Retailers

Publix Facing Boycott Over Political Contributions

Support of candidate for governor gets retailer enmeshed in gun debate

Renowned for customer loyalty, particularly in its home state of Florida, Publix Super Markets has found itself facing backlash from some Sunshine State shoppers unhappy with its support of a divisive gubernatorial candidate.

The Lakeland, Fla.-based retailer came under fire last week after the Tampa Bay Times revealed the company and its current leadership and family owners had made unusually large contributions to Adam Putnam, a Polk County Republican running for governor. The report cited $670,000 in contributions over the past three years—a figure it said was Publix’s largest donation to any candidate since at least 1995, “and likely for the entirety of the company's history.”

In a state that’s been reeling over gun-control debate since the Parkland shooting earlier this year, Putnam’s outspoken support of the National Rifle Association (NRA) has become an emotional flashpoint for some Florida residents, who are now organizing a boycott of Publix that could impact sales heading into Memorial Day weekend—a key selling holiday for food retailers. Putnam, who is currently the state’s commissioner of agriculture, in a social media post last year called himself “a proud NRA sellout.”

Publix has taken care to specify that its support for Putnam is grounded in his previous work as a state representative and agriculture commissioner, and that it has not contributed to the NRA directly, although that distinction has evidently been lost on some.

In a statement provided to WGB Wednesday, Publix said, “As the largest private employer in the state of Florida, and with the majority of our stores and our corporate headquarters located here as well, we have a history of supporting candidates focused on job growth and a healthy Florida economy.

“We regret that some of our political contributions have led to an unintentional customer divide instead of our desire to support a growing economy in Florida. Publix cares about our associates, customers and the communities we serve. It is important to understand that the vast majority of our giving is focused on organizations whose mission supports youth, education and the plight of the hungry and homeless within our area of operation.  

“As a result of this situation, we are evaluating our processes to ensure that our giving better reflects our intended desire to support a strong economy and a healthy community.”

The Parkland school shooting in February reignited national debate over gun control, and prompted some retailers such as Walmart and Kroger to announce new policies on firearm sales. 

The boycott movement among shoppers in Florida has spread through social media and has the support of some affected by the Parkland shooting, including outspoken student David Hogg. Its supporters are urging shoppers to #TweetTheReceipt—a tactic used effectively when Market Basket workers staged a wildcat strike in 2014.

Putnam is expected to face off against fellow Republican and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis in a gubernatorial primary Aug. 28. 

The flap illustrates the potential costs to companies that can result from being perceived to be taking a particular political stand, the speed at which outrage can race on social media, and the highly charged political climate, particularly in the “purple” state of Florida.

Food retailers are typically careful to avoid the perception of favoring particular candidates, and as a result they advocate primarily through contributions to industrywide associations, such as the Florida Retail Federation.

Publix, however, is no stranger to making principled stands, even when perceived at times as unpopular. For nearly a decade, it has been a target of pressure from farm workers represented by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to raise the price of tomatoes. Yet Publix has consistently said it would not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor, framing it as a labor issue.

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