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Wal-Mart Using Fake Community Group to Manufacture Support

By Kevin Robinson in News on Jan 26, 2010 6:00PM

The controversy over Wal-Mart’s attempts to break into the Chicago retail market has flared up again recently. Opponents argue that Wal-Mart drives down wages, destroys local businesses and leads to no net increase in jobs or tax revenue for the city. Wal-Mart and its allies contend that neighborhood residents deserve to have a say in what happens in their neighborhood, and people that don’t live there should stay out of the matter. The lack of good options available to people that live on the South and West sides of Chicago has been well-documented, and it’s very plausible that there is a substantial and passionate movement in those neighborhoods to bring Wal-Mart to their communities as a solution. Wal-Mart would have us believe that such a sentiment exists, but it turns out that support for their expansion into the city is being manufactured by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, a local public relations powerhouse, and by Wal-Mart itself.

A few weeks ago, a series of posts that I wrote on the subject attracted the attention not only of our regular readership, but also people that don’t normally visit our site on a regular basis. One reader in particular, going by the login “Chatham” took issue with the subject matter of the posts, but also with the arguments that Wal-Mart opponents have made. Specifically, Chatham rebutted one of our regular commentors, Navin, when accused of being a “paid Wal-Mart/Daley PR spammer.” After a discussion with the site’s editor, Marcus Gilmer, I decided to take a look at who Chatham might be.

I checked out the URL that was associated with Chatham’s comments, and discovered it's a website promoting the opening of a Wal-Mart in Chatham, declaring that “Everyone else but Chatham and the South Side are making the decisions - It’s OUR CHOICE, NOT THEIRS.” At the bottom of the screen it announced that “Our Community. Our Choice. is proudly supported by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.” I wanted to know more about who was behind what appeared to be a community group that supported opening a Wal-Mart in the neighborhood, so I did two things. First, I emailed the address that had been commenting on the site, asking for an on the record interview about their involvement in the movement to bring Wal-Mart to Chicago. Then I looked up the IP address (information provided with each comment) and found the comments were made from an IP address associated with Serafin and Associates.

That name might sound familiar to you: they’re the Chicago-based consulting firm that Wal-Mart has retained to manage its public relations campaign in Chicago. That includes push polling done last summer in Chicago. I reached out to Thomas Serafin via email but he did not respond. A day after I emailed the address, I got a phone call from Haydee Caldero, a consultant with The Freeman Institute. She told me that she represented the firm hired to manage the website and community contact related to Wal-Mart’s expansion into Chicago, and directed me to Michael Mini, the Government Relations Director at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, whom I promptly emailed, requesting an interview. He didn't immediately respond.

Also on the same day that I emailed the email address, the Chicagoist tipline received an email from the Walmart Community Action Network, suggesting that the site might help CAN engage readers that want to help Wal-Mart set up shop in Chicago. I emailed that address requesting an on the record interview about their involvement in the Wal-Mart campaign. A day later, Tara Stewart, the Regional Director of Media Relations for Wal-Mart emailed me back, saying that CAN had forwarded my email to her. She said she was busy but could answer five questions submitted in writing. While Chicagoist has on rare occasions conducted an interview via email for Arts & Events stories, our editorial policy for news issues is that we only do interviews face-to-face or via phone, and we never submit questions in writing in advance of the interview. I explained this to Ms. Stewart and after some back and forth about who was authorized to speak on Wal-Mart’s behalf, she stopped replying to my emails. On January 22, I emailed both Mike Mini and Tara Stewart to give them one last opportunity to sit with me for an interview. Ms. Stewart refused to answer any questions that weren’t emailed; Mr. Mini did respond and agreed to an interview.

Mike Mini told me that Wal-Mart is indeed a member of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, that they have “a representative on the Government Affairs Committee,” and that “our process is kind of open. Any member that expresses an interest can come to meetings and work on issues that are important to them.” Is the Chamber working on behalf of Wal-Mart in the city? “We’re working on behalf of policies that we feel further business and commerce in the city.” Because I got to Mr. Mini through Our Community, Our Choice, I asked what his involvement in the site was. “It’s part of our advocacy effort to gain support,” and that “we set that up as a way to communicate with people. We were expecting this to come up for a vote before the council sooner, but obviously it’s been stalled.” I asked him if he was familiar with Serafin and Associates. “Yes, we have worked with them in our strategy sessions. We’ve worked with [Thomas] Serafin and his team.” When I told him that our site had gotten comments from the email address that led me to him and asked if he knew that it was being used to comment on blogs, he said “no, not that I’m aware of.” Are you surprised that an IP address from Serafin was being used that way? “No, not in particular.” Why not? “I really can’t comment without looking into it further.”

Given that Wal-Mart supporters (and the website run by the Chicagoland Chamber) claim that opponents to Wal-Mart are outsiders that don’t live in the neighborhood, I thought I should find out if Mike Mini lived in Chatham. “Uh, no.” What part of Chicago you live in? “No comment.” Do you even live in Chicago at all? “No comment.”

While Wal-Mart certainly has the right make its case to Chicago, the way they’ve gone about this - creating a fake community group that purports to represent a community's residents and interests - is sneaky and underhanded. If what they have to offer Chicago is such a great deal, why did they need to go through the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce to set up a bogus grassroots group? When I started asking questions around their tactics, they refused to talk to me, except on their own terms. Wal-Mart claims that Chatham residents should be the ones speaking up and making the decisions about what happens in their neighborhood. Over the next few weeks, we plan to look even further into this issue, including talking to residents and community leaders in Chatham and their thoughts on the issue. But it looks like Wal-Mart is working behind the scenes to make sure that the official corporate line is the only one being heard. That’s not what an organization that wants to be an active part of the community does. That’s not letting the community have a say in its own destiny - it’s using race and class to divide people for profit. And that’s not something Chicago needs right now.