Big-box retailers launch in-house political campaigns

MINNEAPOLIS -- In the October edition of Red, Target Corp.'s in-house magazine for employees, there is a section devoted to voting that appears to be nothing more than a voter's guide. Sprinkled throughout the glossy section are reminders that vo...

MINNEAPOLIS -- In the October edition of Red, Target Corp.'s in-house magazine for employees, there is a section devoted to voting that appears to be nothing more than a voter's guide. Sprinkled throughout the glossy section are reminders that voting is a "patriotic duty" and "your right as a U.S. citizen," as well as an array of fun facts, such as: "The term ballot comes from the Italian 'ballotta,' meaning 'little ball.' "

But buried in the text is an invitation for employees to visit , which is less whimsical. The site highlights how often federal politicians voted in favor of Target's "preferred position" on issues such as trade and taxes -- areas in which Republicans and big business tend to agree.

To some political observers, the magazine and Web site are examples of a new willingness on the part of big-box retailers to try to influence elections and to use voter education materials to muster support for candidates who support their business interests.

In the past, Target and Wal-Mart kept their views concerning specific candidates to themselves and relied on paid lobbyists and political action committees to press their legislative agendas in Washington. But recent changes in campaign financing rules have limited the amount of influence money can buy. Now, these retailers are appealing directly to their employees. Wal-Mart employs 1.3 million people nationwide, while Target has about 330,000 employees.

"It's a completely new way to influence an election," said Alex Knott, political editor for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington. "Instead of working behind the scenes and handing out checks, they're going directly to their employees."


Earlier this month, Wal-Mart Stores distributed voter registration materials, along with stamped envelopes, to employees at all of its stores.

Wal-Mart also said it would attack candidates who have made false claims about its business practices. Employees can sign up for e-mail updates ( ).

However, political watchdog groups are concerned that the retailers are misleading their employees by hiding their partisan interests behind the guise of voter education or outreach. Target and Wal-Mart officials insist they aren't telling employees how to vote, but both retailers have a long history of supporting Republican candidates -- largely because the GOP's agenda of lower taxes and freer trade is more closely aligned with their interests, analysts say.

During the current election cycle, Republicans have received 75 percent of the money that Target and its political action committee contributed to federal candidates and parties. At Wal-Mart, the percentage given to Republicans is slightly lower, 71 percent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.

"It's hard for a company to maintain the argument that it's nonpartisan when it has thousands of dollars in campaign contributions going to Republicans, and built around a very specific agenda," Knott said.

On the home page of Target's Web site, , is a letter from Chief Executive Bob Ulrich assuring visitors that the "effort is nonpartisan" and that "the purpose of the site is to make it easier for you to participate in our democracy through the voting process."

However, by entering a ZIP code or clicking on a map, visitors to the site can find out how incumbent federal politicians have voted on legislation affecting Target's business. Candidates who have voted in favor of Target's "preferred position" on key bills receive green check marks; those who vote against, get red "X" marks.

The candidate summaries also contain ratings from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters and BIPAC, a pro-business political action committee based in Washington, among others.


For instance, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, received two negative "X" marks for voting against free trade agreements with Chile and Singapore -- bills that Target supported. She also got an "X" for voting against a bill that would have placed caps on damages from medical-related lawsuits.

Josh Straka, a spokesman for McCollum's office, said the Web site is biased because its information is selective. McCollum has participated in more than 3,000 votes since she arrived in office in 2001, and Target's Web site focused on only eight votes involving legislation that would benefit large corporations and their executives, Straka said.

Target spokeswoman Carolyn Brookter said the Web site is designed to be nonpartisan and provides a spectrum of ratings from diverse organizations. "Our goal is not to tell team members who to vote for but rather to get team members to vote and to be educated on the issue at hand," she said.

At the Wal-Mart in Eagan, Minn., store employees said they were pleased that the company was becoming more outspoken about political issues. Several of them agreed to be interviewed recently after the store had its morning huddle, during which voter registration materials were handed out.

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