incomes when their tips are counted. He also advocates the nullification of some portions of the US Constitution, and wants to nullify the recent health care reform legislative package. In contrast, Target has cultivated a moderate image in Minnesota, making public donations to schools, food shelves, and the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival. Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel, a heavy Republican donor, says his company’s commitment to gay rights is “unwavering.” MN Forward director Brian McClung, who formerly served as spokesman for retiring Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), says: “We believe that everybody has the right to express their opinions and we’re going to run a fair and factual campaign. Our first ad is a positive ad talking about a candidate’s vision for creating jobs.” [Associated Press, 7/27/2010; Think Progress, 7/27/2010; Washington Post, 8/19/2010] Paul Finkelstein, CEO of Regis Corporation, which has also donated to MN Forward, explains that his company, like Target and Best Buy, donates based on economic concerns. “From a social perspective, I don’t agree with many of his platforms,” Finkelstein says. “My concern, frankly, is jobs. We have to have a tax policy that enables us to be able to create jobs.” Emmer wants to institute massive tax cuts, particularly for business owners and the wealthy, if he is elected as governor. Best Buy spokeswoman Susan Busch Nehring says of the controversy, “We’ve learned from this, and we will thoughtfully review the process we use to make political contributions, to avoid any future confusion.” [TPMDC, 7/30/2010; Washington Post, 8/19/2010]
Backlash - Local gay-rights organization Twin Cities Pride says it is “reviewing its partnership with Target” in light of the Emmer donations, while another gay-rights organization, OutFront Minnesota, says in a statement: “Emmer stands alone among candidates for governor in opposing equality for GLBT Minnesotans. Target should not stand with him.” OutFront Minnesota director Monica Meyer says, “This is inconsistent with their values to support the only candidate for governor who stands up for discrimination and divisiveness in Minnesota.” Former Democratic campaign worker Laura Hedlund pickets outside a Minnesota Target store, and tells a reporter, “I think Target is making a huge mistake” in donating money to support Emmer. A YouTube video posted by Minnesota citizen and former Target consumer Randi Reitan goes “viral”; in the video, Reitan returns $226 worth of items to a Target store and cuts up her Target credit card, explaining that she wants equality for her gay son, which Emmer, and by extension Target, does not support. Political science professor David Schultz says he is surprised Target would make such a controversial announcement of support: “I thought they would have sat this one out because they are so smart in terms of marketing. Target has had the warm fuzzies with progressives for years.… Now they risk alienating half the state’s population.” Emmer himself complains that his right to freedom of speech is being challenged by the protests against Target, and accuses protesters of demonstrating against him for personal reasons, saying: “The sad part to me is, I thought we were supposed to be able to exercise our rights of free speech. We’re supposed to celebrate the fact that we have different perspectives. And it doesn’t seem like that’s what this is about. This seems to be more personal and we’ve got to get over that.” [Associated Press, 7/27/2010; TPMDC, 7/30/2010] MN Forward continues to garner significant corporate donations even after the Target backlash. [Minnesota Public Radio, 8/5/2010; Minnesota Independent, 8/6/2010]
Apology - Days later, Steinhafel issues a public apology for the donation, in an apparent effort to ward off planned boycotts by gay-rights and Democratic groups. Steinhafel writes a letter to Target employees that is made public, claiming that the donation was merely to support economic growth and job creation. He acknowledges that the contribution affected many employees in ways he did not anticipate and says: “[F]or that I am deeply sorry.… The diversity of our team is an important aspect of our culture and our success, and we did not mean to disappoint you, our team or our valued guests.” Michaud says the company will do what she calls a strategic review of political donations, and plans to lead a discussion on improving gay rights in the workplace. “Our commitment right now is in letting people know that we’ve heard their feedback and we’re really sorry that we’ve let them down,” Michaud says. “We want to continue doing the many things that Target has done as a company to foster our inclusive corporate culture and then look at ways of doing things better in the future.” Meyer says she is glad to hear Steinhafel’s apology, but her group intends to wait and see if Target fulfills its promise to be supportive of gay rights: “People are really appreciating them reiterating that kind of support but they want to make sure that their consumer dollars aren’t going to fund candidates who do the exact opposite of what Target says it wants to promote in society.” Soon after Steinhafel’s apology, Human Rights Campaign, a human rights organization that supports gay rights, says it spoke with Target about contributing $150,000 to a candidate who does support gay rights, but, the organization says, those talks have broken down. Allison Hayward of the Center for Competitive Politics says corporations should view the Target controversy as a cautionary tale. “This is sort of an object lesson for the next time a Sears or a Wal-Mart thinks about getting involved in some political expenditures,” she says. “Large corporations are not generally interested in alienating customers.” [Minnesota Public Radio, 8/5/2010; Washington Post, 8/19/2010]
Donations to Anti-Gay Candidates Continue - Federal Election Commission (FEC) records released in December 2010 will show that Target continues to donate to anti-gay candidates. [Think Progress, 12/24/2010]
Policy Change - In February 2011, Target Corporation issues a new policy to tighten oversight and restrict how the firm’s funds are used for political purposes. Tim Smith of Walden Asset Management, one of the companies that filed a shareholder resolution criticizing the donation, says: “This is definitely a trend. More and more companies are stepping up and being transparent about their political spending.” Target still refuses to disclose how much money it donates to trade associations, which are often some of the largest political campaign donors. Target now has a committee tasked with guiding “the decision-making process regarding financial support of political activities,” according to a policy document. [Los Angeles Times, 2/19/2011]
Entity Tags: Allison R. Hayward, Laura Hedlund, Gregg Steinhafel, Twin Cities Pride, Best Buy Co., David Schultz, Brian McClung, Federal Election Commission, Human Rights Campaign, Tim Smith, Tom Emmer, TargetCitizens, Monica Meyer, MN Forward, Lena Michaud, Tim Pawlenty, OutFront Minnesota, MoveOn (.org), Randi Reitan, Paul Finkelstein, Target Corporation, Susan Busch Nehring
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
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