By MARTIGA LOHN, Associated Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Target Corp.'s CEO on Tuesday defended the discount retailer's political donations to a Minnesota group helping the state's Republican candidate for governor, telling employees at its Minneapolis headquarters that the company's support of the gay community is "unwavering."
Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel said gay employees have been raising concerns about the money helping state Rep. Tom Emmer, who opposes gay marriage. Target gave $150,000 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.
"We rarely endorse all advocated positions of the organizations or candidates we support, and we do not have a political or social agenda," Steinhafel said in an e-mail.
He added: "Let me be very clear, Target's support of the GLBT community is unwavering, and inclusiveness remains a core value of our company."
Emmer is a fiery conservative who lauds Arizona's strict approach to illegal immigration, once advocated chemical castration for sex offenders and wants to lower taxes. His profile contrasts with Target's moderate image in Minnesota, where the company is known for donating to public school programs, food pantries and the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival.
Target donated to MN Forward under new laws allowing corporations to spend company money on election campaigns. Corporate donations have been flowing since the U.S. Supreme Court threw out parts of a 63-year-old law that prohibited companies and unions from donating to campaigns for or against candidates.
The decision, which came earlier this year, changed rules in about half the states. But the change is so new that experts don't have a good handle on the likely impact nationally.
"This is the leading edge," said Ed Bender, who heads the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Montana.
In Minnesota, where Target has its headquarters and opened its first store 48 years ago, Democrats are grumbling about the large donation, and some are talking about striking back at the popular brand.
A few voices have even called for a boycott in the state, one of Target's top three for sales. One Democratic-backed group is reaching out to Target employees through Facebook ads urging them to sign a petition opposing the donations.
"I think Target is making a huge mistake," said Laura Hedlund, a former Democratic campaign worker who picketed outside a suburban Minneapolis Target store on Saturday, urging shoppers to spend their money elsewhere.
A Target spokeswoman said the company supports causes and candidates "based strictly on issues that affect our retail and business objectives." Spokeswoman Lena Michaud said Target has a history of giving in state and local races where allowed, but wouldn't provide detail on those donations.
She added that TargetCitizens, the company's federal political action committee, has spread donations evenly between Democrats and Republicans so far this year. Political action committees contribute money collected from employees and shareholders, not from corporate funds.
Target's donations to MN Forward - $100,000 in cash and $50,000 in brand consulting - slightly exceeds the total amount the company has given this year to all campaigns and causes at the federal level. By contrast, individuals can give a maximum of only $2,000 to candidates under Minnesota law.
Three Democrats, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and former state Rep. Matt Entenza, are running in the Aug. 10 primary. Pawlenty chose not to seek a third term and is instead exploring a 2012 presidential bid.
Although corporate donations are now legal, they could be sensitive for companies that serve customers of different political orientation. "You're never going to please everyone," said Elliot Schreiber, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia and consultant on corporate image management. "Taking sides is only going to exacerbate the situation."
MN Forward is technically nonpartisan, but executive director Brian McClung, Pawlenty's former spokesman, said Emmer is the only gubernatorial candidate the group supports.
"We believe that everybody has the right to express their opinions and we're going to run a fair and factual campaign," McClung said. "Our first ad is a positive ad talking about a candidate's vision for creating jobs."
As of Tuesday, Target was the largest single donor to the group, which had raised more than $1 million from industry trade groups and companies, including Pentair Inc., Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., Davisco Foods International Inc. and Polaris Industries Inc. Electronic retailer Best Buy Co. gave $100,000 to the group according to an MN Forward report made public Tuesday.
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. But individuals can donate directly to the candidates' campaigns.
Money from Target's top executives has gone mainly to Republicans. Former Chief Executive Officer Robert Ulrich, who retired last year, gave $617,000 during his time as Target's leader, most of it to the state GOP. Current Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel has donated about $25,000, almost exclusively to Republican candidates and causes.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in St. Paul and Jim Kuhnhenn Washington contributed to this report.
Caption: In this photo taken July 24, 2010, Laura Hedlund, 48, right, and Sue Skog, 48 both of Eagan protests in front of Target after Target donated money to a PAC that is supporting the Republican candidate in the governor’s race in Bloomington, Minn. Craig Lassig / AP Photo