Activists Take Aim at Target for Political Contribution

Activists are protesting Target after the retailer made a $150,000 contribution to a group that supports a Republican candidate for governor who once attended a fundraiser for an anti-gay group.
Activists are protesting Target after the retailer made a $150,000 contribution to a group that supports a Republican candidate for governor who once attended a fundraiser for an anti-gay group.

Target found itself on trial in the court of public opinion Tuesday after its $150,000 contribution to a pro-business political group, MN Forward, inspired strident protest. The biggest complaints came from liberal activist group, which has called for a boycott of the retailer, accusing it of homophobia based on the contribution. It's a serious charge against a corporation with a reputation as a gay-friendly employer and store.

So how did Target end up in this situation? Well, it isn't hard to see why Target would give money to MN Forward: the group endorses a moderately pro-business agenda. Citing information provided by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, MNF has noted that Minnesota's tax burden is among the highest in the country and that the state has one of the worst business climates. Consequently, it supports a drop in the corporate tax rate, budget reform and increased spending on education. Other businesses, including Best Buy, have also contributed to MNF.

So far, so good. The trouble comes from MNF's pick for the Minnesota governor race, three-term state Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican who supports a moderate pro-business and pro-education platform. In social matters, he falls further to the right: Emmer opposes gay marriage and abortion and supports gun ownership. He even creatively blended the pro-gun and pro-business ends of his platform by introducing an act that would exempt Minnesota from federal restrictions on firearms produced in the state.

Anti-Gay Connections

Emmer has expressed his opposition to gay marriage in restrained terms. But he has also been linked to You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, a tax-exempt religious group that strongly opposes homosexuality. Earlier this year, he met with the group's leader, Bradlee Dean, who has previously spoken with some approval of Muslim attacks on homosexuals. According to the Minnesota Independent, Dean told a radio audience that "Muslims ... are upholding the laws that are even in the Bible of the Judeo-Christian God...If America won't enforce the laws, God will raise up a foreign enemy to do just that."

Emmer also told the Star Tribune that he paid $250 to attend a fundraising event for the group. "These are nice people," he told the newspaper. "Are we going to agree on everything? No...I really appreciate their passion and...I respect their point of view. I respect their right to have whatever view. That's what makes it a great country. You don't have to agree with it."

So here's how it breaks down: Target sends $150,000 to a pro-business, pro-education political group. The group, in turn, endorses a fiscally moderate, socially conservative state representative who once met with the front man for a virulently anti-gay group -- and contributed $250 to attend one of its events. In the eyes of MoveOn, however, these weak links have become strong bonds. In its call for a boycott, the group wrote:

Target has spent over $150,000 in the Minnesota Governor's race backing state Rep. Tom Emmer, a far-right Republican who supports Arizona's draconian immigration law, wants to abolish the minimum wage and even gave money to a fringe group that condoned the execution of gay people. Target must think customers won't care. They're wrong: We do care, and we need to let them know that we want Target-and all corporations-out of our elections.

The Pitfalls of Getting Involved

Target has built a reputation as a gay-friendly employer and a strongly community-oriented store, so the accusations of homophobia come as a surprise. But MoveOn has its sights set on bigger game: the group hopes to influence other companies' decisions about political contributions as well. "The stakes are much higher than one candidate and one company," MoveOn says in its letter. "Other CEOs are in 'wait-and-see' mode ... If we don't push back hard, this will just be the tip of the iceberg."

MoveOn's letter seems to indicate that Target's biggest transgression was not homophobia, but rather its decision to enter the political process in the first place. The brouhaha stems from a January Supreme Court ruling that established the right of corporations to make political contributions. Supporters of the decision called it a win for free speech, while opponents -- including -- positioned it as a corrupting influence that would allow large companies to take control of the political arena.

Regardless of the ultimate reason, however, Target has found itself painted with the homophobia brush, a hard blow for the popular brand. It has already moved to defuse the crisis. In an email to employees, CEO Gregg Steinhafel wrote that the company was "unwavering" in its support of the gay, lesbian and transgender community and noted that "inclusiveness remains a core value of our company." Unfortunately, Target's strong history of inclusion may not be enough to defuse the backlash from its decision to enter the political fray.