Given the reversal of fortunes for many Republican lobbyists in the 110th Congress, Lee Culpepper might be the envy of his peers. Culpepper, who has run Wal-Mart’s Washington, D.C., office since July 2005, is heading way beyond the Beltway to take a new job at Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.
According to an internal Wal-Mart e-mail, Culpepper will become vice president of corporate affairs and will move this summer to the home office. He will still manage the company’s political action committee, which brought in more than $3 million in total receipts for the 2006 election cycle. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart executives are launching a search for Culpepper’s replacement to run the D.C. outpost.
“This is a promotion for Lee,” said his current boss, Ray Bracy, senior vice president of corporate affairs. In his new job, Culpepper will report to Leslie Dach, a Democrat who is executive vice president of corporate affairs and government relations. Bracy also reports to Dach. “When he first came here, we had five or six people. Now we have 14 and a plan for a few more.”
However, some Wal-Mart critics say that Culpepper, a Republican, is not suited to the new environment, especially as the company pushes forward on legislation to help it get into the banking business as well as measures to waive tariffs for certain imported goods and tax and health care policy matters.
“The new Congress is a minefield for Wal-Mart’s legislative agenda,” said Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Watch. “Another Republican lobbyist isn’t going to help them introduce their controversial banking application, tariff waivers and port security legislation to Democratic committee chairs.”
Bracy said that under Culpepper’s tenure, the company hired lobbyists such as John Kelly to handle tax policy and Kate Sullivan Hare to work on health care issues. Before Culpepper started, Wal-Mart, which is still seen as more closely allied with Republicans, began an outreach effort to Members who are part of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the moderate-to-conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition. Bracy said Culpepper expanded that outreach. Culpepper did not return calls for comment.
“Lee’s just done a nice job of having us interact with Washington at a new level of strategic thought,” Bracy said.
GOP lobbyist Jim Hirni, a longtime consultant to Wal-Mart, gives Culpepper high marks as well. “Lee has really come in and streamlined the office,” Hirni said. “It’s in the best shape it has been in since I’ve known the company since 1999-2000. He’s really been a star.”
Critics of the company — and there are many — have a different perspective. A year after Culpepper joined the office, he made comments to Roll Call that seemed to downplay Wal-Mart’s support for raising the federal minimum wage, something that Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott had called a priority. After Culpepper’s comments ran in Roll Call, Scott issued a statement saying the company stood by its earlier support of raising the wage.
Bracy said the minimum wage comments did not amount to anything inside the company. “From the day he got there, people have recognized what a nice job he’s done,” Bracy said. Chris Kofinis, spokesman for another critic of the company, WakeUpWalmart.com, called Culpepper’s comments a disaster for the company.
In addition to the PAC duties, Culpepper’s new job will include helping devise advertising to boost the company’s corporate reputation. He also will be involved in grass-roots efforts that involve Wal-Mart’s employees and customers, including a voter registration effort aimed at employees.
As for Culpepper’s replacement, Bracy said the company will put together a committee, but he isn’t sure whether he will tap a search firm. “Lee and Leslie and I and others have a lot of contacts in Washington,” Bracy said. “We are going to look to see if any of those suit our needs. It’s not a decision I make in a vacuum.” Until a replacement is named, Culpepper will do both jobs.
Bracy said he is not looking specifically for a Democrat or a Republican to fill the slot. “We’re looking for the best person, the ideal candidate would have experience working on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
Kofinis said the retailing giant has become a political issue and that Culpepper has not helped its stature on Capitol Hill.
“If they’re promoting him, they’re doing it in spite of the fact that Wal-Mart’s political capital has collapsed,” Kofinis said. “Under his tenure, Wal-Mart’s political position has not improved, it has gotten worse.” But, he added, that’s “more a reflection of Wal-Mart and the choices they try to defend than anybody who is in that position. At the end of the day, it does not matter who’s the head of the D.C. office. It’s not about whether they’re a Democrat or Republican. No Democrat can defend the indefensible.”