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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Corporate-Labor Smackdown in Minnesota

Corporations back GOP candidate Emmer for governor, while a union-funded group attacks him with misleading ads.


Minnesota’s race for governor is pitting corporate money against money from labor unions and wealthy Democrats. So far, the misleading attack ads are all coming from the liberal side, and the corporate side is being badly outspent to boot. The Alliance for a Better Minnesota — a group funded by labor unions and the family of Democratic contender Mark Dayton — has raised nearly $1.7 million so far. Its ads have:

  • Accused GOP-endorsed candidate Tom Emmer of sponsoring a bill to "reduce penalties for drunk drivers." That’s misleading. The bill would have required that accused drunk drivers be penalized only if convicted.
  • Said Emmer was "arrested twice himself for drunk driving." That’s true — but the arrests were nearly 20 and 30 years ago.
  • Claimed Emmer voted against "corporations and CEOs" paying higher taxes. That’s false. He voted against a Democratic bill to raise state income taxes for all upper-income individuals — not corporations.
  • Claimed Emmer’s vote "created" a huge state deficit. That’s false as well. The deficit existed prior to Emmer’s vote against a Democratic plan to raise taxes to help close it.

On the other side, a group funded by Minnesota-based Target Corp. and several other corporations raised $1.1 million and has run a single, factually accurate ad supporting Emmer. The group, called MN Forward, has also sent campaign mailers supporting both Democratic and Republican state Legislature candidates whom it considers to be pro-business.

According to figures furnished at our request by the Campaign Media Analysis Group, the labor-funded ABM’s attack ads have appeared 2,400 times, while the corporate-funded MN Forward’s ad supporting Emmer has run 330 times.

(Note:  With the posting of this report we launch a project we are calling "cash attack," to monitor and assess the accuracy of campaign ads funded by corporations and labor unions during the 2010 elections. Corporations and unions have gained new freedom to spend under a recent Supreme Court decision. Our "cash attack" project is supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation.)


Most of the news coverage of Minnesota’s special-interest money battle has focused on the corporate-funded MN Forward. Several corporations — taking advantage of a recent Supreme Court ruling — have poured $100,000 each into the fund, which is supporting the leading GOP candidate Tom Emmer, a state representative. The largest single donation reported so far is $150,000 from Target Corp., which is headquartered in the state. 

The use of corporate money in the governor’s race has drawn unfavorable publicity for the retail chain. The liberal group MoveOn.org is asking members to: "Tell the CEO you won’t shop there if Target continues spending money on elections." It calls Emmer a "far right" candidate who opposes same-sex marriages.

Accusations that Target was being anti-gay led Target’s chief executive to write a letter to employees saying "our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry," according to the Associated Press.

Although MN Forward has been accused of being merely a front to support Republican Emmer for governor, it says it is a bipartisan effort to support pro-business candidates. On Aug. 5, it announced that it is sending glossy mailers to support six state legislators for reelection, including three who are members of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

So far, MN Forward has run a single TV ad, praising Emmer but making no mention of same-sex marriage or other social issues. The TV spot doesn’t attack (or even mention) any of Emmer’s potential Democratic opponents. We found no factual inaccuracies in it. A full analysis follows later in this article.

The Liberal Attacks

The group Alliance for a Better Minnesota started running its most recent ad July 28, saying it would spend $500,000 to air the spot for two weeks. We find it to be misleading.


[TET ]

Alliance for a Better Minnesota Ad: “Light”

Margaret Everson: Our son John was the light of our life and to receive a call at 3 in the morning that he’d been killed by a drunk driver is the worst nightmare a parent can experience. So when I heard that Tom Emmer sponsored a law to reduce penalties for drunk drivers – I was outraged.

And then I read that Tom Emmer has been arrested twice himself for drunk driving. And his man wants to be governor? Minnesota needs a governor who’s on our side – and that’s just not Tom Emmer.


ABM is funded mostly by labor unions and the family of former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, who’s running in the Aug. 10 primary for the Democratic nomination for governor. Should Dayton win, he’d likely face Emmer in the November general election. Emmer has been endorsed by the state Republican Party.

Dayton’s ex-wife, Alida Messinger, donated $500,000 on May 21 to a group called "WIN Minnesota Political Action Fund," and various other Daytons donated a total of more than $300,000 to the group this year. The group then gave $900,000 to ABM’s "Action Fund" on July 7 — making up more than half of the nearly $1.7 million ABM received during the year.

ABM also received — on the same date — another $700,000 from a group called the "2010 Fund," whose report reveals that it is financed by gifts from funds run by labor unions including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the nurse’s union, AFSCME, the state AFL-CIO and others. It has received a total of $250,000 from the state teacher’s union alone, plus $50,000 gifts from Alida Messinger and from the WIN Minnesota group.

ABM’s most recent ad shows a mother who says her son was killed by a drunk driver. She says Emmer "sponsored a law to reduce penalties for drunk drivers," and says she was "outraged" to hear that Emmer also "has been arrested twice himself for drunk driving."

Emmer’s Bill

The claim that Emmer’s bill would "reduce penalties for drunk drivers" is misleading.

The bill that he sponsored early this year was H.F. 1305, and it actually sought to prevent suspected drunk drivers from losing their licenses and having their vehicles seized by the state before they have been given a chance to defend themselves in court. Penalties would have remained unchanged for those convicted at trial.

Under state law, a suspected drunk driver can have his or her driver’s license revoked, license plates impounded and vehicle forfeited for merely failing a sobriety test — before any trial is held. A license can also be revoked for refusing a test. Under Emmer’s bill, these things could happen only after the driver had been found guilty.

It’s true that the bill also would reduce penalties for those who agree to plead guilty quickly, without a trial. For example, state law now allows for a 90-day suspension, without trial, for anyone who fails a test. Under Emmer’s bill, the penalty would have been 30 days for somebody who pleads guilty to a first offense without a trial, if done within 30 days of being cited. But for anyone who insists on a trial and is then found guilty, the penalty would still be a 90-day suspension for a first offense.

The bill was opposed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and it died in committee this year without coming to a vote.

Emmer’s Arrests

It’s true — just as the ad claims — that Emmer was arrested twice for drunk driving. However, the ad fails to mention that those charges date back nearly 20 years and more.

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Emmer pleaded guilty to a 1991 charge of careless driving, while two drunk-driving charges and a license-plate charge were dropped. He was 30 years old at the time. The Star-Tribune also reported that Emmer had received a DWI-related ticket in 1981, when he was 20. Emmer responded to the ad with a three-minute video on his campaign website in which he admitted to "mistakes in my life," referred to "a very humbling experience" and added:

Emmer: Thank God it happened when it did. Thank God I learned the lesson I was supposed to learn from that.

Earlier ABM Attacks

An earlier ad by ABM also contained false claims, accusing Emmer of supporting a plan that "created a huge deficit," while opposing requiring "corporations and CEOs" to pay higher taxes.

[TET ]

Alliance for a Better Minnesota Ad: "Failed"

Announcer: Ordinary Minnesotans are facing tough times. We need a leader who will fight for us. But Tom Emmer sided with Gov. Pawlenty and opposed a plan that would force corporations and CEOs to pay their fair share of taxes.

The Emmer-Pawlenty plan created a huge deficit and cut things that Minnesotans rely on. They cut funding for education, job training and health care, making it harder to get our economy back on track. Minnesotans can’t afford another four years of Tim Pawlenty and Tom Emmer’s failed agenda.


A False Claim About Taxes

The ad claims that Emmer "opposed a plan that would force corporations and CEOs to pay their fair share of taxes." That’s false. The bill did not mention corporations or corporate CEOs at all. What it would have done is raise taxes on more than 100,000 high-income individuals, pushing the state’s top individual income tax rate up to among the highest in the nation.

The bill cited by the ad was actually a Democratic budget measure (H.F. 2037) to close a $3 billion budget deficit. Among other things, it would have raised the top state income tax rate — for individuals, not corporations — to 9.1 percent (from 7.85 percent) for all couples making more than $200,000 a year, and individuals making more than $113,100. That would have made the state’s top rate "higher than all but five states for single filers and six states for married joint filers," according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The newspaper called the bill an "exercise in futility" because Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty had vowed to veto it.

An estimated 122,000 taxpayers would have been affected, and while that group no doubt includes some corporate CEOs, it also would have included many more small-business owners, doctors and other professionals, not to mention high-income farmers and retirees. And whether or not the higher rate is "fair" is a matter of opinion on which even Democrats are divided. It passed the state Senate by a single vote, with Republicans and 12 Democrats voting against it. It also passed the Democratic-controlled House but Gov. Pawlenty vetoed the bill, forcing the Legislature to return in special session and pass a revised budget bill — without any income tax increase — which the governor signed into law.

A False Claim About the Deficit

The ad also claims that the "Emmer-Pawlenty plan created a huge deficit." That’s false as well.

The bill was an attempt to close an existing $3 billion deficit without making all of the unilateral budget cuts that Pawlenty had tried to impose, but which were overturned by the courts. To claim that the bill’s defeat "created" the deficit it was intended to close is pure nonsense.

The ad complains that the so-called Emmer-Pawlenty plan "cut things that Minnesotans rely on." That much is true. The budget measure Pawlenty eventually signed did make deep spending cuts. But the bill the Democrats proposed, and Emmer voted against, wasn’t much better in that regard. The Democrats’ proposed income tax increase would have brought in an estimated $430 million in added taxes, but their budget bill still would have made $2.5 billion in spending cuts.

An Ad That’s Mostly True

The third ad run by ABM accuses Emmer of harboring a "plan" to cut the wages of restaurant workers. This one is mostly true. 

[TET ]

ABM Ad: “Plan”

Announcer: What’s Tom Emmer’s plan for working Minnesotans? Cut the wages for restaurant servers.

Joy Anderson: He is looking to fix our state’s big problems by taking money away from those that have the least.

Michael Warren: It just shows that he’s completely out of touch with working class Minnesotans.

Liza Kent: I think for Tom Emmer to attack working class people in the middle of a recession is just criminal.

Molly Thul: I do not think Tom Emmer personally cares about working Minnesotans.

Liza Kent: Tom Emmer is just not on our side.


The ad is a bit misleading on one point: Emmer has not sponsored legislation or issued anything resembling a written "plan" to cut wages for restaurant servers. What he did was voice general support for the concept of a lower minimum wage for workers who earn tips.

The ad refers to some remarks made by Emmer at a July 5 appearance at the Eagle Street Grill in St. Paul. He spoke favorably about the concept of a "tip credit" (opponents call it a "tip penalty") that can drive down guaranteed hourly pay below the standard minimum wage. As reported by Minnesota Public Radio, Emmer said the state might gain jobs if employers could pay a lower minimum wage to workers who have large incomes from tips. "With the tips that they get to take home, they are some people earning over $100,000 a year," NPR quoted him as saying. "More than the very people providing the jobs and investing not only their life savings but their families’ future."

Minnesota is one of the few states whose state minimum wage is already below the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. It is the higher federal level that governs what employers must pay. But under federal law, some states allow a "tip credit" that permits employers to pay cash wages of as little as $2.13 an hour in direct wages — provided that the cash wages plus tips equal the federal minimum of $7.25.

Emmer didn’t specify any particular level for a "tip credit." Nevertheless, his remarks stirred up quite a controversy, and put him on the defensive. He later spent a night waiting tables, and on July 13 he even proposed exempting the first $20,000 in tips from state tax, saying this could mean as much as $500 a year extra in after-tax earnings for tipped workers. He said: "Let’s eliminate the tax on the tipped wages, because it’s a nightmare, I think, to track anyway. More importantly — what it does for somebody who earns $20,000 in a year, it puts another 500 bucks in their pocket."

The Corporate Ad: Positive and Accurate

We found little to fault in the MN Forward ad, which first appeared July 19.

[TET ]

MN Forward Ad: “Creating Jobs. Right Here. Right Now.”

Announcer: Travel around Minnesota, and it’s clear. People are hurting. State government continues to spend too much. Businesses, forced to lay people off.

That’s why Minnesota needs Tom Emmer. Small businessman. Father of seven. Volunteer.

As a legislator, Emmer voted against job-killing taxes, and for reduced government spending. Now Emmer runs for governor. Working to grow jobs; getting government out of the way.

Tom Emmer, the fighter Minnesota needs.


The ad calls Emmer a "small businessman," "father of seven" and a "volunteer." That’s close enough. He’s indeed the father of six boys and a girl. In his town of Delano, Minn., he founded a law firm, which has several employees and so could be considered a small business. And according to his campaign biography, at least, he has volunteered as a hockey coach.

As for the more substantive, public policy claims, it’s true that Emmer has repeatedly voted against tax increases, as stated. He has a record of voting for reduced spending as well.

The worst that can be said about the ad is to point out what it omitted. While a graphic accurately stated that Emmer got a 100 percent favorable rating from the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota for three years — 2007, 2008 and 2009 — the ad failed to note that the same group rated him only 64 percent positive in 2005, 92 percent in 2006 and 87 percent for this year, 2010. His lifetime rating is 91 percent.

We take no position on whether the taxes Emmer opposed are "job-killing" or whether Minnesota government spends "too much," as the ad claims. Those are opinions, not facts.

Who’s Spending Most?

So far, the corporate side is at a financial disadvantage. Its ads have appeared far less frequently, and it has raised significantly less money overall, than the union-supported ABM.

Figures supplied to us at our request by the Campaign Media Analysis Group (a division of Kantar Media) show that ABM’s ads have appeared 2,400 times since the first one ran on July 7, while MN Forward’s single ad has appeared 330 times. Furthermore, ABM has spend $775,000 on air time alone to run those ads, according to CMAG’s estimate. That’s triple the $225,000 spent by MN Forward, according to CMAG.

Reports on file with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board also show that ABM had raised a total of $1,696,278 as of its most recent report, covering the period ending July 19. That’s a good deal more than the $1,130,196 in receipts reported by MN Forward through its most recent report dated July 29.

We’ll be watching this race closely. The primary election for each party is Aug. 10.

– by Brooks Jackson

Update, Aug. 11 We originally included brief references to "truth test" stories by the Minneapolis-St. Paul station KSTP, which  gave a "B-plus" to the MN Forward ad and a failing grade of "F" to AMB’s ad attacking Emmer’s drunk-driving bill. We have since learned that the station is owned by Hubbard Broadcasting, which gave $100,000 to MN Forward. Journalistic critics said the station should have disclosed this in its reports. We agree.

For the record, the station’s political reporter, Tom Hauser, who conducted the "truth tests," says the station owner’s political donations had no impact on his reporting.


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