New Yorkers! Meet the Candidate, Wal-Mart

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The midterm elections are over and the 2012 campaign for President has not officially started, but in New York City, a campaign of a different sort is already underway.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, wants to open stores in this city where it currently has none. It has been stymied before in its efforts to do so, but this time, the retailer is running an operation modeled on a political campaign.

It’s as if Wal-Mart is running for elected office.

“We are…doing a lot of listening,” said Steven Restivo, Wal-Mart’s director of community affairs, sounding a bit like Hillary Clinton and the “listening tours” she held throughout New York State when she first ran for Senate. “We’re trying to better understand the unique challenges that communities face and how we can work together towards a solution.”

The Arkansas-based retailer is also talking to voters, or rather, residents as well. Last week, it launched an advertising campaign that includes newspaper and radio ads, as well as direct mailings to ten city council districts. The ads' key theme is job creation, a talking point candidates have also seized in this job market. 

”Despite high unemployment some ‘special interests’ are pushing the city council to block Wal-Mart from opening here, even though it could create good new jobs,” said the announcer in one of the radio ads.

The retailer has yet to announce specific sites in New York City, but Restivo said Wal-Mart is considering locations in all five boroughs. It says the focus is primarily in neighborhoods with high unemployment and lack of access to affordable food.

Wal-Mart’s push to come to New York City is being helped by the lobbying efforts of Bradley Tusk, the former campaign manager for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Tusk is known for his work in “micro-targeting,” where personal data of voters is analyzed in order to target key demographics that could swing election outcomes.

Wal-Mart also hired Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen to survey the community about attitudes about the retailer. His research found that 71 percent of residents in New York City favor Wal-Mart opening in the city. 

Critics dismiss the poll results as a “PR stunt."

“Wal-Mart is throwing around money just like you would see in a political campaign,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is part of an opposition campaign against Wal-Mart.  Appelbaum described the recent hires by Wal-Mart as “political mercenaries who are in between campaigns and looking to make some money.”

Underpinning Wal-Mart’s campaign are the lessons it learned during its multi-year battle to open its first store in Chicago. 

Dorian Warren, a professor at Columbia University, is writing a book about retailer’s expansion into urban centers like Los Angeles and Chicago. He said there are three lessons the retailer learned.

First, “spend a lot of time cultivating community leaders especially in the black communities.” At the end of last year, several of those leaders including Reverend Al Sharpton, traveled to the retailer’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, to participate in an annual meeting for community leaders. In addition, through its charitable foundation, Wal-Mart has donated $9 million over the past three years to city-based non-profits such as The Harlem Academy and the Food Bank of NYC.

Warren said the second lesson Wal-Mart learned in Chicago, “figure out a way to split the labor movement.” While unions have previously unified against the retailer because of its firm stance against a unionized workforce, the retailer agreed to hire union construction workers to build stores in Chicago. In New York City, it is currently in talks with the Building and Construction Trades Council about the possibility of a similar agreement.

Finally, Warren said the retailer learned “patience.”

“They waited until the political opportunity was much more advantageous for them in the sense of an economic recession,” he said. 

“It’s muted some of the opponents' claims about how Wal-Mart will be bad for certain neighborhoods precisely because it’s hard to say we don’t want jobs Wal-Mart would create,” Warren added. “It’s hard to say we don’t want our residents to have access to cheaper goods that Wal-Mart stores do empirically provide.”

Still, political leaders and unions representing retail workers aren’t buying what Wal-Mart is selling.

“They may be going to communities that need jobs,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, “but they’re not going to grow jobs. They are going to replace jobs. They are going to force other businesses out of work.”

Wal-Mart, in turn, denies this claim.

“What we find in the majority of communities where we do business across the country, our stores are actually a magnet for growth and development,” said Restivo.

It’s a debate that will most likely grow louder as the city council holds a hearing on February 3, to examine how Wal-Mart's arrival in New York City could impact jobs and small businesses. Protests both for and against the retailer are expected.

In the meantime, the retailer has hired people to gather signatures from residents who support Wal-Mart. In the A train subway at Penn Station one recent weekend, a WNYC reporter was asked to sign a petition in favor of Wal-Mart.

At the top of the sheet was the following: “We the undersigned are in support of Wal-Mart coming into NYC. Our economy is suffering and we need an economic stimulus here. We need jobs and we need options to shop. This is America and it should be our choice where we work and where we shop.”

So even though there are no elections planned for some time, don’t be surprised if someone stops you on the street or in the subway and asks, “Are you for (or against) Wal-Mart?”