ST. PAUL, Minn. — Target Corp. on Tuesday defended the use of its new freedom to spend money on political campaigns as employees and gay organizations criticized a $150,000 donation that will help a Minnesota GOP gubernatorial candidate who opposes gay marriage.
Chief Executive Officer Gregg Steinhafel assured employees at the company's Minneapolis headquarters in an e-mail that the discount retailer's support of the gay community is "unwavering." He said employees, some gay, raised concerns that the money is helping state Rep. Tom Emmer, a fiery conservative who is his party's likely nominee for governor.
Target's headache illustrates 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 is among the first major new corporate moves to come to light.
Target's money went 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. Steinhafel's e-mail said Target's political donations are intended to support business objectives such as job creation and economic growth.
He said the company doesn't have a social agenda or necessarily agree with all the positions of candidates it supports. "Let me be very clear," he said, "Target's support of the GLBT community is unwavering, and inclusiveness remains a core value of our company."
Monica Meyer, the interim head of the gay rights group OutFront Minnesota, said the gay community has long viewed Target as a supportive employer, and many are surprised by the large donation to the pro-Emmer group.
"A lot of people feel betrayed by this place where everybody goes to shop and you get to see them at Pride and you feel good that you're supporting a corporation that's giving back to the community," she said.
As of Tuesday, Target was the largest single donor to MN Forward, which had raised more than $1 million from industry trade groups and companies including Best Buy Co., Pentair Inc., Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., Davisco Foods International Inc. and Polaris Industries Inc.
Best Buy spokeswoman Susan Busch said the company informed employees of its $100,000 donation early Tuesday and received only a handful of phone calls about it.
OutFront Minnesota posted an open letter urging Target to take back its money from MN Forward. Two new "Boycott Target" Facebook groups together had more than 1,000 followers by mid-afternoon Tuesday, with some people posting business phone numbers for Target and Steinhafel, who individually also gave Emmer $2,000, the maximum donation under state law.
Similar corporate help for political candidates could be happening outside public view in other affected states with weaker disclosure laws, said Paul Ryan, an attorney at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington. Some businesses also may reserve their new spending rights for federal races, where the stakes are higher and there is little disclosure.
"Just the threat of being able to spend unlimited money out of corporations' coffers is a significant change in the rules of the game," Ryan said.
MN Forward's money could help Emmer overcome a financial disadvantage with his Democratic rivals. Emmer has raised less than $800,000 this year, compared with nearly $1 million for Democratic House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Two other Democrats, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and former legislator Matt Entenza, together have put in a combined $6.9 million, mostly their own money.
Independent expenditure groups on the left have spent more than $1 million attacking Emmer on TV.
The contrast between Emmer's outspoken conservatism and Target's moderate image is striking. Emmer lauds Arizona's strict approach to illegal immigration and once advocated chemical castration for sex offenders. Target is known in Minnesota for donating to public school programs, food pantries and the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival.
As of July 19, MN Forward had spent $200,000 on TV ads promoting Emmer as "the fighter Minnesota needs."
He will face the winner of the Aug. 10 Democratic primary and an Independence Party candidate. Pawlenty chose not to seek a third term and is instead exploring a 2012 presidential bid.
Mike Dean, who heads the advocacy group Common Cause Minnesota, urged businesses and unions to refrain from spending on campaigns this year. "Just the reputation damage that this is doing to the corporations that have given should be a compelling case of why these corporations should not give," Dean said Tuesday at a news conference.
The Supreme Court ruling left in place state prohibitions against companies giving directly to the candidates. The company money can go to independent groups supporting the candidates.
Several shoppers at the SuperTarget in the St. Paul suburb of Roseville – all of them self-identified as Democrats – weren't happy to hear about the chain's political involvement. Viki Karr, 50, said she would like to keep politics out of her shopping and would "definitely" not shop somewhere that supports the GOP.
Pat Mackey, 67, also of Richfield, said she was disappointed in Target.
"I think it is going to drown out the $25, $5 contributions of the average American, and we can't let that happen," she said.
Across town at a Target in Edina, even one Republican-leaning voter, 32-year-old administrative assistant Robin Liebl, said she didn't like what she heard about Target's giving.
"If I ever get wind of a company giving money to somebody I did not agree with, I would stop supporting them as much as I can," Liebl said.
Associated Press writers Chris Williams in Roseville and Edina, Minn., Brian Bakst in St. Paul and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.