Target Corp. is discovering that a new era of political giving presents a double-edged sword.
A January Supreme Court ruling allows companies to donate directly to campaigns. But the Minneapolis-based retailer has found out that plenty of customers and employees are ready to protest those choices.
Target earlier this month donated $150,000 to MN Forward, a pro-business group backing Rep. Tom Emmer, the conservative Republican-endorsed gubernatorial candidate.
That led to a week of bruising reaction from Target employees and gay-rights activists that included a nationwide e-mail campaign and petition claiming 15,000 signatures.
On Tuesday, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel defended the donation, saying it was driven by economic, not social, issues.
He highlighted the company's domestic partner benefits, sponsorship of Twin Cities Pride and support of the Out & Equal Workplace Summit.
"Let me be very clear," Steinhafel wrote in a note to employees at headquarters. "Target's support of the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] community is unwavering, and inclusiveness remains a core value of our company."
Support from companies
That wasn't enough for Monica Meyer, interim executive director of OutFront Minnesota, which wrote a letter to Steinhafel.
"This is inconsistent with their values to support the only candidate for governor who stands up for discrimination and divisiveness in Minnesota," she said.
Emmer has pledged to restore prosperity to the state, insisting he will resolve the state's multibillion-dollar deficit without tax increases or accounting gimmicks. But Emmer's positions on social issues have raised eyebrows: He previously proposed to chemically castrate sex offenders and redirect state money away from an AIDS prevention program.
Emmer spokesman Bill Walsh said Target's support of MN Forward shows its commitment to economic growth.
"They are looking at this race and seeing one candidate who is dramatically different than the other four in the race right now, in jobs and the economy and on the tax burden and on growing this economy," Walsh said. "So they are putting their money there."
MN Forward is backed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership and has raked in $700,000 from Minnesota companies.
Bearing the brunt
So far though, Target has taken the brunt of the heat. Both Regis Corp. and Best Buy Co. Inc. contributed $100,000 each to MN Forward with little reaction from anybody, they said.
Best Buy put an item in its "Employee News" on Tuesday without mentioning the amount of the contribution, but explained that "Best Buy does not support candidates or campaigns based on party affiliation," but on issues important to the company and retail industry.
Regis CEO Paul Finkelstein said it's about taxes and jobs -- and not candidate Emmer.
"From a social perspective, I don't agree with many of his platforms," Finkelstein said. "My concern, frankly, is jobs. We have to have a tax policy that enables us to be able to create jobs."
MN Forward founders have said they expect to pump at least $2 million into the election to support candidates for whom energizing the economy is a top priority. "Our program has nothing to do with social issues, strictly jobs and the economy," said Brian McClung, who left as Gov. Tim Pawlenty's deputy chief of staff in June to lead MN Forward.
MN Forward's first television ad supported Emmer, but McClung said in coming weeks that its ads will include support of some DFL candidates.
David Schultz, a Hamline University professor who teaches political science, said he was surprised Target would wade into the gubernatorial race so conspicuously.
"I thought they would have sat this one out because they are so smart in terms of marketing," he said. "Target has had the warm fuzzies with progressives for years. ... Now they risk alienating half the state's population."
Randi Reitan, a gay-rights activist from Eden Prairie, said she was so upset with Target's endorsement that she went to a Target store Tuesday and cut up her Target credit card while telling a manager about her displeasure.