In its early days, Wal-Mart was notoriously indifferent to politics. The Bentonville, Ark., company rarely made political contributions and had almost no lobbying presence in Washington. As recently as 1998, the company gave out just $135,750 in political contributions.
But as the corporation has morphed into the largest retailer in the world, its reputation has increasingly come under attack for labor abuses and cutthroat competitive practices. This week’s adverse ruling against the company in Dakota County District Court — with Judge Robert King, Jr., finding that Wal-Mart violated labor laws more than two million times and could be on the hook for up to $2 billion in damages — is another blow to the retailer’s image.
With the company’s reputation battered, it’s not surprising that Wal-Mart has learned to play the political influence-peddling game. In 2007 it spent $4 million on Washington lobbying efforts — an increase of 60 percent over the previous year. During the last election cycle the corporation’s political action committee handed out $1.3 million in political contributions.
Minnesota’s Congressional delegation has benefited handsomely from Wal-Mart’s newfound political largesse. Since 2002 the company has provided $127,500 in contributions to the state’s legislators, according to a database maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics. The biggest recipient of Wal-Mart funds among Minnesota’s current delegation? Rep. John Kline. The Second District Republican received $21,500 from the corporate PAC in the last four election cycles. Right behind him is Sen. Norm Coleman, with contributions of $21,000.
Retiring Rep. Jim Ramstad has also been the recipient of significant corporate funds from Wal-Mart. The Republican has taken in $17,000 from the retailing behemoth since 2002. Former Reps. Mark Kennedy and Gil Gutknecht, both of whom left office in 2006, were also regular beneficiaries of Wal-Mart’s largesse. The former took in $37,500, while the latter received $10,500.
As evidenced by these numbers, traditionally Wal-Mart’s political contributions have been heavily skewed towards Republicans. In the 2002 election cycle, for instance, the company gave $841,500 to GOP candidates, while writing checks totaling just $239,500 to Democrats.
But as the company’s political giving has grown more expansive, and with Democrats taking control of Congress, PAC contributions have grown much more bipartisan. In the current election cycle, for instance, Democrats have so far received $397,700 from Wal-Mart, while Republicans have pulled in $446,500.
This newfound love for Democrats has primarily benefited one member of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation: Collin Peterson. The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee has received $11,500 from Wal-Mart since 2006, after not getting any money from the company in the prior two election cycles. The only other contribution to a Democrat from Wal-Mart: $1,000 to Rep. James Oberstar.