Wal-Mart's opponents have council member Veletta Lill in their camp, which is way better than having a zillion yard signs paid for by Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart's opponents have council member Veletta Lill in their camp, which is way better than having a zillion yard signs paid for by Wal-Mart.
Peter Calvin

Hayseed Politics

In June the Dallas plan commission totally slam-bammed Wal-Mart's zoning request for an in-town superstore. Next month Wal-Mart is going before the Dallas City Council to get the plan commission's unanimous no-vote overturned, but things look no better for them.

So how smart is Wal-Mart?

I have a clue. When Wal-Mart first came to town looking for zoning for a 220,000-square-foot in-town superstore cheek-by-jowl with some of the city's most politicized and organized neighborhoods, it hired local consultants to handle the deal. They hired the same general team that had just gotten their candidate slammed, bammed and thank-you-ma'amed in a recent mayoral election.

It would have been dumber, but not by much, for them to have gone to Kabul and signed a big community affairs contract with the Taliban.

All but one of the 15 members of the plan commission vituperated against Wal-Mart before voting no, including one who took Wal-Mart's big thick binder full of P.R. stuff and threw it on the floor.

That's not no. That's hell no, and it's just shy of saying something real bad about Wal-Mart's mom. The brutality of Wal-Mart's defeat worried even the opponents, because you don't want to defeat somebody in such a bitter fashion that he devotes the rest of his life to vengeance.

Plus, what's wrong with Wal-Mart? I love Wal-Mart. I get dressed up to go to Wal-Mart. I go to Wal-Mart to visit people.

I know all this stuff about how they gobble up the local economies in small towns. Listen, some of the same small towns I know and love in East Texas ran off all their local Jewish merchants in the '20s and '30s because of the Klan. After that, the people were hostage to one or two local families who owned everything. They had to drive to Dallas to buy underwear. The price of a pair of boxer shorts was the store-owner's daughter's tuition at UVA divided by the male population of the town. Wal-Mart can just as easily be viewed as a liberating army.

Wal-Mart's certainly not dumb about retail. It's a safe bet Wal-Mart chose its Lemmon/Mockingbird site to tap into some of the high-dollar market near that location. And more power to them. Rich people need underwear, too. I think.

Where Wal-Mart seems to have some real learning differences, however, is in urban politics. The area right around Lemmon and Mockingbird is at the edge of an alliance of neighborhoods that came together over airport noise a quarter-century ago. Two years ago that alliance forged an extraordinary pact with the aviation and real estate interests, a veritable Pax Urbana called the Love Field Master Plan that guarantees orderly growth at the airport while instituting agreed-upon noise standards.

One way you know the Love Field coalition is serious is by its diversity. It's easy for people to get together with their own kind. But the Love Field coalition is rich, poor, middle-class, black, white and Hispanic.

When Wal-Mart came to town, it already had a relationship with Bill Blackburn, a lawyer and a former city council member from way back a long time ago, before single-member districts, before Mayor Ron Kirk, long before Mayor Laura Miller. Blackburn brought in public relations guru Lisa LeMaster, a local lady who has built a major national practice coaching CEOs on how to handle the media in a crisis. She teaches them things like not to publicly bad-mouth the police department when the police arrest their sons at out-of-control booze parties and other lessons like that which seem to be real hard to learn. ("OK, we're going to have to role-play this again, and please stop trying to punch the actors.")

I like and respect both of these folks. But let me observe something. This is the typical kind of pre-single-member old-days political cadre that brought us the Tom Dunning for mayor campaign effort. And I like Dunning. He was just handled by people with a terminal case of yesterday's news.

One way you know you're dealing with duffers is when they try to be ruthless and it just comes out doofus. For example, in the weeks since the plan commission defeat, the Wal-Mart team has attempted to ally itself with an African-American neighborhood near the site, not a bad ploy in and of itself. It's true that a lot of the shopping in that part of the city is snooty-dooty boutique retail that ordinary people can't afford.

In their effort to build a beachhead in the black neighborhood, the Walites have bonded themselves at the hip to a nonprofit entity called the North Park Community Development Corporation (NPCDC). Run by clergy and other neighborhood activists, NPCDC devotes itself to rehabbing houses in the area.

NPCDC was actually set up several years ago by some of the people who are now opposing Wal-Mart. They found $450,000 in cash and land for NPCDC because they wanted its help generating "community support" in another zoning battle.

So lesson No. 1 for Wal-Mart: Your opponents see right through the little business you're trying to do with the community development corporation, because they originally set up the business. (Please, every little chance you get, try to get up to speed.)

As evidence of the widespread "community support" for Wal-Mart, the Walites point to a spontaneous flowering of pro-Wal-Mart yard signs in the nearby black neighborhood. I drove the neighborhood. I counted maybe 100 signs.

On the gated and locked parking lot behind the very ample headquarters of NPCDC (also unpopulated and locked), I saw 17 shrink-wrapped palettes of identical yard signs, virtually an 18-wheeler load, thousands of signs, untouched and forlorn in a drizzling rain the day I visited. At a public meeting that night, a member of Lisa LeMaster's staff declined to tell me who had paid for the yard signs. On the way out of the meeting, an NPCDC board member laughed and told me, "We had a benefactor."

Lesson No. 2 for Wal-Mart: Don't pay anybody for putting up the yard signs until LeMaster can report to you that the signs definitely have been put up. Maybe ask her for snapshots.

The officers of NPCDC have somehow gotten the impression that when and if Wal-Mart gets its zoning, they might be in for some Wal-Mart benevolence. And let me be very careful about what has been said to me here.

I spoke with the Reverend Tommy McGee, who is a principal both in NPCDC and in the offshoot group set up to work politically on Wal-Mart's behalf. McGee came across as a smart, decent, concerned member of his community who is, indeed, looking for dollars for his community.

First I asked McGee if Wal-Mart or anybody else had promised his group major money if the zoning comes through. Here is what he told me:

"No, definitely not, and as a matter of fact, we had a couple of people who work for Wal-Mart come out and share with our steering committee, and one thing they specifically told us was that they could not do that. They checked with their legal department. They could not make promises in writing. All they could do was show us what they have done with other neighborhoods they have been involved with."

Then I asked him if he anticipated that his group might be the type of organization Wal-Mart would be interested in supporting financially based on what it had said about its corporate track record of giving in the past.

McGee said: "We would certainly hope so, because Wal-Mart does have a track record of supporting nonprofit groups. We don't have any guarantee, but I think we would be kind of on the short part if they offered something and we didn't take it. But they haven't promised us to do anything."

Daphne Moore of Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, told me NPCDC could not have gotten the impression Wal-Mart would give them the kind of money they received in the earlier zoning battle, because Wal-Mart never does. "No organization comes to mind that has received a contribution of that magnitude," Moore said.

I asked if anyone associated with NPCDC might have been paid or might anticipate being paid at a more modest level for services performed, including putting up yard signs. She said: "I would have to double-check, but I would consider that it was principally voluntary, with the exception of some individuals who were already on our payroll as team members. If we got into a manpower situation, can we pay people to make deliveries? That's something we certainly would consider."

Oh, and she told me Wal-Mart paid for the signs.

OK, allow me to translate all this: Everything here is legal. But it's transparent. It's called creating the illusion of grassroots activity where there is none.

The anti's, meanwhile, have huge advantages going for them. They have true grassroots neighborhood coalition support and very sophisticated leadership. Their consultant is former council member Lori Palmer. They have the solid support of the council person for that district, Veletta Lill, who is a seasoned veteran at this type of battle. You put all that up against an 18-wheeler load of yard signs from Arkansas, and you get your P.R. binder tossed on the floor.

Lisa LeMaster told me that NPCDC had contacted her--she didn't look them up. And she said all the yard signs had been put up by volunteers. Maybe that explains why 17 of the 24 palettes of signs are still in the shrink-wrap.

In the next few weeks, take it from me, Wal-Mart is going to announce a huge gift to some minority-based charity in Dallas in order to get minority support on the council. We have to hope everybody will be insulted.

And you know what? If they offered me the money, I'd take it. I'd put it in my pocket. And then I would tell them I was deeply insulted and never, ever to bother me again. Lesson No. 3.


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