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Wal-Mart Urges Hill to Act on VRA

Continuing an aggressive outreach effort to the Congressional Black Caucus, Wal-Mart’s top executive recently dispatched a letter to President Bush urging him to support renewal of certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

The letter to Bush from Wal-Mart President and CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. said that voting rights are relevant to the company’s 1.2 million employees — or “associates,” as Wal-Mart calls them — because Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is the largest private employer of black Americans in the United States.

“I hope that you will stand with me, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, other political and civil rights leaders and countless Americans in supporting an extension of the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act,” Scott said in the letter.

The issue does not directly benefit Wal-Mart’s bottom line but could instead win it goodwill with blacks and with a liberal caucus that has historically had strong ties to Wal-Mart foes, most notably organized labor.

And the effort, so far, appears to be paying off.

In an interview, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the former chairman of the CBC, praised Wal-Mart for taking up the voting-rights cause.

“We need all the partners that we can have,” Cummings said. In February, he and more than a dozen CBC members met with Scott. “I said to him, ‘I hope that you will use your corporate power or persuasion to convince the president and Republicans to do the right thing with regard to the issues,’ and he said he would.”

The VRA provisions up for renewal in 2007 include ones that guarantee polling assistance for non-English speakers. The 40-year-old act itself is permanent.

A White House spokesman said he was unfamiliar with the Wal-Mart letter and referred comments about voting rights to a Jan. 31, 2005, transcript in which Scott McClellan told reporters the “president is firmly committed to protecting the voting rights of all Americans.” In the same statement, McClellan added that “the president said that he would take a look at” the reauthorization.

Wal-Mart’s backing, Cummings added, will help get the attention — and perhaps ultimately the support — of the administration and Republicans in Congress.

“If we are going to be successful in addressing … a conservative administration, I think having the support of Wal-Mart does have significance,” Cummings said. “The corporate world’s tentacles run deep, especially when you’re talking about the largest employer in the country.”

CBC Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.) said in a statement: “We applaud Wal-Mart for supporting the part of the Congressional Black Caucus legislative agenda that calls for the reauthorization of the expiring parts of the Voting Rights Act.”

Wal-Mart’s letter comes several weeks after the Service Employees International Union sent letters of its own to CBC members encouraging them to cut off talks with Wal-Mart, a staunchly non-union company. Most CBC members dismissed the SEIU letter, saying they would continue to reach out to both unions and corporations.

Wal-Mart — which in recent years has taken public hits over everything from its employment policies to its impact on small businesses and local sprawl — also picked up kudos of sorts from Black Enterprise magazine, which this week ranked the company as one of its “30 Best Companies for Diversity.”

Tracy Sefl, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Watch, a group critical of the Arkansas-based retailer, said in an e-mail that her group, too, applauds Wal-Mart’s position and “believe[s] this move shows our efforts are having an impact, because they are feeling the pressure to do what is obviously the right thing.”

She added that Wal-Mart could “now achieve even more justice in the world by providing its employees affordable health care and sufficient wages.”

Wal-Mart has said repeatedly that its pay exceeds the federal minimum wage and that its benefits are competitive.

Cummings said that although it’s easy to question Wal-Mart’s motives, “here we need to see the good. A corporation has stepped forward when they didn’t have to.”

Cummings added, though, that he’d like to see Wal-Mart and other corporations throw their weight behind other key issues the CBC is pushing for this Congress, such as funding for the No Child Left Behind Act and securing health care parity for minorities and coverage for the uninsured.

Kimberly Woodard, director of federal government relations for Wal-Mart, said her company did not send the letter to the White House for show or public relations purposes.

“It’s a part of the Congressional Black Caucus’ legislative priorities for the 109th [Congress], which they asked us to take a look at and support,” she said. “Those protections are in place for a reason. It makes sure that folks aren’t blocked from being able to vote or register to vote based on arbitrary factors,” such as race.

Woodard said her company is still examining other parts of the CBC’s agenda to see what else it may endorse.

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