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Wal-Mart Wages Fight for Suburbs

As efforts to open its Supercenters in urban areas have failed, the retail giant finds success in Rosemead. But some local officials face recall.

September 19, 2006|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

After more than three years of controversy, Wal-Mart celebrated the grand opening Saturday of its Supercenter in Rosemead, amid blaring mariachi trumpets and an air of triumph.

But the political fallout from the battle will culminate today when voters in the predominantly Latino and Asian suburb of 55,000 in the San Gabriel Valley decide whether to recall two council members who back the retail giant.

The specter of the vote loomed over the grand opening: Signs supporting and opposing the recall sprout from lawns leading up to the store. Shoppers walked past banners that read, "No on Recall." Some customers wore pins that read: "Retain Jay Imperial and Gary Taylor" -- councilmen who voted in support of Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is spending an estimated $300,000 fighting the recall, which has won the support of big labor and several key Democratic Party leaders.

The opening of the store over the weekend is considered something of a milestone for Wal-Mart, which encountered stiff opposition in earlier efforts to build Supercenters in Inglewood and Los Angeles.

It's the first Supercenter in the Los Angeles Basin -- about 12 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The only other Supercenters in the county are in Santa Clarita and Palmdale, both nearly 40 miles from downtown.

Labor unions and some lawmakers oppose the store, which combines a regular Wal-Mart with a discount supermarket. Critics argue the giant stores would kill surrounding businesses and depress wages, especially for unionized workers at grocery stores that would be the Supercenter's main competition.

Three years ago, Rosemead officials rejected these arguments and voted to allow the Supercenter, saying the city needed the estimated $500,000 in annual retail tax revenue the store would bring.

The town has been divided ever since. While Supercenter opponents were unsuccessful in their efforts to block the store, they hope to galvanize opposition elsewhere with the recall, which will be monitored by U.S. Justice Department observers.

A national anti-Wal-Mart campaign -- the "Change Wal-Mart, Change America" bus tour -- made a stop in the city last month for a rally that was attended by numerous Democratic elected officials.

"The recall would be a moral victory at least. It would be something," said Todd Kunioka, a Rosemead resident and Wal-Mart opponent. "It's been a sad, discouraging two years."

But Wal-Mart also sees stakes in the vote and has donated money to back the two incumbents.

"We try to support those council members who are making decisions that are in the best interest of the community," said Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin McCall. "We are the largest company in the world, the largest private employer, and that makes us a logical scapegoat for a lot of things."

At one point, Wal-Mart wanted to build 40 Supercenters across California. But so far, the vast majority are located in outlying areas that have been more welcoming than urban areas.

Inglewood voters in 2004 rejected a proposal for a Supercenter, and the Los Angeles City Council that same year established laws that make it much harder for big-box retailers to locate in the city.

So the battles are being waged in suburbs near big cities, such as Rosemead.

Just as supporters of Wal-Mart have been targeted to be ousted from office, the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer has supported candidates supportive of its plans.

In the small town of Jefferson, Wis., last year, an incumbent critical of Wal-Mart was defeated in a recall election by a challenger with a pro-Wal-Mart platform.

Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based organization largely funded by union and environmental groups, said fights in communities over the Supercenters are increasingly common -- partly because more publicity has been given to the retailer's business practices.

"These fights take place all over the country," Wexler said. "They're nasty and they're very heated. They involve council meetings that go until 3 a.m. and advertising campaigns that target Wal-Mart opponents."

Supercenters, which have made Wal-Mart the largest grocery retailer in the United States, now make up more than 2,000 of the company's 3,800 stores.

"They're the growth engine in the last decade," said Nelson Lichtenstein, professor of history at UC Santa Barbara and author of "Wal-Mart: The Face of 21st Century Capitalism." "One Supercenter can have sales of $150 million a year."

From Calexico to Contra Costa County, the retailer has successfully fought efforts to keep out the centers.

But Wal-Mart has found the going easier in relatively far-flung suburbs.

In 2004, the Rosemead City Council voted to support Wal-Mart's plans for a Supercenter in the town.

But in 2005, voters ousted two council members who voted in favor of the store.

"We never had this kind of division before," Imperial said. "I've become a bad guy for some people.... I don't let it hurt me. I know who I am and what I am, and no matter what they say, they can't change that."

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