Wal-Mart made national news recently for trying to influence how their employees will vote in the upcoming Presidential campaign in November, demonizing the Democrats for their support of pro-union legislation. For many people, this was the first time they had seen Wal-mart trying to steer the outcome of a political election. Instead of just selling cheap underwear and Mickey Mouse lawn furniture — Wal-Mart has been retailing politics. The company has been trying to push the political outcome of races since it opened in 1962. A recent case in point is Rosemead, California. On September 22, 2006, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart spent $300,000 on campaign races in Rosemead. Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had donated $200,000 to protect Rosemead Mayor Gary Taylor and Councilman Jay Imperial from a recall election brought by angry city voters who felt their elected officials sold them out on a Wal-Mart supercenter vote. But on the final day of the campaign, Wal-Mart donated another $100,000. It’s an old campaign finance trick: you make the commitment to spend $300,000, but you hold back actually paying for it so campaign officials don’t have to declare the money until the race is actually over, and voters have no idea how much was really spent until the polls have closed. As a result of the unlimited spending allowed by corporations, the Mayor and the Councilor kept their seats with 59% of the vote — the best that Wal-Mart could buy. One local political analyst said the enormous financial support by Wal-Mart showed that the company would “stand by its friends.” The Mayor had good reason to welcome Wal-Mart’s generous campaign financing. In Rosemead’s elections in 2005, two Wal-Mart supporters were ousted and replaced with two opponents. Residents opposing Wal-Mart unseated two incumbent City Council members, and elected John Tran and John Nunez, who both went on to fight Wal-Mart. In that election, Wal-Mart did not raise a war chest, and it shows the difference an infusion of corporate wealth can make in an election outcome. Residents who supported the recall of the Mayor said that Wal-Mart’s money was used to create the appearance of an “astro roots” group, a phony “grassroots” group. The Mayor was resurrected, and the Wal-Mart superstore project survived a lawsuit brought by the Garvey School District, which charged that the company’s environmental impact report that studied the store’s effects on nearby Rice Elementary School was flawed. Wal-Mart was also sued by a group called Save Our Community, which filed a lawsuit in Pasadena Superior Court. When the city council voted in September of 2006 to let Wal-Mart open early, they did not have the item posted on their agenda, and unless Wal-Mart was considered an “emergency” item, the discussion should not have taken place without prior public notice. “The majority of the City Council passed a resolution without the prior finding that there was even an emergency or an urgency,” a Save Our Community representative said. “This stinks.” According to Save Our Community, the council clearly violated the Brown Act in California, which is that state’s open meeting law. But today, there is a Wal-Mart supercenter in Rosemead, and Gary Taylor and Jay Imperial are still on the city council. This week the Pasadena Star News reports that the current Mayor John Tran remembers the outrageous sum of money that Wal-Mart spent in defense of the former Mayor, and Wal-Mart has forced local officials to raise the bar on how much money they need to raise to feel safe. According to the Star News, Mayor Tran has socked away $100,000 for an election that doesn’t take place for another seven months. The Mayor has good reason to believe that Wal-Mart will spend big to get revenge against him. One of his fellow Council members, who supports Wal-Mart, and whose seat is also up this coming March, told the newspaper, “It’s outrageous. We are a little city. It is outside money trying to buy power.” That’s a pretty bizarre statement in a city where a company from Arkansas spent, in the end, $400,000 to protect several politicians who voted for the Wal-Mart superstore.
According to the Star News, Pasadena politicians usually raise no more than $50,000 for their campaigns — but Wal-Mart kicked campaign spending through the roof — perhaps forever. Wal-Mart’s spending in the 2006 Recall election bordered on the obscene. That campaign obviously made a big impression on Mayor Tran. “The last time I ran, Wal-Mart contributed over $400,000 to a local election and that was an eye-opener,” Tran told the Star News. “I want to make sure I have enough funds to get my point across. Being able to raise money is directly tied to being able to promote an individual’s platforms and beliefs.” The Council member who slammed Tran for raising money outside of Rosemead said that “outside” money would eventually lead to development by non-residents. But the horse is already out of the barn in Rosemead. This same councilor took $244 from a Wal-Mart consultant — not much money, but her total campaign chest came to less than $2,000. In Rosemead, there are no campaign contribution limits. As long as rich corporations are afforded the same campaign finance rights as an individual, they can tip the balance of an election by spending a King’s ransom on the vote. Instead of wasting its money trying to hold back angry voters, Wal-Mart should spend its money on its own workers to raise their wages and provide decent health care benefits. This “bought” election shows that campaign finance reform is not a dead issue. Readers are urged to leave a message for Mayor Tran at 626-569-2100 with the following message: “Dear Mayor Tran, Thank you for having the courage to get elected on an anti-Wal-Mart platform. The 2006 recall election, which was bought and paid for by Wal-Mart, should not be used as the new yardstick for future campaign spending. Rosemead should put a limit on how much any one individual, or corporation can give to a candidate, so you don’t have to raise a fortune to protect yourself from their meddling. And while you are considering limits, its time for Rosemead to put a cap on the size of retail stores, so big box stores will no longer dominate the landscape of Rosemead. You might want to use some of the money you have raised for your re-election to fund a citizen’s campaign to limit the size of big box stores, as a number of California communities have already done. In the meantime, keep speaking out against the negative influence that Wal-Mart has had on the political process in Rosemead.”