By PATRICK CONDON
MINNEAPOLIS – John Taft is a businessman and a Republican, great-grandson to President William Howard Taft and heir to an Ohio Republican dynasty. But it was Gov. Mark Dayton whom he spoke alongside at a recent fundraiser in favor of gay rights and against Minnesota’s marriage amendment.
What put him on a stage with the Democratic governor? Taft thinks voting to ban gay marriage in the state Constitution would be bad for business.
“I’m doing it because I truly do believe that keeping Minnesota competitive depends a great deal on attracting and retaining the best talent the world has to offer,” Taft, CEO of RBC Wealth Management U.S., told The Associated Press during an interview in his 19th-floor, downtown Minneapolis office.
Opponents of the marriage amendment on the 2012 ballot see natural allies in the state’s prominent companies, long seen as integral to preserving the state’s fabled quality of life. But the symbolic and financial firepower of companies like Target, General Mills and others with a history of supporting gay causes may not be so forthcoming.
The Associated Press contacted representatives for the 13 Minnesota-based Fortune 500 companies that currently offer domestic partner benefits- nearly three-quarters of the state’s complete Fortune 500 roster- and only one, a spokeswoman for Little Canada-based medical device maker St. Jude Medical, said the company would publicly oppose the amendment.
That’s not what amendment opponents might have hoped for. “It’s our preference that employers who are committed to fairness and equality for all their employees would find opposing the amendment a reasonable position,” said Fred Sainz, vice president of communications and marketing for the Human Rights Campaign, the national gay-rights group that’s already engaging in Minnesota’s battle.
“We do not believe the proposed constitutional amendment is in the best interests of economic and jobs growth in Minnesota,” said Rachel Ellingson, vice president for corporate communications at St. Jude Medical. “We believe that it is important for the state to be viewed as inclusive in order to recruit and retain the best talent.”
The ability to harness corporate wealth into donations will be a key goal of both supporters and opponents of the marriage amendment. With incumbent Sen. Amy Klobuchar so far facing little serious opposition, the campaign could end up as the state’s priciest in 2012: after initial predictions of a $10 million campaign, one activist who will be heavily involved with fundraising recently doubled the stakes.
“There’s an expectation it could be $10 million on each side, $20 million total,” said Ann Kaner-Roth, executive director of the gay rights group Project 515. “I think that’s not out of the realm of reality.”
But it won’t be with donations directly from Minnesota corporations. Even St. Jude Medical, Ellingson said, would not donate money as a company to defeat the amendment.
Of the other 12 companies, representatives for eight told the AP their companies would not take a public position. Those companies are Target, General Mills, Best Buy, Supervalu, Land O’Lakes, Medtronic, Xcel Energy and Ecolab. The other four companies- 3M, Ameriprise Financial, UnitedHealth Group and U.S. Bancorp- did not respond to several inquiries.
“Target is committed to an inclusive culture among our team members and throughout the community,” spokeswoman Jessica Carlson said. “Target does not have a public position on the proposed amendment, but we are encouraging our team members to exercise the right to vote.”
The Minneapolis-based retailing giant learned the hard way last year that jumping into the political fray can carry a downside- particularly when it touches on social issues with deeply felt convictions on both sides. The company donated $150,000 to a business-oriented political fund that in turn supported Tom Emmer, the conservative Republican candidate for governor of Minnesota with a lengthy record of opposing gay-rights causes, sparking an uproar by the HRC and other gay-rights groups that considered Target an ally for previously donating to their causes.
But ensuing attempts to mollify gay rights groups triggered whispers of a backlash by more conservative customers. “You’re never going to make everyone happy with any one position,” said Sainz, the HRC official.
In addition to offering domestic partner benefits, a few of the companies staying neutral in the gay marriage fight have long records of giving money to gay-rights causes. In 2011, five of the 13 companies were corporate sponsors of the Twin Cities gay pride festival: Target, Best Buy, General Mills, Medtronic and U.S. Bancorp through its subsidiary, U.S. Bank.
Several of the Minnesota companies to respond said it would violate company policy to take a position on policy issues not linked to their area of business. “We typically do not take positions on ballot questions that do not concern energy policy,” said Steve Roalstad, director of media relations for Xcel Energy.
Even Taft’s company, RBC Wealth Management U.S., is taking that approach by citing its own policy of taking positions only on financial policy matters. But Taft himself has agreed to serve on the steering committee of Minnesotans United for All Families, the coalition opposed to the amendment; he said part of his role would be to convince business leaders to donate money and time to defeat it.
Taft himself donated $10,000. He said his own views on gay rights issues began to shift after his daughter, now 31, came out as gay when she was still in high school. He said he wouldn’t take issue with any Minnesota companies that stay on the sidelines- but said he thought it was a bad business decision.
“At some point you have to decide, as an individual and as a corporation, what do you stand for?” Taft said. “And you have to be true to that.”