Walmart’s “Honest Graft”

Wal-Mart’s Honest Graft

Nobody knows how much the Arkansas behemoth and its founding family have given to local politicians, but it is obviously another Wal-Mart standard practice. In one of the more blatant examples, Wal-Mart—eager to open a new store in one of Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods—lavished campaign contributions on Alderwoman Emma Mitts and feted her at the gala held during its annual stockholders meeting. Mitts has become a prominent spokesperson for the company, flacking for Wal-Mart in a Washington Post op-ed and even referring to the company as “we” on a local Chicago television show.

Nowhere has the battle over Wal-Mart been as intense as in the Los Angeles area. Eager to gain a foothold in the area a decade ago, Wal-Mart proposed building a mega-store in Inglewood, a mostly African-American and Hispanic working-class suburb. In 2004 the company spent about $1 million to mount a ballot initiative that would change the city’s zoning laws to allow Wal-Mart to build its supercenter. Despite being outspent ten-to-one, a local community coalition defeated the ballot measure by a two-to-one margin. That same year, the Los Angeles City Council enacted a big-box law making it difficult for Wal-Mart to open new stores.

Wal-Mart retreated, but in the past year it has returned to Los Angeles with a vengeance, attempting to open a store in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. It has hired three powerful lobbying firms—Ek & Ek; Manatt, Phelps & Phillips; and Mercury Public Affairs (where former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez is a partner)—to help the company get the approvals it needed.

To gain the support (or silence) of community groups, Wal-Mart dramatically increased its charitable philanthropy, as it has done elsewhere. Its total giving in the United States rose from $270 million in 2007 to $873 million last year. In Los Angeles, the company hired the politically connected Javier Angulo—former employee at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials—to coordinate its local philanthropic program. Wal-Mart recently donated several million dollars to dozens of local nonprofits, including the NAACP, the Urban League, Homeboy Industries, California Charter Schools Association, Los Angeles Parents Union, Goodwill, Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, Union Rescue Mission, Meals on Wheels, Chrysalis, Children’s Hospital, and the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation, as well as several Asian American organizations, including Little Tokyo Service Center, Korean American Coalition, the Center for Asian Americans United for Self-Empowerment, and Chinatown Service Center. Angulo makes sure that whenever Wal-Mart hands over a check to one of these groups, elected officials are there for the photo-op.

Earlier this month, the day before the City Council was to vote on an ordinance that would have put the construction on hold, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office pushed through permits to allow Wal-Mart to move forward on its Chinatown store. Hoping to stop the project, community and labor groups are fighting back. They’ve produced a “No Wal-Mart in Chinatown” video, lobbied council members to override the mayor’s efforts, and scheduled a large protest march for June 30 at a state park near Chinatown.

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 Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College, chair of its Urban & Environmental Policy Department, and author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, which Nation Books has just published. Donald Cohen is the chair of In the Public Interest, a national resource center on privatization and responsible contracting, and the director of the Cry Wolf Project.