A full-page ad shook up the Vikings preseason coverage in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune. Paid for by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), it demanded Target and Best Buy “make it right” after donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the MN Forward, the conservative political action committee. That PAC directly supports Minnesota candidate for governor Tom Emmer, a politician with a track record for anti-gay activism and who, amongst other things, proposes shutting down Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights.
Jumping aboard, MoveOn.org launched a petition calling for 150,000 consumers to commit to a boycott. While welcomed by many, there is reason to be wary of MoveOn.org’s particular involvement. For starters, its statement reads “If we don’t push back hard, this will just be the tip of the iceberg. Other corporations will learn that they can pour money into elections to buy the outcome they want.” It essentially lessens the anti-gay rights part of the Target donation outrage in exchange for a focus on a larger battle about the post-Citizens United campaigning world… one in which MoveOn.org’s side benefits greatly. Some, like me, might use a stronger word than “lamentable” to characterize MoveOn’s failure to even once use the term “gay” in its petition.
The HRC stiffened its lip though, telling us, “MoveOn’s advocacy is very much welcomed in this issue as it demonstrates how Target and Best Buy’s contributions have turned off a wide swath of fair-minded Americans.”
And what of the gay-rights friendly brand names attached to Target? Of Target’s more progressive brand partners we reached, including Justin Timberlake and Ben & Jerry’s (both having just signed exclusive deals with the retailer), none cared to specifically comment.
But that’s okay, because Target commented for them, telling us, “Per you questions about our designer partnerships, our partners understand Target’s commitment to inclusion and diversity has not waivered [sic] and remains a core value of the company. Target has a history of supporting organizations and candidates, on both sides of the aisle, who seek to advance policies aligned with our business objectives, such as job creation and economic growth.”
For his part, Emmer has continued to display his characteristic lack of self-awareness by saying of the Target outrage, “The sad part to me is, I thought we were supposed to be able to exercise our rights of free speech.” Meanwhile, conservative blogs circled the wagons and lashed out, calling the Target story “astroturfing.”
When we contacted Mitch Berg, he of the Astroturfing claim and a radio host for conservative talk Northern Alliance Radio Network, to ask if he thought our coverage was such, he said The Awl was “party to some really cynical astroturfing.”
Berg then went on to say that the Democratic-led Minnesota legislature had “done *nothing* to advance any shred of the “gay agenda,'” and that he was “waiting for the HRC to ask [Dem candidiates] Dayton, Kelliher and Entenza what they think about gay rights.” When I pointed out that Dayton and Kelliher have the need for gay equality listed in the issue sections of their websites and that the legislature’s recent gay equality bill was vetoed by Governor Pawlenty, Berg answered, “Whatever. I don’t follow gay issues closely.”
He closed with, “You’re in my spam filter now.”
That Target has stopped including its perfect HRC Corporate Equality Index rankings in its official statements goes without saying. The larger question is, when, and if, Target will go beyond its vague reply to HRC, promising, “At Target, we listen to our guests, our team members and our communities-and we have heard them on this issue. We are committed to doing better and regret that we have let down our team members and guests. We are evaluating ways to make sure they know the high value we place on our relationships with them.”
Best Buy, meanwhile, has curled up with its perfect CEI rating and is keeping its head down in the foxhole, happy to let Target take the brunt of the PR onslaught.
HRC told us it will not set a deadline for Target and that “Every day that goes by, fair-minded consumers are wondering when Target and Best Buy plan to recognize that equality is good business. Their leadership on LGBT workplace issues will continue to be compromised until they make it right.” The organization also said it will not commit to knocking down Target’s perfect CEI rating, though it will also not take that off the table. With the challenge, HRC has at least shown a bit of balls. Yet, there are risks. If Target does nothing and Target’s CEI remains 100 percent, it’s hard to see how HRC’s ratings system would become even more meaningless. HRC claims over 100,000 have signed its petition (nearly 35,000 of those identify themselves as “straight allies”).
A couple hundred thousand people who can be bothered to fill in a form on the Internet is a far cry from an actual dent to Target’s bottom line. The retailer is likely unfazed and hoping to ride out the storm. Target same store sales for July are actually up 2 percent, though that misses forecasts. And the storm shows signs of early exhaustion, even within the gay community. Met early on with near-uniform indignation, the repeated reports are now met with some dismissive humor. Queerty, a gay issues and news blog, which has been on top of the Target news, is now seeing comments on its Target posts such as “I guess I was crazy to think Queerty could go 3 hours without another Target article.”
The truth is not that Target and its leadership have suddenly turned on their commitment to gay rights. It’s more that it never really existed to begin with. Further research shows that Target has funneled significant funding to the most socially conservative of Republicans and that it boasts a frightening culture of anti-gay candidate support from Target’s own stable of top executives.
We have already noted that CEO Gregg Steinhafel and his wife both maxed out their personal contributions this year to Michele Bachmann and Tom Emmer. But Steinhafel is just the captain of the crew.
Target’s current group of top corporate officers have supported a murderers row of anti-gay politicians. Even more confusing, some of those anti-gay candidates supported by Target’s PAC and its executives don’t even represent Minnesota.
Of the small handful of donations he’s made, Target CFO Douglas Scovanner has given to both Rep. John Kline and Rep. Erik Paulson. John Kline joined Bachmann with a group of Republican members of Congress who put their names on a lawsuit to force the District of Columbia to put gay marriage to a Prop 8-like referendum. Meanwhile, Paulson supports amending the constitution to ban gay equality.
Of the five candidates to whom Target CMO Michael Francis has donated, three are George W. Bush and the aforementioned John Kline and Erik Paulson. Target’s Chief Information Officer Beth Jacob gave her largest personal donation ever to Erik Paulson. John Kline also received money from Terrence Scully, Target’s president of financial services. So did anti-gay amendment-supporter Mitch McConnell, who isn’t even a representative of Minnesota.
John Griffith, Target’s executive vice president of property development, went above and beyond, giving to John Kline, Erik Paulson, Michelle Bachmann, and Mitch McConnell. Griffith’s donation to former Democratic senate candidate Rebecca Yanisch looks out of place until one learns she was a construction company executive and Griffith is a property developer.
All of these executives also gave money to former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman during his much contested 2008 race against Al Franken. Even largely politically inactive Target executives, such as Executive VP of Stores Troy Risch, gave to Coleman in 2008.
Al Franken, who is a very staunch supporter of complete gay equality, received zero dollars from Target executives or the Target PAC. Coleman, meanwhile, supported a constitutional amendment against gay equality.
The noteworthy exception to Target’s corporate leadership class of comprehensive personal support for anti-gay candidates is Jodeen Kozlak, which might be expected as she’s the executive vice president of human resources. Kozlak has only ever supported two candidates, one being Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar. The other… “Coleman For Senate ’08.”
Steinhafel’s leadership in supporting anti-gay candidates may have come from his predecessor Robert Ulrich, who stepped down as head of Target in 2009. While CEO, Ulrich supported Coleman of course; but he also gave to John Kline, and gave a whopping $13,600 to Michelle Bachman between 2005 and 2009. Ulrich also donated to Mitch McConnell and Richard Burr, a anti-gay constitutional amendment supporter who also voted to ban gays from adopting children. During Ulirch’s Target tenure, he also personally supported David Vitter, who has equated homosexuality with hurricane destruction. Burr and Vitter have nothing to do with Minnesota.
It must be noted that though these donations represent a near hive mind of Target’s self-identified top “corporate officers,” they are, nonetheless, individual and not made on behalf of Target itself. Target’s PAC, Target Citizens Political Forum, is the company’s official giving unit. As CEO, Ulrich sent a personal letter to employees encouraging them to give to the Target Citizens Political Forum PAC.
As one might expect, Target Citizens Political Forum spreads its money around a little bit of everywhere, including, on June 14 of this year, to Michele Bachmann. It’s a donation she probably expected, having received Target PAC money in 2006, 2007 (twice!) and 2008.
Target’s PAC also gave one of its largest donations ever last November to the Freedom First PAC. Despite only being around since last October, Freedom First, founded by outgoing Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, has become very poplar with both the Target company and Target leadership. Target’s official gift to Freedom First is one of only 19 corporate donations received by the PAC. (Best Buy is not one of the 19.) Moreover, nearly all Target’s top executives have given their largest donations to Freedom First, including the aforementioned Douglas Scovanner, Michael Francis, Terrence Scully, John Griffith, Beth Jacob, Gregg Steinhafel (and wife) and Grandpa Ulirch. Executive Vice President of Merchandising Kathryn Tesija even joined the Freedom First giving party. In fact, the only Target top executive absent from Freedom First’s roster is HR VP Jodeen Kozlak.
As one might expect from a PAC that is less than a year old, Freedom First has not yet spread its considerable money around. But as it’s the personal PAC of Tim Pawlenty, who as governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed gays to decide what to do with the remains of a dead domestic partner, its giving is lopsided. Of the 14 total candidates Freedom First has donated to, fully 11 are some of the most aggressively anti-gay candidates currently lawmaking in America. These include those whose anti-gay legislative dreams have already been covered here, such as Erik Paulson, John Paul Kline, Richard Burr and Bachmann. Freedom First has also deemed Tim Burns, Scott Brown and Patrick Toomey worthy, all of who support a constitutional ban on gay equality. Toomey also supported laws banning gay adoption.
Those 11 of 14 that the ironically named Freedom First has supported also include Chuck Grassley, Jon Kyl, Roy Blunt and Rob Portman. All who, in addition to supporting vanilla anti-gay equality measures, have gone so far as to support job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Just to be clear, Target’s official PAC, and every single one of its executives leaders except one, have given healthily to a PAC that overwhelmingly supports anti-gay candidates, many who do not even represent Minnesota. So it’s confusing when Target’s CEO speaks of “our commitment to diversity, and more specifically, the GLBT community” while at the same time working to ensure that legislative offices nationwide are stocked with lawmakers who would work hardest to destroy the GLBT community.
The contradictions are at their worst when Target and its executive leadership laud the company’s “Domestic Partner Benefits” while at the same time lopsidedly supporting lawmakers like Pawlenty and Burr, who would deny every gay American such domestic partner benefits as adoption and after-life remains decisions. Have Target executives engineered a wide conspiracy to reduce gay equality? No. Is it worth rewarding Target with a better brand image for its support of a few at the cost of all?
A doctor we spoke to recently had an interesting anecdote with regard to what’s currently going on with Target and its seemingly duplicitous support for the gay community.
Earlier this year, The Emily Program, a clinic specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, was given the opportunity to move into an old school in Orono, Minnesota. That just happens to be Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel’s neighborhood. In fact, the old school proposed for the new home for The Emily Program was across from the Target CEO and his lovely wife’s house.
The clinic’s permits and move into the new facility were going smoothly until suddenly, they weren’t. Mayor Jim White, at first a champion of the Emily House proposal, abruptly become more stand-offish about the program. Reports surfaced that Steinhafel had used his considerable clout with the Orono mayor and municipal council to handicap the project.
We reached Dirk Miller, Ph.D., L.P., the executive director of The Emily Program and its founder. He told us, “When we had a gathering to talk with neighbors, address their concerns, and answer questions about what we proposed-Gregg attended and praised us, saying that The Emily Program is ‘doing God’s work.’ I agree-helping people heal from eating disorders and other mental health problems is incredibly important. They deserve access to good care in communities near where they live and in environments that are conducive to healing-like the Orono location.
And so we were shocked and disappointed when Gregg came to two different city council meetings to speak out against our proposed facility-while continuing to assert that he loved and supported our work. It didn’t make any sense and still doesn’t.”
That sounds familiar.
UPDATE: The Associated Press reports this afternoon that Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel has apologized, saying he is “genuinely sorry”
his true nature was exposed for the MN Forward donation. Steinhafel said a review process for future donations would be set up, but gave no specifics. He did not say HRC’s demands would be met. Despite the spin that it is some kind of change of policy, he basically just issued another statement, committing nothing new to gay equality. It’s a start; but the thousands and thousands of dollars in the pockets of anti-gay candidates from both himself, Target’s executives and Target’s PAC, remain there.
Here is the “about us” on Protectmarriage.com: “ProtectMarriage.com, is a broad-based coalition of California families, community leaders, religious leaders, pro-family organizations and individuals from all walks of life who have joined together to support Proposition 8.”
We are trying to establish if these were individual Target employee donations or on behalf of Target Corp, though they are beginning to look like the former. Follow-ups with Target and HRC soon. Update: HuffPo says this is individual donations. Update: And, here’s the official statement from Target: “Target did not, nor has the company ever, knowingly donated to legislation or referendums that aim to undermine equality for all, including Proposition 8 in California. Further, Target’s support of the GLBT community is unwavering, and inclusiveness remains a core value of our company.”
Update 3: Minnesota Public Radio has the full letter from Steinhafel mentioned in the first update. The most important bit is “And later this fall, Target will take a leadership role in bringing together a group of companies and partner organizations for a dialogue focused on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, including GLBT issues,” which likely means they plan to do nothing for the time being.
Update 4: HRC says it isn’t enough: “We appreciate Mr. Steinhafel’s statement to company employees this afternoon but it doesn’t go quite far enough… The promise to evaluate political contributions in the future, while a step in the right direction, is provided without details and does not mitigate their $150,000 supporting an outspoken opponent of equality for LGBT people. Target can still make it right by making equivalent contributions to equality-minded organizations and by making clear the procedure by which they will evaluate potential contributions in the future to include issues of LGBT-equality.” When asked how long it will wait, HRC also told us it will not “speculate about hypotheticals” but that this apology would not cut it.
Update 5: Here’s a cynical prediction for how this is going to play out. Target, sensing that the HRC is now coming under as much fire as itself, is going to stall and hope that criticism falls on HRC for a failure to act after its challenge. Sure, Target has made some vague promise of a review process, but who knows what that means. Is the retailer suggesting it had no review process for political donations to begin with? In the meantime, many of the candidates Target and its leadership have supported are working hard to block the post-Citizens United Disclosure Act, without which Target’s future political influence will be even more difficult to track. How convenient.
Would Target even care at this point if it lost points from its 100 percent HRC CEI ranking, something that it seems was purely for Target’s PR uses anyway? The damage has been done. After the exposure of its legacy of support for anti-gay politicians, the retailer now turns up on the first page of results for the Google search “ant-gay.” It the the number one result for the searches “antigay” + “corporation” and “anti-gay” + “retailer.” Why on God’s green earth would Target now act to maintain its perfect CEI rating when, by HRC’s inaction, that rating doesn’t even carry the weight it once did?