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2000-02-04
Lake Geneva, WI. Home Depot Campaign Bucks

General organizing principle: Big Companies Spend Big to Win. The case of Lake Geneva, WI is just one in a string of high roller campaigns conducted by the Big Logo companies, as in Eureka, CA, Payson, AZ, Toledo, OH, etc. If you look in the Newsflash index for 11/27 and 9/18/99, you will find entries about Home Depot's shenanegans in the tiny Wisconsin town of Lake Geneva. Home Despot won a narrow victory last September in an "advisory referendum" that had no legal weight to begin with. But Home Depot finally submitted its required campaign finance spending report in the Lake Geneva vote, and the numbers are no surprise to anyone -- except to some locals who claim they didn't have a clue about what was going on -- like the pro Home Depot Mayor. In the September vote, only 1,412 people cast ballots. The question was whether or not Dome Heapo should be allowed to build in Lake Geneva. Agent Orange won 754 votes, the opponents took 658 votes. In other words, Home Depot got a squeaker 53% of the vote. But campaign expenditure records just published in the Gazette newspaper reveals that to win those 754 yes votes, Home Depot spent a record-setting $66,152.19. That's an astounding $87.74 per vote in Lake Geneva. If Presidential candidates had to spend that much for every American vote, our national candidates would have to fork out $24 billion. Meanwhile, the Home Depot opponents, who called themselves the Citizens for a Livable Lake Geneva, managed to scrape together $25. Local residents there told me that they did not take the campaign finance thing seriously, even though they were warned by me that Home Depot would spend big. So the citizens group was outspent by a ratio of 2,646 to 1, yet Home Depot would have lost if only 49 votes had switched. The "local" committee that got all this money was called the Lake Geneva Good Neighbor committee, which is appropriate, because if the commmittee did not have one "good neighbor" located in Atlanta, Georgia, they would have had no money at all to work with. It turns out that the Lake Geneva Good Neighbor had only one donor. That donor was Home Depot, which sent the Good Neighbor committee two checks: one for $17,150, on December 22nd, and one for $49,002 on December 23 -- contributions that were made long after the campaign was over, so no one would know this was happening during the campaign itself. This is all the money the Good Neighbor folks raised, and it was only reported 3 months after the election was a distant memory. The first check, by the way, was just a transfer payment that went to a polling firm called Kitchen's Group in Maintland, FL. The second check was passed through to a Madison, WI company called Capitol Consultants, which performed political consulting and organizing. So all of the money Home Depot spent was given to two political consulting firms from out of town, who used the money to mail, telephone and hammer votes for a Georgia company. But what about the local people? What did they understand of all this political maneuvering? Mayor Spryo Condos, who lavished his support on Home Depot, told the GAzettte "I think that's a lot of money to spend." He rationalized the huge sum this way: "I think they had to get their message out. I think they had a tough time." Home Depot's $66,152.19 was little to pay to pave the way for a 121,000 s.f. store in Lake Geneva,. which could bring them more than $40 million a year in sales. The footnote to this "corporate democracy" story is that to get this finance information released, the Walworth County District Attorney had to spend 3 months of negotiating with Home Depot to get them to pay a $25 fine for reporting late. The Good Neighbor Committee did not file its papers on time, and did not pay a $25 fee which is mandated when a committee spends more than $25 in a campaign. Home Depot may end up having to pay costs of another $300, but that could be covered in a 20 second sale at Home Depot.

What you can do: One of the City Councilors, who resigned over the Mayor's political game-playing last December, said that the vote in Lake Geneva might have turned out differently if voters had any notion of what the big company was spending to sway them. "What's tragic about it is this information is after the fact," said former Councilman Ed Yaeger. "It was sickening that they could come in here and push everyone around." If residents of Lake Geneva had read Sprawl-Busters, they would have known that such outlandish spending is pro forma for companies like Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Just keep your eyes on communities like Las Vegas, Tucson, Huntington Beach and Glendora, CA. All these places have voter referendums coming up on Big Boxes in the next several months, and all the citizens there will be "sickened" when they find out months after the fact that the big corporations have "bought" their communities. Clearly campaign finance law needs to be changed. It favors large corporate interests over small neighborhoods, and allows spending to be reported months after the fact, so people don't even know what hit them. In Lake Geneva, Home Depot turned out to be its own Good Neighbor.










 
 
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