Real America: Your Civil Rights Sausage Is Made in Minnesota

by Abe Sauer

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As we noted in our last look at some of the funding in the Minnesota governor’s race, Best Buy has joined with Target by donating $100,000 in cash to MN Forward, a PAC that supports Tom Emmer, the vehemently anti-gay rights GOP candidate for governor.

As Target’s PR woes roll on-the corporation seems deaf to public outrage, refuses to condemn Emmer and is taking on damage to its brand image (Target/MN Forward results are now on the first page of a Google search for “anti-gay corporation”)-one would be excused from speculating that Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel’s personal support for Emmer (thanks to moves like Emmer’s vote against a 2010 tax bill adding a fourth tier to state income tax) may be spilling over into his management of his corporation against its own best interests.

Reached for an update, we were told “Target’s support of the GLBT community is unwavering, and inclusiveness remains a core value of our company. Some current examples of that support include: Domestic Partner Benefits; Sponsorship of Twin Cities Pride; Sponsorship of Out & Equal Workplace Summit.” Also unwavering, their support of MN Forward and Tom Emmer.

Extending to Best Buy the same open opportunity to address consumers that given Target, we received the following statement, presented in full:

Best Buy’s political giving strategy — and its decision to support MN Forward —  is based solely on the need to help elect candidates who will make jobs and economic issues a top priority this election. As a business in an industry highly sensitive to consumer uncertainty, unemployment and market instability, a successful economic recovery is critical.

We sincerely appreciate and understand the concerns raised regarding the governor’s race. The reality is candidates across the political spectrum have a lot of different positions on a lot of different issues — and Best Buy may not necessarily agree with all those positions. But from a jobs and economic perspective, Best Buy joined other MN businesses in supporting the objectives of MN Forward. Consistent with Best Buy values, we also believe our employees, shareholders and customers have a right to know how Best Buy engages politically which is why we informed employees of the contribution and publicly post our political policy and annual activity report on

Please know that Best Buy remains completely committed to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace in which employees are encouraged to bring their whole self to work. For the past six years Best Buy has received a perfect 100% rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index recognizing our commitment to GLBT workplace equality.  In addition, Best Buy supports policies and organizations committed to diversity and has worked closely with Best Buy PRIDE (our GLBT employee network) to support issues including working with the Human Rights Campaign and other businesses in advocating for the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) .  Â

And we always encourage our employees to make their voices heard on issues and decisions that are important to them and give them the tools to do so. They have multiple channels to express their points of view — in person, via social media, etc. — and the ability to join in our grassroots political action work.

We also offered Best Buy the chance to publicly condemn Tom Emmer’s positions on gay rights and commit to suspending funding for MN Forward if it continued to support him. It did not respond.

Like Target, Best Buy has chosen to go the route of claiming a need to support the “pro-business” candidate, regardless of his other policies. Also like Target, Best Buy has made this claim while shielding itself with its perfect “100 percent” Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index score.

But forget for a minute about human rights, and let’s just talk business.

When Target, Best Buy, MN Forward, Gregg Steinhafel, the GOP, the Tea Party and anyone else refer to a Republican candidate as “pro-business,” what they really mean is that he or she is for tax cuts. That’s it. If the economy boomed, Emmer’s proposal would be tax cuts; he doesn’t just have a hammer, he is one, and thusly looks at everything, including you, as a nail.

Much as it is with the “pro-life” movement, the “pro-business” nomenclature is a political slight of hand that frames any adversary of a “pro-business” candidate as “anti-business.” Some might not believe fully that Democratic candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s plans to “grow” jobs in Minnesota are foolproof (including me), but are we really expected to believe, especially in this age with a moderate left just as in bed with corporations as the right, that she is against Minnesota businesses? The characterization is insulting.

Emmer is “pro-business.” He is just not “pro-Minnesota-business.” The cut of Emmer’s jib is to grow business as a whole by reducing taxes and, maybe not intentionally, join all the other states racing to the bottom where the sole means of competition is to give more and more away to corporations. Essentially, Emmer’s tax cuts to Target and Best Buy would result in other states without a Target and Best Buy cutting taxes even lower to attract them, consequently leading to the next election cycle when the “pro-business” candidate would have to advocate cutting taxes to attract Target and Best Buy. In this respect, Emmer’s tax gouging policies would create a very pro-business environment, it just might not be in Minnesota.

The kind of low-business tax climate states that Emmer would have Minnesota emulate include Texas, Utah, Wyoming, Tennessee, Missouri, Virginia, South Dakota, Wyoming, Florida, Mississippi and Oklahoma, all 11 of which finish in the top 20 in the Tax Foundation’s annual assessment of tax conditions. (Minnesota ranks a dismal 41.)

Big surprise that these same 11 make up more than half of the 20 states in America that offer no (zero) state-level protection for employees based on sexual orientation. This means that companies wallowing in low tax rates in those states can, without legal penalty, choose to not hire a person based solely on his or her sexual orientation. And not that those discriminated against would have a home to spend that paycheck on anyway; many of those same states allow landlords to evict or decline housing to gays. It’s a circumstance with which Awl readers are already familiar.

But, according to the Boardroom Intelligence report “Best States for Business,” tax climate isn’t the most important factor for attracting or keeping business. Despite having a tax climate ranking of 41, Minnesota ranks 18th most attractive, thanks to its high ratings in education and quality of life. Wyoming, number one for tax climate, ranks only two places higher than Minnesota. Circuit City, formerly headquartered in Virginia, a state with a Tax Foundation ranking 25 places higher than Minnesota’s, just got its last rites read to it last year by Minneapolis-based Best Buy.

Is Emmer suggesting Best Buy or Target, whose brand strength comes from their collection of creative talent, is going to flee to South Dakota and expect its diverse staff of creatives to relocate? In 2009, while entertaining cheaper offices, Target’s employees were vocally unhappy with the concept of even moving to the Brooklyn Park suburb of Minneapolis.

But Target and Best Buy have more than their support for MN Forward in common. Both companies are also leaning, hard, on their sparkling Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index (CEI) records. How do you know the HRC is committed first and foremost to human rights? It’s in the title.

We reached out to HRC spokesman Michael Cole to see if Target and Best Buy’s recent political shenanigans might impact their spotless records.


Cole told us, “It’s important to understand that the CEI is a measure of the workplace practices of a company toward its own LGBT employees. We don’t believe that rating companies based upon their political contributions is an accurate reflection of their commitment to LGBT equality in the workplace.” Further, Cole says, “Unless the contribution is to a ballot initiative that is anti-LGBT (such as California’s Prop. 8 in 2008), political contributions are not factored into a company’s score….”

When I ask if this means a corporation would not be dinged as long as its anti-gay rights money went through a PAC or intermediary, Cole says, “That’s not necessarily true,” explaining that ballot measures are a “different beast” than candidate election. The implication is that as long as a corporation’s money goes through a PAC-like intermediary, its CEI will not be dinged for donating to a candidate, regardless of how anti-gay he or she was.

This means Target or Best Buy would not lose their perfect ratings even if their money made it to, say, Oklahoma State Rep. Sally Kern, who has compared homosexuality to cancer and is on record saying homosexuality is “the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism or Islam.”

In the HRC’s CEI tally, a range of policies and practices can win a corporation points. For example, Target gets “+5” for making sexual orientation training required for all managers and supervisors. (A score of 100, which is what Target and Best Buy boast, is the highest possible.)

Yet, the last category taken into account on each company’s index is “Responsible Citizenship” where corporations can lose overall points for failing to be a “good corporate citizen.” HRC defines this category as “Employer exhibits responsible behavior toward the LGBT community; does not engage in action that would undermine LGBT equality. Employers found engaging in activities that would undermine LGBT equality will have 15 points removed from their scores.” (Emphasis, mine.)

Target is “-0.” Ditto Best Buy. By HRC’s own definition of its index, what exactly would qualify as “engaging in activities that would undermine LGBT equality” if not supporting candidate Tom Emmer, who wants a constitutional amendment against gay equality?

So, for their workplace treatment of a handful of employees, Target and Best Buy are gifted a 100 percent approval rating that those businesses can then use as a defense against giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to an anti-gay politician whose election could mean a rollback of rights for all. The takeaway here being, HRC’s CEI ratings are valuable for selfish individuals interested in how a corporation is going treat them, regardless of at what expense it is to others.

In a mind-bending display of working against its own interests, HRC’s statement on its effort to achieve gay marriage equality reads, “By supporting state leaders and mobilizing HRC’s members in support of marriage and relationship recognition initiatives across the country, tremendous gains have been made.” And yet, the organization continues to fully endorse corporations that are actively funding those who would make their jobs harder.

And here the reasoning in the fight over state taxes and gay rights begins to dovetail. Cratering state taxes, creating a nationwide sprint to the bottom, is not all that unlike rating a business solely for how it treats a few employees at the expense of the whole workforce.

Worse than shooting itself in the foot though, HRC has mired itself in PR relationship quicksand that threatens the good work it actually does. Target and Best Buy rely on HRC to legitimize them and in return they repeatedly cite HRC’s endorsement, thus legitimizing its rankings in the national media.

In his reply to us about not allowing Target or Best Buy’s donations to an anti-gay rights candidate reflect in their CEI ratings, Cole goes so far as the commend corporate America for not being more anti-gay, saying, “In fact, corporate America is leading the way on issues of equality: over 85% of Fortune 500 companies prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation….”

Of course, others may rephrase that corporate “leadership” as “a significant percentage of corporate America is completely fine with discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.” The glass is half full; the glass is half empty (but if you’re gay and it’s empty, tough luck).

The conflicts of interest in HRC’s index are glaring. HRC relies on funding from the same corporate environment it supposedly rates. Though HRC won’t be removing points from Target’s perfect CEI score, it probably hopes the corporation will continue funding HRC’s Twin Cities dinner event as well as other HRC activities. The spokesperson we asked implied that HRC needn’t worry about their corporate patronage, saying “We are strongly committed to our support for HRC.”

By not dinging Target and Best Buy, HRC’s CEI ratings are so compromised and meaningless that they can be quoted in Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel’s personal statement to employees with the pronoun “our,” even as he personally maxes out his donations to Tom Emmer and Michele Bachmann, maybe the most anti-gay mainstream duo of candidates Minnesota has ever seen.

Showing that the HRC PR room is already comprised intellectually, Cole trumpeted Best Buy and Target corpospeak in his response to us by referring to the MN Forward PAC as an “independent expenditure committee.” Target and Best Buy’s statements have consistently suggested same, implying that MN Forward is some kind of third party organization. To suggest that MN Forward, helmed by the former right hand of possible Republican candidate for President Tim Pawlenty, has some kind bipartisan agenda proves outright that all of these groups assume you are stupid.

In the end, after any consumer outrage is burned off, a vote will be the final “index.” Those who truly want to punish Target and Best Buy will not forget in November to vote against Tom Emmer. The result of an Emmer loss will be two corporations who tarnished their reputations and their brands by unapologetically associating with a bigot, and a human rights organization that defended them doing it, all for nothing. “Business interests” indeed.

The increasing number of players in the Minnesota affair who shrug their shoulders over the civil rights issue of our time and claim “economics” should take a moment to ponder their legacies in light of the recently deceased Robert Byrd. On Byrd’s passing, everyone applauded the senator for his track record of economic contribution to his state, though it was largely pork. His highways will crumble and his coast guard station will shutter and his legacy will always be as a senator who insisted black people were lesser human beings. “Pro-business” candidates who are actively against gay rights, and those who support them, would be wise to pause and consider how they want to remember their actions during this time. Their grandchildren will have to say, defending them, “Yeah, but that’s just how everyone thought then.” And we will find out if the Supreme Court is correct; if corporations are persons, they should be capable of feeling the shame years from now.

Abe Sauer is watching where he shops.