(AP Photo/Steve Helber)
The Democratic establishment, and even much of the mainstream media, have in recent years embraced Walmart, an unlikely paramour. But revelations about Walmart recently published by the New York Times, which found evidence that the retailer’s largest foreign operation, Walmex, had paid more than $24 million in bribes to Mexican politicians who could grease the wheels of its expansion in Mexico, are providing an opportunity for the company’s critics to break up this ill-fated romance.
To be sure, for the veteran Walmart watcher, the news that the company broke laws is nothing new. Allegations of companywide wage violations and sex discrimination are well-known. But here’s the difference: while past scandals have involved mainly lower-level managers, and thus been famously dismissed by Walmart’s PR flacks as the work of “a few bad apples,” the documents unearthed in the Times report show that Walmart officials at the highest levels knew about the Mexican bribery scandal and took steps to thwart—and even cover up—an internal investigation.
In its early years in rural America, Walmart proudly owned its conservatism. And at the 2003 shareholders meeting, officials made rhetorical sport of Walmart’s position on the red-state side of the culture wars, contending that those criticizing the company’s employment practices were “city people” who didn’t get Walmart, a company for “country people.”
But the company has recently changed its tune: bipartisanship, peddled by former Democratic operative Leslie Dach, Walmart’s vice president for corporate affairs who is also in charge of “reputation management” for the company, is now the order of the day. Dach, hired by Walmart six years ago, has wooed blue-state America on the retail giant’s behalf, using environmental initiatives, as well as generous bipartisan campaign contributions and strategic donations to liberal nonprofits like Demos and the Center for American Progress. The reason for all this courtship, of course, is that Walmart needs the liberal establishment in order to expand in coastal cities, where elected officials tend to be Democrats, and to secure a friendly regulatory environment no matter which party is in power. Despite a long history of right-wing engagement on the part of Walmart and the Walton family, Dach and Walmart can claim many successes in this campaign to appeal to liberals.
Michelle Obama has made the retailer her most prominent partner in her crusade against child obesity. Walmart CEO Mike Duke has been a frequent lunch guest and telephone buddy of Michelle’s husband. And many community activists and local Democrats—notably in Washington and Chicago, where the company’s expansion efforts have faced considerable grassroots resistance—have supported Walmart, often in exchange for embarrassingly small campaign contributions or favors.