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Target apologizes for donation to MN Forward

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

The CEO of Minneapolis based Target Corporation is apologizing for a donation the company made to a political group supporting Republican Tom Emmer's bid for governor. 

The contribution to MN Forward prompted a backlash from Democrats and gay rights groups who called for boycotts of the company's stores. At least one gay rights organization is praising the apology but is waiting to see whether it follows up with its renewed emphasis on supporting gay rights causes. 

In a letter to Target employees, CEO Gregg Steinhafel wrote that the purpose of the $150,000 donation to MN Forward was to support economic growth and job creation, but he wrote that the contribution affected many employees in ways he did not anticipate and quote "for that I am deeply sorry." 

Target spokeswoman Lena Michaud said the company will also do a strategic review of political donations and plans to lead a discussion on improving gay rights in the workplace.

"Our commitment right now is in letting people know that we've heard their feedback and we're really sorry that we've let them down," Michaud said. "We want to continue doing the many things that Target has done as a company to foster our inclusive corporate culture and then look at ways of doing things better in the future."

The company's tone has changed dramatically since it became public in July that the company contributed to MN Forward. At the time of the donation, Target officials said the company gave to both Democrats and Republicans and the contribution was aimed at fostering a better business climate in Minnesota. But the donation to Minnesota Forward and the group's subsequent TV ad in support of Tom Emmer ignited a backlash that spread nationwide. 

"The diversity of our team is an important aspect of our culture and our success, and we did not mean to disappoint you, our team or our valued guests."

Democrats, gay rights groups and others called for a boycott of the company. Critics said Emmer opposed gay marriage and donated to a group that has made highly inflammatory comments about gays.

Michaud wouldn't say if the boycott affected the company's sales and also wouldn't say whether Target would stop making political donations to MN Forward or other groups. 

That's what Monica Meyer, executive director of the gay rights group OutFront Minnesota, said she'll be watching for. Meyer said she's pleased Target apologized for the contribution, but she wants to make sure the company follows up on its promise to be committed to gay rights.

"People are really appreciating them reiterating that kind of support but they want to make sure that their consumer dollars aren't going to fund candidates who do the exact opposite of what Target says it wants to promote in society," Meyer said.

Target isn't the only company that has given to MN Forward but it's been the central focus of the backlash. Meyer said that may be mostly because the company has worked so hard to portray itself as a company committed to diversity. 

For example, Target has sponsored the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in the past. Meyer said she's also hoping the controversy convinces other businesses not to donate to MN Forward, but MN Forward's Brian McClung says he hasn't seen a chilling effect. 

"Since the controversy surrounding Target has happened, other companies have stepped forward and made contributions including Holiday Companies, Red Wing Shoes, Cold Spring Granite and we have other contributions in the pipeline," McClung said. "These businesses understand that MN Forward is going to be a voice that keeps jobs and the economy at the top of the agenda during this campaign."

McClung, who used to be Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokesman, said his organization is committed to promoting Minnesota candidates who are committed to low taxes, a better business climate and improvements to education. The group was formed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that businesses can make campaign donations from company funds. 

MN Forward also announced today that it's backing six candidates for the Minnesota Legislature -- three Republicans and three Democrats who voted in support of the priorities of the business community in the past.

Target's apology isn't stopping one group from protesting the company. The liberal group, MoveOn.org, said it will deliver 260,000 petitions tomorrow protesting Target's decision to get involved in the governor's race.