ST. PAUL, Minn. — The head of Target Corp. apologized Thursday over a political donation to a business group backing a conservative Republican for Minnesota governor, which angered some employees and sparked talk of a customer boycott.
Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel wrote employees to say the discount retailer was "genuinely sorry" over the way a $150,000 contribution to MN Forward donation played out. Steinhafel said Target would set up a review process for future political donations.
MN Forward is running TV ads supporting Republican Tom Emmer, an outspoken conservative opposed to same-sex marriage and other gay-rights initiatives that have come before Minnesota's Legislature.
Steinhafel said the contribution from the corporate treasury to a political effort, which until this year wasn't allowed, was designed to support Emmer's stance on economic issues. Ads run by the group were focused on budget policy, not social issues.
"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."
A phone message left with a Target spokeswoman for more details on the company's new policy was not immediately returned.
OutFront Minnesota, a gay-rights advocacy group, posted an open letter urging Target to take back its money from MN Forward. And "Boycott Target" Facebook groups began to appear.
"We appreciate they are taking this really seriously," said Monica Meyer, OutFront's executive director. "People will feel good about being heard. Some still will probably be holding back to wait and see what the next statement and the next move is."
Target is known in Minnesota for helping sponsor the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival.
The reaction to Target's donation highlights the potential risks for businesses that seek to take advantage of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that threw out parts of a 63-year-old law that prohibited campaign donations from company funds. The ruling changed regulations in about half the states, but the Target donation in Minnesota was among the first major new corporate moves to come to light.
Howard Davidowitz, chairman of New York-based Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a retail consulting and investment banking firm, said he thought any consumer backlash against Target would have been small and only a small group of customers would have been angry enough to stop shopping there.
"They don't want this to go further," Davidowitz said. "What Target did today is called damage control. And I think damage control is perfectly appropriate."
The liberal group MoveOn.org said it has gathered thousands of signatures on a petition by people pledging to avoid shopping at Target over the donation. MoveOn said it would hold a nationwide protest at Target stores Friday.
MN Forward has attracted at least $60,000 in donations since the Target backlash erupted and more than $1 million in total since it was formed. The group has also broadened its political profile. On Thursday, it sent out mail pieces on behalf of six legislative candidates – three Democrats, three Republicans.
Brian McClung, the group's director, said MN Forward planned to push a bipartisan slate of candidates "from day one."
"This group of candidates has varied backgrounds and positions on many issues, but they all have been focused on making Minnesota a better place to grow jobs," he said.
According to public campaign reports, other contributors to MN Forward include Red Wing Shoe Company Inc., Best Buy Co., Pentair Inc., Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., Davisco Foods International Inc. and Polaris Industries Inc.
Associated Press writers Martiga Lohn in St. Paul and Doug Glass in Minneapolis contributed to this report.