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When the San Diego City Council passed an ordinance in December making it harder for ultra-large supercenters like Walmart to move into the city, the company bankrolled an aggressive campaign to get it overturned. It wasn’t its first.

On Tuesday, that effort bore fruit: The City Council now stands poised to repeal the ordinance next week after the company collected enough signatures to force a special election.

Mark it as another success for Walmart in using the ballot box — or the threat of it — to stamp out attempts across the state to regulate or restrict its stores.

Between 2002 and 2008, five initiatives or referendums came before voters proposing to either restrict big box stores like Walmart or overturn ordinances that did.

Walmart has won four. In two, Calexico (2002) and Contra Costa (2004), the company collected enough signatures to force an election allowing voters to decide whether to overturn ordinances the local government had passed. Voters overturned them in both cases.

In the other two, in Lodi (2004) and Atascadero (2008), Walmart opponents put initiatives on the ballot that would have restricted the stores. But the company defeated both of those, too.

An Inglewood ballot measure (2004) marked Walmart’s sole loss during that time. The company failed to get voters to say yes to a development that would have included a Walmart.

Brian Adams, a San Diego State political science professor studying California ballot initiatives of the last decade, noted that in each of the five cases voters rejected the initiative before them. He said it has generally been easier to get voters to reject ballot initiatives than to approve them, a trend that could benefit Walmart if the San Diego City Council allowed voters to decide the issue rather than just repeal the ordinance.

San Diego’s ordinance imposes restrictions on supercenters larger than 90,000 square feet that also sell groceries. If the City Council did call a special election, voters would be asked whether they support the law, not whether they want to overturn it. Walmart would ask voters to vote no, while ordinance supporters such as organized labor would ask voters to say yes.

“When Walmart has been on the defensive of trying to get people to vote no on something they’ve been much more successful,” Adams said. “Where they were trying to get voters to vote yes, it’s much harder to do that. That would bode fairly well for Walmart in San Diego.”

It now appears it may not get to that point. On Tuesday, Council President Tony Young, who supported the tougher restrictions, said he’d vote to repeal the ordinance because the city can’t afford to pay upwards of $3 million for a special election.

Young’s vote would give Walmart and its supporters the votes they need to send the ordinance packing. The council plans to vote next Tuesday.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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