Although Wal-Mart repeatedly has claimed that it has no plans to build a supercenter in Contra Costa County, California, the area’s Board of Supervisors weren’t taking any chances. The county passed an ordinance limiting the interior sales of non-taxable goods in stores over 100,000 s.f. in unincorporated areas of the county. But Wal-Mart attacked the county ordinance, paid for signature gatherers to put Measure L on the March 2nd. ballot, and then unleased an estimated $1 million in corporate money to secure its victory. Even with this lavish display of corporate spending, voters in Contra Costa County, the anti-Wal-Mart forces garnered 46% of the vote with most of the precincts reporting. (In San Marcos, CA, voters handed Wal-Mart a huge defeat the same night.) “It’s a disappointment but not a surprise,” Contra Costa County Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier, told the Associated Press. “We were outspent 2-1,” he said. “We had a difficult message to get out. Having said that, people are starting to see what the true costs of these Supercenters are.” A “yes” vote on Measure L was in favor of upholding the county’s limiting ordinance. The anti-Wal-Mart forces reportedly raised $300,000, or one-third of Wal-Mart’s treasury. Before the polls closed DeSaulnier told the AP, “Whatever happens, we did the right thing. We all know that this is one battle in a nationwide war against a predatory company that is all about profit. We’re about people.” The supervisor told his supporters,
“You’re fighting against the right kind of people. They’re bad.” Supporters of Measure L said that a corporation should be not allowed to force the county to accept a store the size of a supercenter. Wal-Mart called the Contra Costa ordinance “anti-consumer and anti-choice”, while proponents of the limits said the ballot question was all about local control. During the campaign, Wal-Mart ran expensive TV ads about how the company had helped communities such as south central Los Angeles. “They got the money to spend on prime time TV to create this PR image that we can’t counteract,” DeSaulnier told the AP.
The Contra Costa campaign illustrates the desperate need for campaign finance reform in the field of ballot referendums. Wal-Mart’s “corporate democracy” amounts to this: The one who has the most money should win. Limits on campaign spending is long overdue. Money does not always drive victory, as the vote in San Marcos shows (see related story), but the influence of big money on Contra Costa’s vote is unmistakeable. The fact that an estimated 46% of the voters supported the zoning limits on stores like Wal-Mart, shows two things: 1) the opposition was much deeper than the ‘vocal minority’ Wal-Mart claimed, and 2) people in Contra Costa are very receptive to local control arguments. Although Wal-Mart got enough votes to stop the ordinance — for now — it also was a big-time loser, because no other store in America could poll a 46% negative rating in an election like this. Wal-Mart’s strong negative numbers here, and their defeat in San Marcos, indicates that the giant retailer has huge public relations problems that will dog it everywhere it goes in California. In addition, the Contra Costa ordinance could be redrafted to simply put a cap on all stores over a certain size. Such ordinances I believe would be easier for the public to understand, and would undercut Wal-Mart’s charges that the county was singling out their company for unequal treatment. Size cap zoning laws are growing increasingly popular, and Wal-Mart has little defense against them. The supporters of Measure L pulled out a very respectable vote, only a few percentage points from victory, which adds up to big problems for Wal-Mart in the future.