MPR – Top MN companies weigh political donations after Target flap

Originally Posted on MPR Morning Edition, 08/20/2010

St. Paul, Minn. — As criticism mounts over a big political donation by Target Corp., executives at several other Minnesota companies are weighing whether to get involved in this year’s governor’s race.

Gay rights groups and immigrant rights groups have called for a boycott of the retailer because it contributed to a group backing Republican Rep. Tom Emmer’s campaign for governor.

The protests started when Target Corporation gave $100,000 in cash and $50,000 in contributions to MN Forward, which is supporting Emmer’s bid for governor.

Emmer supports a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Target’s CEO apologized for the donation and said it would review its political donations, but the criticism continued.

Immigrant rights groups protested against the retailer because Emmer called the Arizona immigration law a “wonderful first step.” The liberal group also started running an ad criticizing Target, and calling for a boycott, that said “our democracy is not for sale.”

Target isn’t the only Minnesota-based company that has given to MN Forward. Others include Best Buy, Red Wing Shoes and Polaris.

Campaign-finance reports show that a bulk of Minnesota’s Fortune 500 companies have not contributed to the group — and many are staying mum on whether they’ll get involved.

U.S. Bancorp, Ecolab and CH Robinson did not return calls seeking comment. Officials with General Mills, Hormel and 3M say they haven’t given money to MN Forward but wouldn’t say if they would. Medtronic spokesman Brian Henry said his company is weighing its options.

“We have been approached by MN Forward but at present we have not made a decision at this point regarding a contribution,” Henry said. “It’s important to note that in light of the recent Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, we have been evaluating and updating our policy regarding corporate political contributions and the MN Forward is one that will be reviewed under this policy that we have.”

An official with UnitedHealth Group wouldn’t say whether his company has given or intends to give to MN Forward. A lobbyist for Cargill said her company will not give to the group because it has a policy of not giving to so-called 527 political groups. Officials with Land O’ Lakes, Xcel Energy and SuperValu say they also won’t give to the group.

The decision to get involved in politics can be a difficult one for a company and one that isn’t new. When basketball star and Nike spokesman Michael Jordan was asked why he refused to back a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina, Jordan responded “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

That’s the problem with mixing business and politics, said Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic and a one-time Target board member.

“I think it shows, unfortunately, that these things can reverberate because candidates have a multiplicity of positions,” he said.

George said MN Forward’s mission of focusing on improving the state’s economic climate is important, and there is no doubt that politics has a huge impact on business. But he predicts the controversy over Target’s donation has created a chilling effect in boardrooms across Minnesota.

“Nothing against MN Forward, because I think it’s well intentioned, but I think companies will take a hard look at this,” George said. “I think they will take a hard look at what the implications can be. And I think they should.”

Brian McClung, who directs MN Forward, said no company executives have told him they won’t give money to the group because of the Target controversy but says some are looking at Target’s experience. He said many companies are undeterred by the controversy.

“Many job providers are saying, ‘If we’re in a situation where special interests can intimidate and shut down legitimate speech than we’re all going to lose.’” he said. “So there are many job providers that believe the answer here isn’t to be swayed by this intimidation and boycotts and the like.”

That latest campaign finance reports show that 15 companies gave to the PAC through Aug. 10. McClung said other companies have given but declined to name them.

The information will be made available Sept. 21, the deadline for MN Forward and other political committees to file their fundraising report.