by Abe Sauer
News that negotiations between Target and the Human Rights Campaign have fallen apart is disappointing, if not surprising. HRC’s demands were simple and reasonable. Target’s best chance to salvage some of its reputation on gay rights would have cost it pocket change, just $150,000. The HRC had a great interest in the deal as well; they’d get to combat the view that they’re inefficient. So what happened? It’s possible that MoveOn.org’s involvement scared Target from the table.
And also, with new information we’ve found on Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel, it’s reasonable to believe a pro-gay equality donation was spiritually distasteful anyway.
The end result is that money won and gay equality lost. Given the players, should anything else been expected?
The pooch-screw that is the Target situation in Minneapolis, including the complete failure of focus following MoveOn.org’s involvement, is best summed up in one minute and forty-nine seconds.
MoveOn.org brought attention to the Target-Tom Emmer connection and made a publicity circus of delivering hundreds of thousands of pledges from those who could be outraged enough to fill out an online form. That may have done more harm than good. Smelling an opportunity to relive the 2004 election, right wingers flooded the zone, claiming liberal “thuggery.” Additionally, MoveOn’s head-first dive-in allowed conservative headline writers to legitimately claim “Liberal groups push to exploit Target backlash.” MoveOn’s bull-in-a-china-shop involvement brought to the cause all the common retaliatory outrage associated with the organization.
MoveOn.org hijacked the issue, scrubbing it of any of the original gay equality outrage. Their boycott message is twice as clever as effective, appealing to the largest possible audience, which makes it appealing to nobody. Another ad forgotten in a mid-term of political ads. MoveOn.org means to stop corporations from buying political airtime by buying political airtime. Zzzzzzzzzzz.
MSNBC has rejected the ad, though not in its merits.
How do we know MoveOn’s boisterous involvement probably torpedoed the HRC’s negotiations? Target’s statement to us about the failed negotiations:
Given the current political and emotionally charged environment, we have concluded that it is best to wait before taking further external action regarding our MN Forward contribution. We believe that it is impossible to avoid turning any further actions into a political issue….
Basically, Target is saying that even if it placates the HRC, MoveOn.org will continue to exploit the situation and hammer away. So why bother?
And like Target, Tom Emmer is in retreat as well. He’s suddenly become very quiet about his true views on marriage, refusing to answer a question about a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in Minnesota.
Despite wide agreement that gay equality is a civil rights issue, it is by far the most negotiated-away principle of so-called progressive action groups. Target’s PR play for the gay dollar is just a private industry negative of the left’s pro-gay-for-pay non-profit appeal.
* * *
It is already well established that Target’s long history of political donations reveals that its claims of being an advocate for gay equality is just a farcical brand strategy. Target is a simple participant in the Washington DC revolving door of influence.
Matt Zabel, Target’s new head of government affairs, and one of only three Target executives in charge of political donations, was for years the right hand man of aggressively anti-gay South Dakota politician John Thune. Target’s official political action committee (PAC) favored Thune in his victory over Tom Daschle in 2004-the same time that Zabel joined Target. No surprise that the year before hiring his chief of staff to control its political giving, Target’s PAC maxed out its donations to Thune, despite him being from outside Minnesota and being rabidly anti-gay rights.
Thune was reelected, and Zabel became a high-paid executive. Gay Minnesotans got a kinda’ nice Pride parade.
Meanwhile HRC’s position on the Target debacle is spun as one of proaction, but really HRC’s involved because of a challenge to its corporation-patronizing Corporate Equality Index. If Target refuses to meet any HRC demands, the group’s CEI rankings will be meaningless, probably never again to return to respectfulness. Asked if, after being laughed off by Target, HRC might finally consider demoting the retailer’s CEI rating, HRC told us “there are a lot of considerations….”
Yet, when it comes to gay marriage, at least HRC admits its impotence. Despite being solely a GLBT equality activism organization, the HRC’s statement on gay marriage is depressingly pragmatic:
Only marriage can provide families with true equality. However, domestic partnerships and other forms of relationship recognition, though limited, provide important and tangible protections.
This businesslike approach to civil rights is evident in the HRC’s own rotting gumbo of compromise. The HRC PAC giving history contains a slew of names like Leahy, Harkin, Dodd, Mikulski and Biden. All “yea” votes to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a still-standing federal recognition of marriage as solely between a man and a woman. The HRC’s giving history even includes the Log Cabin Republican PAC, which, a year after receiving HRC’s money, gave directly to Rudy “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is Okay” Giuliani.
* * *
Then there is MoveOn.org. Anyone with a sense of humor will chuckle at the rich irony of MoveOn.org’s recent involvement in Minnesota.
MoveOn.org has its own PAC which has supported a wide variety of anti-gay marriage candidates, including many of the same above signatories to the Defense of Marriage Act. MoveOn even gave to Minnesota’s progressive Santa Claus Paul Wellstone, who came to regret his “yea” DOMA vote, though the vote stood all the same.
The point being, MoveOn.org is a friend to gay rights when it suits its other motives.
And while MoveOn.org can technically claim its patron George Soros is not a “corporation,” it will have a harder time with the fact that MoveOn.org’s PAC has benefited from corporate election money. For example, the MoveOn.org PAC was a direct recipient of a maximum donation from the Democracy for America PAC, which itself received money from the Technology Network Federal PAC, made up of a conglomeration of donors such as Sun Microsystems, JP Morgan Chase, Global Crossing and Accenture.
Another? MoveOn’s PAC received money via the Planned Parenthood PAC which counted The Wish List PAC as a donor. That PAC’s money came from, amongst others, GlaxoSmithKline, AT&T, Geico and Goldman Sachs.
So, with corporate money flowing to MoveOn.org’s election-influencing PAC, it’s high comedy when Justin Ruben, the executive director of MoveOn.org, releases a statement like this:
Americans have spoken: we don’t want corporations meddling in our democracy. Corporate money in elections is nothing more than political bribery and we’re not going to stop targeting Target until they stop trying to buy our elections.
The outrage is now another boring cable news left-right debate bullet point. Target hopes the whole thing dissolves in the ether. MoveOn.org’s boycott will fizzle for a lack of a compelling focus. But who cares, it made its PR mark.
Meanwhile, HRC will lick its wounds and slink back into its hole to contemplate how to revitalize its brand. (Where “slinking” is a first class seat and “wounds” are the best sushi money can buy.)
If not in focus, then in grift, the HRC and MoveOn.org have one thing in common regarding Target: A dollar focus. Both have leveraged their Target involvement for that dirty thing: cash. In an email, the HRC pretended that Target’s dismissal of its influence was “shocking,” while at the same time saying, “Target and Best Buy have-and no doubt will continue to have-model employment policies for LGBT people, and we will continue to support those efforts.” The bottom line of that HRC email? A giant “Donate Now” button.
MoveOn.org’s breathless used-car-salesman appeal went like this: “Target gave a right-wing candidate $150,000. WeÂ need to raise at least that much right away to keep fighting back.” MoveOn’s quaint fundraising thermometer is already halfway to its goal (note that the call to action transformation is now complete, not once mentioning gay rights.) “Click here to contribute by check.”
We asked both organizations why, in the face of such ineffectual large-scale efforts, citizens shouldn’t just make direct donations to the candidates they support, instead of through interest groups. MoveOn.org ignored us, as they have on all matters relating to the Target story. The more ballsy HRC said, “People should certainly give money to candidates that support equality. Giving specifically to HRC’s Minnesota PAC, which is outside of our general organizational budget, will directly assist candidates supportive of equality.” (Yes, the HRC now has a specific Minnesota PAC.)
The takeaway of the Target story is that any organization powerful enough to have the finances to challenge a corporation at its own game (for instance, buying commercials to counteract commercials) is just another kind of corporation. Target, MoveOn.org and HRC would all like their audiences to make wholesale buys of their press releases. Yet all these organizations are most interested in self-preservation, which means compromise is inevitable. And maybe that is okay with you, but don’t expect them to tell you when they are compromising. This kind of activism has a high overhead.
* * *
Voters interested in knowing more about cooperate money have no greater ally than the Internet. All of the coverage The Awl has done on Tom Emmer, the HRC and Target was accomplished by one curious person on the Internet with zero press credentials or formal journalism training.
The Federal Election Commission website search functionality is robust and user friendly. Users can search for donations by individual (such as CEOs), corporate PACs and candidates. A search under “committee” for “Best Buy” turns up the retailer’s PAC. Users can then look at “Contributions Received by this Candidate’s Committee” (donations received from other PACs), “Committees And Candidates Supported/Opposed” (who got the money) and “Individuals Who Gave To This Committee” (private donations to the PAC).
At the state level, consumers and voters can use individual state finance and disclosure board databases. Here searches can be done by candidate, PACs and funds, ballot initiative funders and lobbyists. Under “political committees” and “reports” one can view filings from, say, MN Forward.
The most dangerous element of post-Citizens United elections is not a flood of corporate giving or that brands like Target will get caught with their marketing strategies down. There were already bags of corporate wealth in elections before Citizens United. The danger is an increasing lack of transparency. The increasing difficulty for a guy with a laptop in a living room to find the money trail, leaving us all reliant on large interest organizations for our information.
* * *
And, finally, a correction.
Last week The Awl erroneously reported that Gregg Steinhafel attended the liberal UCC Wayazeta Community Church. While it’s true the Target CEO’s daughter will be married there, the Steinhafels are not members. (During fact checking, this claim was sent to Steinhafel for confirmation and no denial was made.)
Our mistake was maybe convenient, since it appears Steinhafel’s real place of worship is an Evangelical Free Church.
Many of Minnesota’s Evangelical Churches host “Celebrate Recovery” events. Celebrate Recovery is “a network of like-minded, Bible based Christ-centered recovery ministries” that aims to “help hurting people in our church and community.” One of the subjects one can celebrate recovering from? Homosexuality. In the recovery program, homosexuality is classified as a “hang up.”
When we contacted one of the Evangelical Free churches to which Steinhafel has been linked and asked if we could attend its Celebrate Recovery program for “same sex thoughts,” the response was “You absolutely can attend for that reason. Hope to see you tonight.”
In Minnesota, evangelicals have been huge supporters of anti-gay marriage organizations such as Minnesota for Marriage, in some cases hosting “protect marriage” events at their churches. Michele Bachmann, who has received numerous donations from both the Steinhafel-controlled Target PAC and the Steinhafel family, attends an Evangelical church. The Freedom First PAC, which we identified as both favoring anti-gay candidates and as a favorite of both the Target PAC and the Steinhafels, is the PAC of outgoing Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, himself a rabid Evangelical. Beside straight donations, Steinhafel and his wife have also supported Pawlenty in softer ways, such as attending $1,000-a-plate Freedom First PAC dinners.
Pawlenty’s former spokesman, Brian McClung, now helms the MN Forward organization, which just happened to receive Target’s $150,000 in support of Tom Emmer. Defending Pawlenty’s declaration of “Abortion Recovery Month,” McClung reasoned, “Recovery programs can help individuals heal by providing counseling, support groups, encouragement and education.”
And Zabel, the Target government affairs head hired by Steinhafel? Zabel was the right hand of unyielding Evangelical John Thune. As we mentioned earlier, the only other decision-maker of Target’s political action executives team is Timothy Baer, an active member of the Twin Cities Catholic community.
With this further information, we again have to ask, considering the primary decision-makers for Target’s political donations, is it reasonable to believe the retailer’s years-long support of a national multitude of rabidly anti-gay equality candidates is a mere coincidence? And when Steinhafel says Target’s support for the gay community is “unwavering,” to whom is he lying, his customer or his God?