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2005-09-17
Winslow, and Benson, AZ. Wal-Mart Buys Its Way Into Arizona Towns

Who says that you can't buy votes with money? That's the whole strategy as far as Wal-Mart is concerned: the group with the most money wins the election. While the giant retailer has lost plenty of popular votes, it is certainly an obstacle for opponents when a rich corporation is allowed to spend an unlimited amount of money as if it were just another "citizen." Take the communities of Benson and Winslow, Arizona for example. This past week, voters in Winslow approved of Proposition 300, which paves the way for Wal-Mart to build a huge supercenter. The community already has one Wal-Mart, which will soon join the ranks of hundreds of Wal-Mart "dark stores" that litter the landscape. The vote was hardly a horse race. Wal-Mart spent $148,000 for their campaign -- with a final report likely to show an even higher level of spending. No official word on what opponents spent, but it was a blip on the screen compared to Wal-Mart's money. The result? Wal-Mart walked away with 76% of the vote. Keep in mind that only 40% of the voters in Winslow went to the polls, which demonstrates once again that the real victor was Apathy, and that the winner in these campaigns is the group that can best identify their vote, and then turn them out. In Benson, Wal-Mart scored an even higher vote, 88% of the voters approved of Proposition 301, which rezoned a 10 acre site for a Wal-Mart supercenter. Benson is a very small town: the voter tally was 1,085 votes for Wal-Mart, and 147 votes against. There are only 2,432 registered voters in town, and 1,192 of them turned out, or less than half. Even though most voters stayed home in Benson, the turnout was described as a "new record" higher than the recent Mayoral election. Benson Mayor George Scott said he was happy with the outcome. "I'd like to thank the citizens for showing up and voting," he told the San Pedro News-Sun. "I would also like to thank the citizens for upholding the decision the City Council made in March. Now we will move forward and do what we can as a council to move this project forward." The Wal-Mart store will be a 99,700 s.f. store -- one of the smaller Wal-Mart prototypes. The town still has to negotiate a development agreement with the corporation.

What you can do: What can we learn from these two votes? First, Arizona, home of campaign finance reform candidate U.S. Senator John McCain, allows corporations to spend as much money as they want on local referendums. In each of these votes, citizens were overwhelmed with media messages, lawn signs, direct mail, telemarketing calls, etc. Money definitely can help buy elections. Second, in both cases the local establishment had also been "sold" on the plans, and had rezoned land to make it happen. So opponents were not only fighting Wal-Mart money, but city hall politics. This means that, in effect, there is no zoning in Benson or Winslow. It's all on the market. If you want land changed, you can buy it, as a last resort, on the ballot. If Wal-Mart had lost their rezoning bid in either town, the company could have put itself on the ballot, as it has done in a number of communities, and tried to spend its way into a project. Clearly campaign finance reform is needed at the local level. Corporations should not be allowed an unlimited checking account in land use cases. Corporations should be restricted to a spending cap, while real "citizens" should not be limited in what they can spend. All spending should be made public before the election. That said, community groups can, and do, win these kinds of ballots. But before going on the ballot, a group has to assess its capacity to raise money and identify voters. For similar stories, search this database by "vote" or "election."










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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