Gay rights group: Target won’t offer olive branch

STEVE KARNOWSKI  |  Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Target Corp. has decided against giving money to gay-friendly causes to quiet the uproar over a $150,000 donation that helped support a Minnesota governor candidate who opposes gay marriage, a national gay rights group said Monday, Aug. 16.

In response, the Human Rights Campaign said it will contribute the same amount of its own money to political candidates in Minnesota who support gay marriage, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton.

A Target spokeswoman did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment. Target has been under pressure for three weeks for contributing $150,000 to MN Forward, a group that has run ads supporting Republican Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.

Fred Sainz, an HRC spokesman, said Target and his group had reached two tentative agreements over the last couple weeks for the discount retail giant to give money to various
gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender causes in Minnesota.

“Then when we were ready to pull the trigger, literally at the 11th hour on two occasions, they pulled back and said they were not ready to proceed,” Sainz said. “They said no deal. They said it was over.”

Target didn’t say why, he said.

“They were very diplomatic. They simply said they were going to take no corrective action,” he said.

Minneapolis-based Target has cultivated a good relationship with the gay community and its image as an inclusive employer. The company has been a sponsor of the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival. On Aug. 5, CEO Gregg Steinhafel wrote employees to say he was sorry for the hurt feelings over the donation, which he said was motivated by Emmer’s stance on business issues, not social issues.

Liberal groups reacted to news of Target’s donation angrily. Their calls for a boycott and several scattered protests outside Target stores highlighted the risks companies face if they take advantage of their new freedom under a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows them to spend company funds directly on political campaigns.

A Boycott Target page on Facebook had over 62,000 fans as of Monday. But conservatives also threatened a backlash from the right, and an anti-boycott page on Facebook had over 17,500 fans as of Monday.

Sainz said the HRC has not decided how it will allocate the $150,000 it plans to spend on Minnesota campaigns.

“But at the top of our agenda is the next governor of Minnesota will hopefully be in a position to sign a quality-of-marriage bill,” Sainz said. “Obviously, that is a priority for our community and having a Legislature that will pass that bill is equally important.”

—  John Wright

Conservatives warn of backlash if Target gives in to gay pressure

MARTIGA LOHN  |  Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Conservative activists said Friday, Aug. 13 that Target Corp. won’t quell the controversy over its corporate donations if the retailer gives in to demands from the left to renounce involvement in political campaigns or to help gay-friendly candidates.

Charlie Weaver, a leader of a political organization supporting a conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota, said the pressure from gays and liberal organizations on Target amounts to “thuggery.”

“This is simply an attempt to intimidate companies from doing what the Supreme Court said they’re entitled to do, exercise their free speech,” said Weaver, treasurer of MN Forward, a campaign group that got $150,000 from Target last month.

A GOP state lawmaker said the controversy, including protests and calls for a boycott by gay leaders, has put Target in a bind.

“They’re darned if they do something and they’re darned if they don’t,” said Rep. Marty Seifert, a Republican from Marshall.

Contributors to a conservative Facebook page on the controversy also warned the company of a backlash from the right.

“I will not boycott Target unless they crater to the demand of the gay activists,” said one writer. The page grew exponentially on Friday from fewer than 500 fans to more than 9,000 as the controversy moved into its third week.

The conservatives’ admonitions come as liberal groups demand that Target balance the earlier donation that helped GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer, an outspoken critic of gay marriage. Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel’s issued a statement of apology last week, and gay and liberal organizations have been negotiating with corporate officials for an equal donation or another concession.

Protesters have kept the pressure on by rallying almost daily outside Target’s Minneapolis headquarters or its stores since the donation became known.

The flap has revealed new implications of a recent Supreme Court ruling that appeared to benefit corporations by clearing the way for them to spend company funds directly on political campaigns. Target’s donation to a business-oriented group supporting Emmer was one of the first big corporate contributions to come to light after the decision.

The retail chain has gone from defending the donation as a business decision to apologizing and saying it would carefully review its future giving.

“Target is receiving criticism and frustration from their customers because they are doing something wrong, and that should serve absolutely as an example for other companies,” said Ilyse Hogue, director of political advocacy for the liberal group MoveOn.org, which is pressing Target to formally renounce involvement in elections.

Criticism has also come from local government officials in San Francisco, one of the urban markets where Target plans to open new stores.

The company is in talks with the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization. The group is also demanding donations from electronics retailer Best Buy Co., which gave $100,000 to the same group backing Emmer.

Fred Sainz, the group’s vice president for communications, said he is optimistic both companies will respond. Target has long cultivated a good relationship with the gay community in Minneapolis, and its gay employees have protested the political donation.

“The repair has to be consistent with the harm that was done,” Sainz said.

MN Forward is staffed by former insiders from Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration and has also backed a few Democratic legislators. The group has continued to collect corporate money after the backlash against Target, bringing in $110,000 through Tuesday from businesses including Holiday Cos. gas stations and Graco Inc., a maker of pumps and fluid handling equipment. Weaver said the group’s sole focus is job creation, not social issues.

A Target spokeswoman said the company had nothing to add to Steinhafel’s statement of apology. Emmer has said he views the Target giving as an exercise in free speech and wants to keep his campaign focused on economic issues.

Conservatives are watching to see whether Target bends to the pressure, said Kelly O’Keefe, a brand expert at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va.

“They’re likely to raise the ire of a different constituency of customers and get themselves in a never-ending cycle of alienating people,” he said. “A better thing is for them to swear off any future investment in elections.”

—  John Wright

Despite apology Target controversy continues

According to the Chicago Tribune, the controversy revolving around Target’s $150,000 contribution to a PAC that supported a virulently anti-gay candidate continues.

In West Hollywood, this weekend, activists plan a day of buying and returning items to the local Target. Each return costs the company $3.

Human Rights Campaign is negotiating with the company to make an equal donation to an LGBT group. They are backed by members of the San Francisco city council. Target has proposed building two stores in that city. The commissioners are holding up approval of zoning for the stores.

In July, Target hired Matt Zabel, right-wing Senator John Thune’s long-time chief of staff to be their government affairs director. The next week, Target made their donation.

When the LGBT community objected, the company took notice. The Chicago newspaper notes that gays are among Target’s most loyal clientele.

Gregg Steinhafel, Target’s CEO, has apologized for the donation promoting the candidacy of the anti-gay candidate for governor of Minnesota, the company’s home state. He said in the future political donations would be reviewed and approved by their board. But the hiring of a partisan figure like Zabel says more about where the company stands than a make-up donation that HRC might extract from the company.

—  David Taffet

Target CEO apologizes. Is it enough?

Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel apologized Thursday in a letter to employees for the company’s $150,000 contribution to MN Forward, a business group that is backing anti-gay gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.

The Associated Press reports that Steinhafel said he was “genuinely sorry” and that the company will set up a review process for future political donations:

“While I firmly believe that a business climate conducive to growth is critical to our future, I realize our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry,” Steinhafel wrote.

He added, “The diversity of our team is an important aspect of our unique culture and our success as a company, and we did not mean to disappoint you, our team or our valued guests.”

If you are among those boycotting Target over the contribution, is this enough for you to call it off?

—  John Wright

Target CEO defends donations aiding anti-gay candidate for governor in Minnesota

MARTIGA LOHN  |  Associated Press Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Target Corp.’s CEO on Tuesday, July 27 defended the discount retailer’s political donations to a Minnesota group helping the state’s Republican candidate for governor, telling employees at its Minneapolis headquarters that the company’s support of the gay community is “unwavering.”

Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel said gay employees have been raising concerns about the money helping state Rep. Tom Emmer, who opposes gay marriage. Target gave $150,000 to MN Forward, a group staffed by former insiders from outgoing Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration. MN Forward is running TV ads supporting Emmer.

“We rarely endorse all advocated positions of the organizations or candidates we support, and we do not have a political or social agenda,” Steinhafel said in an e-mail.

He added: “Let me be very clear, Target’s support of the GLBT community is unwavering, and inclusiveness remains a core value of our company.”

Emmer is a fiery conservative who lauds Arizona’s strict approach to illegal immigration, once advocated chemical castration for sex offenders and wants to lower taxes. His profile contrasts with Target’s moderate image in Minnesota, where the company is known for donating to public school programs, food pantries and the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival.

Target donated to MN Forward under new laws allowing corporations to spend company money on election campaigns. Corporate donations have been flowing since the U.S. Supreme Court threw out parts of a 63-year-old law that prohibited companies and unions from donating to campaigns for or against candidates.

The decision, which came earlier this year, changed rules in about half the states. But the change is so new that experts don’t have a good handle on the likely impact nationally.

“This is the leading edge,” said Ed Bender, who heads the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Montana.

In Minnesota, where Target has its headquarters and opened its first store 48 years ago, Democrats are grumbling about the large donation, and some are talking about striking back at the popular brand.

A few voices have even called for a boycott in the state, one of Target’s top three for sales. One Democratic-backed group is reaching out to Target employees through Facebook ads urging them to sign a petition opposing the donations.

“I think Target is making a huge mistake,” said Laura Hedlund, a former Democratic campaign worker who picketed outside a suburban Minneapolis Target store on Saturday, urging shoppers to spend their money elsewhere.

A Target spokeswoman said the company supports causes and candidates “based strictly on issues that affect our retail and business objectives.” Spokeswoman Lena Michaud said Target has a history of giving in state and local races where allowed, but wouldn’t provide detail on those donations.

She added that TargetCitizens, the company’s federal political action committee, has spread donations evenly between Democrats and Republicans so far this year. Political action committees contribute money collected from employees and shareholders, not from corporate funds.

Target’s donations to MN Forward — $100,000 in cash and $50,000 in brand consulting — slightly exceeds the total amount the company has given this year to all campaigns and causes at the federal level. By contrast, individuals can give a maximum of only $2,000 to candidates under Minnesota law.

Three Democrats, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and former state Rep. Matt Entenza, are running in the Aug. 10 primary. Pawlenty chose not to seek a third term and is instead exploring a 2012 presidential bid.

Although corporate donations are now legal, they could be sensitive for companies that serve customers of different political orientation. “You’re never going to please everyone,” said Elliot Schreiber, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia and consultant on corporate image management. “Taking sides is only going to exacerbate the situation.”

MN Forward is technically nonpartisan, but executive director Brian McClung, Pawlenty’s former spokesman, said Emmer is the only gubernatorial candidate the group supports.

“We believe that everybody has the right to express their opinions and we’re going to run a fair and factual campaign,” McClung said. “Our first ad is a positive ad talking about a candidate’s vision for creating jobs.”

As of Tuesday, Target was the largest single donor to the group, which had raised more than $1 million from industry trade groups and companies, including Pentair Inc., Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., Davisco Foods International Inc. and Polaris Industries Inc. Electronic retailer Best Buy Co. gave $100,000 to the group according to an MN Forward report made public Tuesday.

The Supreme Court ruling left in place state prohibitions against companies giving directly to the candidates. The money can go to independent groups supporting the candidates. But individuals can donate directly to the candidates’ campaigns.

Money from Target’s top executives has gone mainly to Republicans. Former Chief Executive Officer Robert Ulrich, who retired last year, gave $617,000 during his time as Target’s leader, most of it to the state GOP. Current Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel has donated about $25,000, almost exclusively to Republican candidates and causes.

—  John Wright