by Michael Connor

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last January in Citizens United – giving corporations and unions new freedom to contribute to political campaigns – is beginning to have an impact.

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Human Rights Campaign Ad

Retailers Target and Best Buy, both headquartered in Minnesota, are among the first companies to encounter public controversy following their political contributions to an organization that backs a state gubernatorial candidate who opposes gay marriage.

Target has contributed $150,000 and Best Buy $100,000 to MN Forward, an independent expenditure committee that has taken out ads in support of Tom Emmer, a Republican state lawmaker.

The contributions have drawn widespread media coverage and criticism from customers and organizations such as Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.

Human Rights Campaign took out an ad in the Minneapolis StarTribune addressing the two companies: “With the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, the landscape for political contributions has changed in ways that no one fully appreciates yet. Your foray into this uncharted water has proved choppy and should serve as a warning to other corporations mindful of the perceptions of LGBT and allied consumers.”

In an email to Target employees, CEO Gregg Steinhafel said the contribution to MN Forward was based on the company’s desire to foster economic growth in the state.

“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,” he said.  “MN Forward is focused specifically on those issues and is committed to supporting candidates from any party who will work to improve the state’s job climate.”

In a statement, Target said it has had “multiple conversations” with the Human Rights Campaign in recent weeks and hoped to “continue to work with the HRC in a spirit of mutual cooperation.”  Referring to its employees and customers, the company added, “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, in a statement, said: “Best Buy’s political giving strategy – and our 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.  We are a business in an industry highly sensitive to consumer uncertainty, unemployment and market instability; a successful economic recovery is critical to Best Buy.  Best Buy joined other Minnesota businesses in supporting the objectives of MN Forward.”

Best Buy said because it believes “employees, shareholders and customers have a right to know how Best Buy engages politically,” it informed employees of the MN Forward contribution.  It said it also posts its political policy and annual activity report on a section of the company web site that focuses on advocacy initiatives.

Ironically, both Target and Best Buy have been considered “model employers” by the Human Rights Campaign and have consistently received a 100 percent rating on the organization’s Corporate Equality Index, a measure of workplace equality.   Human Rights Campaign called on Target and Best Buy to make similar campaign contributions in support of candidates who support gay marriage.

The Supreme Court’s January decision in Citizens United allows corporations, unions and other organizations to spend unlimited amounts to influence political campaigns, although they still can’t contribute directly to candidates or their organizations.

Recent filings by independent expenditure groups with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) suggest that aggressive fundraising is likely on behalf of candidates for both parties – and on behalf of particular interests.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill believe that more than $300 million has been budgeted by business and conservative groups for a campaign to wrest control of Congress from Democrats.

Commonsense Ten, an independent expenditure organization being organized by Democrats, reportedly has a budget in the millions. “”With our majorities in both houses in play — and with them President Obama’s agenda — and talk of a hundred million dollars plus being raised by Republican independent groups, we’re optimistic that our funding base will rally,” one of its organizers told the Washington Post.

Another group just registered with the FEC is Californians for Fiscally Responsible Leadership, a fundraising organization reportedly backed by Native American Indian tribes which represent prominent California gambling interests.

Several major coal companies are reportedly exploring plans to form to create a non-profit organization to pool their money to defeat Democratic Congressional candidates they consider “anti-coal.”   One member of the group is said to be Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where 29 miners died in an accident in April.

The Lexington Herald Leader reported that a senior vice president of International Coal Group recently sent a letter to other coal companies.  “A number of coal industry representatives recently have been considering a 527 (non-profit) entity with the purpose of attempting to defeat anti-coal incumbents in select races, as well as elect pro-coal candidates running for certain open seats,” the letter said. “We’re requesting your consideration as to whether your company would be willing to meet to discuss a significant commitment to such an effort.”

This article has been updated from the original published version to include comments from Target and Best Buy.

Photo of Target Store by Jay Reed via Wikimedia Commons

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