Anti-Wal-Mart activism is pushing some Democrats to speak out against the company’s exploitative practices. While Leslie Dach and many other Democratic operatives are collecting fat paychecks defending the retailer — and Al Gore has been visiting Bentonville to offer environmental wisdom — an increasing number of Democratic politicians are reaping political capital by attacking Wal-Mart. This will become more and more apparent as Wake Up Wal-Mart ‘s “Change Wal-Mart, Change America” (19-state and 35-city) bus tour— which launched today in still Wal-Mart-free New York City— winds its way through the nation. Former vice presidential hopeful John Edwards will be participating, as will Howard Dean’s brother Jim — chair of Democracy for America — and numerous other party folk. In a moment of drama that everyone in Connecticut should check out, Bush paramour Joe Lieberman and his primary challenger for the Senate, insurgent preppy war opponent Ned Lamont, will appear together tomorrow at noon at an anti-Wal-Mart rally in Bridgeport (the bus tour’s second stop). Ah, Wal-Mart, the great uniter!

(I asked Wake Up Wal-Mart spokesman Paul Blank if his group had approached former Wal-Mart board member Senator Hillary about participating in the New York leg of the tour. He said she had a “schedule conflict.”)

In other Wal-Mart news, Chicago last week passed a law requiring big-box stores to pay a living wage — at least $10 an hour, with benefits of at least $3. Other cities are looking closely at Chicago’s bill and thinking about following the Windy City’s example; perhaps people fighting at the local level can make the retail sector a decent source of employment for working people.

Check out, too, the intriguing cover storyin Fortune magazine, which details some of the genuinely good things Wal-Mart is doing for the environment, none of which would be happening without the grass-roots Wal-Mart reform movement, which has forced Wal-Mart to get serious about its image, and even take a few real steps toward better corporate citizenship. It’s, of course, great that Lee Scott is finding his inner Ben Cohen, but the company should not be allowed to greenwash its way out of criticism over its abuse of workers — nor over the ecological unsustainability of its whole business model, which has so far, been based on selling cheap, disposable crap and building on cheap land far from town centers. Still, because of Wal-Mart’s scale, even its small gestures can have a huge impact, and are worth watching closely. Just to get a flavor of the conversations the Fortune article has sparked, read David Roberts on the Grist blog for some ecstatic praise and conversion, and, on, an indignant response to Roberts.