Wal-Mart Gets Political: Retailer Seeks More Clout As Campaign Funds Hit $2M

Wal-Mart has increased its political contributions to $2 million this presidential election cycle from $667,805 in 2000, FEC records show.

WASHINGTON — Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, has increased its political contributions to $2.1 million so far this presidential election cycle from $667,805 for the entire 2000 race, Federal Election Commission records show.

The company’s 2003-2004 contributions make it the fifth largest donor to federal candidates, with 81 percent of its money going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. Wal-Mart’s direct contributions to political candidates — a number that does not include money given to other political action committees — came to $1.437 million.

The National Association of Realtors leads the list in PAC contributions to candidates, giving $2 million directly to presidential, House and Senate candidates so far in the 2003-2004 season. It is trailed by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which has given $1.5 million; the Association of Trial Lawyers, $1.5 million, and National Association of Home Builders, $1.445 million.

Wal-Mart’s net investment in politics is part of a strategy launched six years ago to boost the company’s influence over how legislation and regulations affecting business are shaped in the nation’s capital and in state and local governments. The $2.1 million figure is a measure of the growth of Wal-Mart’s contributions since the 1998 congressional elections, when the total was $226,294.

Now considered a business necessity by the company, Wal-Mart’s political awakening was slow in comparison with other large companies, political consultants said. Wal-Mart executives had preferred to follow the lead of founder Sam Walton, who died in 1992. Walton wrote in his autobiography that he had “tried to stay fairly neutral publicly on controversial political issues.’’

The retailer, which is being challenged in its efforts to expand in urban areas and is facing the largest gender discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history, is trying to shape government policies on issues such as employment, international trade and zoning, among others.

Making political donations is a long-standing practice, particularly for business and organized labor. Wal-Mart’s competitors, including J.C. Penney Co., Target Stores Corp., The Limited Inc., Gap Inc., Sears Roebuck & Co. and May Department Stores Co., are longtime contributors. But their involvement, like the size of their businesses, pales in comparison with Wal-Mart, which has 1.2 million U.S. and 330,000 foreign employees at 3,580 domestic and 1,490 foreign stores. The chain had $256 billion in global revenue in 2003.
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