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Target CEO defends company's political donations

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Laura Hedlund
In this photo taken July 24, 2010, Laura Hedlund, 48 of Eagan, protests in front of a Target store after Target donated money to a PAC that is supporting the Republican candidate in the governor's race in Bloomington, Minn.
AP Photo/Craig Lassig

Target Corp. is hoping to assuage concerns about the company's politics after gay rights groups questioned a donation the company made to a group backing a candidate for governor.

Target's $150,000 contribution to MN Forward has upset gays and lesbians who work for the retailer or shop at its stores. The group paid for an ad supporting gubernatorial candidate Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican who opposes same-sex marriage, but the ad did not address Emmer's stance on the issue.

Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel told employees in a letter today that the company's support of the gay and lesbian community is "unwavering." 

Steinhafel said the company has a history of supporting organizations and candidates aligned with the retailer's business objectives, but he said it rarely endorses all positions of organizations or candidates it supports. 

Monica Meyer, interim executive director of OutFront Minnesota, said Target's support of a group backing Emmer was a mistake.

"We just think it's inconsistent that they're out there supporting the only candidate who really speaks out for discrimination against some Minnesotans," she said.

Meyer said Target should withdraw its contribution to MN Forward or make a contribution that offsets it.

"By taking the money back, it would say Rep. Emmer does not represent the full values we're putting forth as a community leader in Minnesota," she said. "The other option for them would be to put money into efforts that bring equality and fairness for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people."

Target's CEO
The CEO of Target Corp., Gregg Steinhafel, in his office overlooking the downtown Minneapolis skyline.
MPR Photo/Tom Crann

MN Forward says it is nonpartisan, and will support both Republican and Democratic candidates who back its agenda of strengthening the economy and creating jobs. However, Emmer is the only candidate the group has supported so far.

The executive director of MN Forward is Gov. Tim Pawlenty's former spokesman, Brian McClung. He said MN Forward's agenda has nothing to with social policy or sexual orientation. 

"We're going to stay focused on electing candidates from both parties who support our agenda to create jobs and grow the economy," McClung said. "And that is what this is about."

As of Tuesday, Target was the largest single donor to MN Forward. The group has raised more $1 million from industry trade groups and companies, including Hubbard Broadcasting, Polaris Industries and Best Buy.

A U.S. Supreme court ruling earlier this year removed restrictions on corporate and union spending in federal elections.

Ed Bender, director of Institute on Money in State Politics, based in Helena, Mont., said it's too early to tell how much the court decision will boost corporate political contributions. 

But Target's experience shows companies have to careful, he said.

"In something as consumer sensitive as the retail trade, or the restaurant trade or hotels or anything like that, I would think they would want to think twice about playing in politics in a way that they start having to make excuses for the candidates they're supporting," Bender said.

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. 

Historically, individual contributions from Target's top executives have gone mainly to Republicans. 

Current CEO Gregg Steinhafel has donated about $25,000, almost exclusively to Republican candidates and causes.