On March 7th, Wal-Mart’s Big Money beat a citizen’s group that dared to stand in the way of a 150,000 s.f. superstore in Huntington Beach (see 1/15/00 newsflash). Measure I on the ballot was an attempt to rezone land from commercial to residential to block the construction of a Wal-Mart. The people supporting the retension of commercial zoning voted NO and came in with 27,372 votes. The YES on Measure I, those against Wal-Mart, garnered 23,238 votes. According to the Huntington Beach Wave newspaper, Wal-Mart dumped “more than $380,000” into this campaign. That means the Arkansas retailer spent nearly $14 per vote, and only walked away with 54% of the vote. Those against Wal-Mart collected 46% of the vote. If just over 2,000 voters had voted YES, Wal-Mart would have lost in Huntington Beach. The perverse twist in Huntington Beach is that the Mayor and School Committee were drooling over this project as a way to gather revenue to pay for school improvements. The lease money from Wal-Mart is supposed to unlock a state matching grant for school rennovation. So a cash-strapped school district saw Wal-Mart as the way to save their kids’ education. The Crest View neighbhorhood became the sacrificial community to bail out the school district. During the campaign, the City Council apparently sent a letter to a local mobile home park occupied by senior citizens hinting that if Measure I passed, the city would have to cut its paramedic service. So Wal-Mart became a life and death struggle. Mayor Dave Garofalo, who enthusiastically supported the Wal-Mart, told reporters after the election: “I can’t wait for this to be over.” But to the residents of the Crest View neighborhood, the headaches are just starting.
What other store in America can boast of getting 46% of the voters in a community voting to stop them from opening for business? Wal-Mart really doesn’t “win” with such high negatives. Nearly half the voters in Huntington Beach voted against a retail store. Everyone expects hazardous waste dumps to get high negative votes — but a purveyor of cheap underwear? Wal-Mart can boast that they spent whatever it takes to win in Huntington Beach, but these kinds of elections, where 23,238 people tried to stop Wal-Mart, should lay to rest the notion that anti-Walmartian fever is just a “vocal minority”. I often warn local citizens’ groups that want to go to the ballot to fasten their seat belts, because the level of spending today is obscene. These local elections are crying out for campaign finance reform.