The January U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission paved the path toward more corporate cash in elections.
Well, citizens certainly have united, but not in the way business interests intended.
Instead, many Minnesotans, joined by a nationwide, social-media-fueled campaign, have targeted Target Corp. for its $150,000 donation to MN Forward, a probusiness group working to elect Republican Tom Emmer as Minnesota's next governor.
The blowback seemingly surprised the typically savvy Fortune 500 retailer, whose Minnesota headquarters is an economic and philanthropic engine for this community. Caught flat-footed, Target apologized for the contribution's fallout, but not for the contribution itself. "Target doesn't have a social agenda; we have a business agenda. So in the context of that, it's apologizing more for the lack of anticipation on our part and the disappointment that it caused, as opposed to the donation itself," said Lena Michaud, a company spokeswoman.
Among those most disappointed were members and supporters of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. Target has been unusually progressive in its GLBT employment policies and event sponsorships. Emmer has been hostile to GLBT causes. That contradiction is at the root of the firestorm that Target naively created.
In some ways, the public-relations mess is a backhanded compliment to the company, which has so successfully worked its way into the hearts, minds and wallets of Minnesotans that they feel ownership of the brand, much more so than Best Buy and Polaris, two of the other well-regarded Minnesota corporations that donated to MN Forward with less-apparent fallout.
For many customers of the publicly held, publicly revered Target, a bond was betrayed. The explanation by CEO Gregg Steinhafel that the company could somehow separate its support of Emmer's economic policies from his positions on social issues came off as tone-deaf at best, cynical at worst.
In the wake of Citizens United, many political observers argued, fairly enough, that corporate contributions would provide a long overdue counterbalance to organized labor's deep pockets and political influence. And MN Forward isn't strictly a GOP group: It's supporting three DFLers along with three Republicans in state legislative races.
There are no winners in the Target controversy. The retailer is likely to lose some business, even if only in the short term, and Emmer may lose some votes -- the opposite of Target's intent -- as Minnesotans being introduced to the candidate wonder why his candidacy is so polarizing.
Despite flexing their political muscle, GLBT groups may also be hurt. Like Target, they risk a backlash from those with opposing views, which could be especially damaging at a time when the gay rights movement is making slow, if steady, progress in the courts and in the court of public opinion.
The GLBT community needs more corporations with progressive employment policies such as Target's. And Minnesota needs more corporations willing to so generously share profits for projects involving education, social services, volunteerism and the arts, as well as to care enough to invest in public amenities like Target Field and Target Center.
That's why calls for a Target boycott are shortsighted. Hurting the company would also injure its employees -- 30,000 of whom work in Minnesota -- and reduced sales and profits would translate into less community giving.
Supporters of Citizens United rejoiced in a ruling that gives more voice to the marketplace. No doubt the price paid in the Target-MN Forward episode will act as a marketplace mechanism in its own right.