Target feeling investor backlash

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2010 - 11:10 PM

Three asset management firms that collectively hold $57.5 million of Target stock want a full assessment of political contributions.

The backlash from gay-rights supporters against Target Corp.'s recent political donation now includes some institutional shareholders.

Three management firms that collectively hold $57.5 million of Target stock -- Walden Asset Management, Calvert Asset Management and Trillium Asset Management -- filed a proposal asking Target's independent board members to undertake a "comprehensive review of Target's political contributions and spending processes including the criteria used for such contributions," according to a statement released Thursday night.

Calvert and Trillium, which own $11.5 million of Best Buy stock, filed a similar resolution at the Richfield-based retailer. Best Buy donated $100,000 to the same political group, MN Forward, which is backing Republican Tom Emmer for governor. Emmer opposes gay marriage rights, and his conservative social agenda has drawn ire from liberal political activists.

According to the Los Angeles Times, other institutional investors, including the giant New York state pension fund and union investment managers, are considering co-signing the Target resolution, the latest chapter in the ongoing controversy that has beset Target for more than three weeks.

"Target should have carefully considered the implications that direct political contributions can have toward shareholder value," Ola Fadahunsi, spokesman for New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the pension fund's sole trustee, told the newspaper. "It's troubling to think that they can fund controversial candidates without properly assessing the risks and rewards involved."

The New York state pension fund holds 3.8 million shares in Target, with a market value of $283 million.

Meanwhile Portland, Ore.-based Equity Foundation, which provides grants to groups that fight prejudice against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, ditched its 170 shares in Target stock Wednesday. Executive Director Peter Cunningham acknowledged the decision was "meant to send a message more than make a huge impact." He said he wants corporations to give more thought to the effects of wading into political waters.

Target, a company with a total market value of more than $38 billion, declined to comment, other than to say it had received the proposals, but it has spent the past three weeks responding to criticism of its $150,000 donation. CEO Gregg Steinhafel took the unusual step of apologizing to employees.

The retailer has long been lauded for its policies offering benefits for domestic partners and its leadership in gay-rights workplace issues.

But those fans now talk of a sense of betrayal, and Target has been the focus of protests, petition drives that have drawn more than 250,000 signatures, and calls for boycotts on Facebook and Twitter. MoveOn.org is spending $35,000 on an advertising campaign calling for a boycott of the retailer.

Target this week ended talks with Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights organization, which had been asking Target to give $150,000 or more to groups that support gay-friendly candidates in Minnesota. It said at the time it was best to wait on further action "given the current political and emotionally charged environment."

Richfield-based Best Buy said earlier this week it has "learned from this experience and we are reviewing the process we use to make political contributions."

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January now allows businesses to make political contributions directly from their corporate coffers.

Tim Smith, senior vice president at Walden, said it's unclear how often companies will donate in controversial races. "But if the Best Buy and Target contributions are any indication, imprudent donations can potentially have a major negative impact on company reputations and business if they don't carefully and fully assess a candidate's positions."

Wire services contributed to this story. Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

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