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Tuesday, June 5, 2007 | The San Diego City Council finalized its ban on giant Wal-Mart Supercenters and big-box grocers Monday, setting in motion a series of new obstacles that will likely lead to the voters determining the fate of the controversial law next year.
Wal-Mart has tried to introduce the supercenter model, where such things as Fuji apples are sold just aisles away from Fuji film, to urban areas in Southern California in recent years. But the retail-and-grocery hybrids have been met by resistance from several local governments, most recently, the city of San Diego’s.
The ban’s supporters argue that superstores pull commercial activity away from traditional grocers that often serve as the anchor for neighborhood shopping centers, where small businesses are usually established, and in the process clog roads with heavy traffic.
“You are now able to have some ability to determine how big is too big for the current communities,” Councilwoman Donna Frye said. “This is about sensible land use.”
But with Monday’s vote comes a host of political hurdles for the ordinance must overcome before it becomes cemented into city law. The ordinance would bar stores that are 90,000 square feet in size or larger from using more than 10 percent of their space for grocery sales.
Ultimately, the fight over the law appears headed to the ballot box in 2008, along with the races for mayor, city attorney and several City Council seats. Wal-Mart, which has argued that the law is punishment to the company for not using union labor, has threatened to flex its financial muscle and ask voters to overturn a ban that has already met rampant scrutiny and criticism.
“I truly believe this detachment won’t be tolerated by the public,” said Herman Collins, a Wal-Mart lobbyist.
Wal-Mart spokesman Aaron Rios said the company will evaluate whether to stage a referendum against the ban within the next two months. The Arkansas-based retail giant has taken its cause to the polls before in cities trying to outlaw the food-and-retail emporiums. In February, Wal-Mart will ask voters in the city of Long Beach to reverse their government’s decision to ban superstores at the same time they cast votes in the presidential primary.
A referendum in San Diego, if it were called, would likely be held during the June primary and not February. A vote would have to be taken in the next regularly scheduled city election if it fell within a year of the ordinance’s passage, according to city law.
The ban, which the council passed Monday by the same 5-3 margin that was recorded in November when it was initially approved, is now subject to Mayor Jerry Sanders’ veto. Sanders pledged to veto the ban, but his efforts could be easily scuttled because the same five votes needed to approve the law are needed to override him.
“It will be a real test. My veto is only symbolic,” Sanders said.
Others said they thought some council members might feel more pressured to change their vote if it means bucking a popular mayor. “If the mayor vetoes it, it may raise the stakes,” said Art Castaneres, a former lobbyist for a coalition of traditional grocers and their employees, which has worked on the law’s passage since 2003. “That may change the dynamics a little bit.”
The council vote fell along party lines. Council President Scott Peters and Council members Toni Atkins, Tony Young, Donna Frye and Ben Hueso — all Democrats — voted for the legislation. Republican Councilmen Kevin Faulconer, Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer voted against it.
If the law survives Sanders’ veto, it could become a wildcard in the 2008 political races.
In one indication that the superstore ban could play into other city races, two candidates for next year’s District 3 council races, Todd Gloria and John Hartley, were on hand Monday to support the ban. They’re likely to adopt the same arguments made by that left-leaning, uptown district’s current council delegate, Atkins. She says superstores will drain business from the various small-business districts that dot her neighborhoods and others throughout the city.
The ban’s foes, who mainly hail from the business community and Republican Party, point to the outpouring of resistance that Wal-Mart stirred up in the lead-up to Monday’s vote. The company took out full-page, color ads in the local newspaper encouraging readers to call or e-mail council members about the ban. A spokeswoman for Peters reported that the Council President’s Office was contacted by 742 people about the superstore ordinance, and that 620 — or nearly 84 percent — supported Wal-Mart.
Opponents also point to a recent poll by the San Diego Institute for Policy Research, a think tank founded last year by conservative businessman and former mayoral candidate Steve Francis, which concluded that San Diegans opposed the ban. In the poll, which was conducted in January, 56 percent of the respondents opposed the ban and 37 percent supported it.
Central to the store’s backers is the argument that the law was prompted by organized labor as a way to curb the power of an employer that has resisted unionization in order to maintain its low prices.
They believe that a referendum against the superstore ban will become a campaign issue that will flush out the alliances between some candidates and organized labor. Unions have become an influential force because of the amount of money groups like the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and City Firefighters Local 145 can spend on an election, but labor’s sway is despised in some circles that have blamed the city’s employee-pension woes on the clout unions held over the city officials they endorsed.
“This will certainly define the candidates in those respective races,” said T.J. Zane, executive director for the Lincoln Club of San Diego County, a pro-business political group that opposes the ban. “Where they fall on this issue will certainly help define them.”
But proponents of the ban believe the council races will force candidates to appeal to the desires of their neighborhoods over the free-market philosophy they might espouse about the issue. Residents may like the idea of allowing the superstores to operate, but not near their own homes, said Lorena Gonzalez, the labor council’s political director.
“Every single candidate that says I’m for a Wal-Mart Supercenter in our neighborhood will not … win,” Gonzalez said. “It’s no longer an ideological choice.”
Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.