The Real Lesson In Target's Campaign Cash Trouble

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Laura Hedlund, 48, protests in front of a Minnesota Target store. i

Laura Hedlund, 48, protests in front of a Minnesota Target store after the company made a donation that was used for an ad supporting Republican Tom Emmer's bid to be governor of Minnesota. Craig Lassig/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Craig Lassig/AP
Laura Hedlund, 48, protests in front of a Minnesota Target store.

Laura Hedlund, 48, protests in front of a Minnesota Target store after the company made a donation that was used for an ad supporting Republican Tom Emmer's bid to be governor of Minnesota.

Craig Lassig/AP

The first of two reports

During this election season, there's likely to be a lot more corporate cash in politics, following a Supreme Court ruling last winter that lifted restraints on companies and labor unions.

Already, a case involving Target Corp. and the gay-rights movement has provided one picture of how American politics works in the wake of the Citizens United decision.

Target gave $150,000 to an independent group, which spent some of it on an ad supporting Republican Tom Emmer's bid to be Minnesota's next governor. Target regarded Emmer as pro-business. But as a state legislator, he also built a solid record opposing gay equality.

And it's expected that Minnesota's next governor will have the chance to sign or veto marriage legislation, notes Fred Sainz with the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

More On Campaign Cash

So protesters beat a path to Target stores.

Sending A Message?

One of the more creative messages was delivered by musician Skye Steele at a store in Brooklyn, Minn. "Target wants to buy the governor's race," he sang. "Emmer will remember who paid to play. But that's not democracy."

This really matters to Target because it has a golden reputation for hiring GLBT employees and backing gay equality. The company apologized. Twice.

"We're sorry. We never meant to let down our team members and our guests with this decision," spokeswoman Lena Michaud said.

When the Human Rights Campaign asked Target to shell out another $150,000 to help gay candidates for other offices, Target tentatively agreed. But after two weeks of talks, the company is reversing itself.

A spokeswoman says Target is still committed to the gay community but feels it can't take any action right now because of all the political spin.

Sainz says Target will pay a price. "I think that people will rightly question their commitment to equality," he says.

Target also has to mend fences in San Francisco, where it wants to open two stores. "San Francisco is the epicenter of the LBGT rights movement. And Target's behavior nationally seems to subvert, or act inconsistent with, what's important to San Francisco values," says Ross Mirkarimi, who is on the city's Board of Supervisors.

And MoveOn.org wants to make a political example of Target.

"Target must promise never to make this kind of political contribution again, and they should serve as a lesson to other corporations who are considering making the same move," says Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn's director of political advocacy.

Just one thing: That isn't the lesson that corporations are getting. To them, it's all about disclosure.

Using 'Other Tools'

Target gave to a group that is legally bound to identify its contributors. That's why Target's contribution became known.

Many other groups don't have to disclose a thing. So a company can channel its money — and its message — through a business association or an advocacy group, and outsiders will never know.

"Given all these different ways that you can spend your money without generating a national news story, certainly I think a lot of corporate executives are saying this is just a reminder to use all those other tools that we have in our tool kit," says Robert Kelner, a campaign finance lawyer in Washington.

These tools work because Congress has never passed a wide-ranging disclosure bill. It tried to in response to the Citizens United ruling. But the bill was filibustered in the Senate.

On Tuesday's All Things Considered, NPR's Peter Overby looks at donors who make contributions the quiet way.

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