Preparing for a showdown with organized labor in the Maryland legislature, Wal-Mart has deployed at least a dozen Annapolis lobbyists and is making strong overtures to black lawmakers, including a $10,000 donation to help them pay for a recent conference.
The retail giant hopes to derail legislation that would effectively force the company to boost spending on employee health benefits.
"They've hired the largest cadre of lobbyists in recent history in Annapolis to try to influence this legislation," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). "It really comes down to whether the legislature is going to succumb to the money and the special interests."
For Wal-Mart, the battle in Maryland represents an opportunity not only to stamp out legislation the retailer considers "really just an attack on the company" but also to curb a trend toward state involvement in its business. After years of fighting -- and often winning -- at the local level, Wal-Mart now faces battles in several state legislatures following Maryland's lead.
Wal-Mart spokesman Nate Hurst said that the donation to the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland was part of the company's continuing community outreach and that the lobbying effort was designed to inform lawmakers about the bill.
"There are several legislators out there who have requested that we continue to educate them," Hurst said.
The General Assembly passed the landmark bill in April, but it was vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who called the measure an unwarranted intrusion by government. Lawmakers will seek to override his veto in January.
Wal-Mart is the only known business that would be affected by the bill, which would require companies with more than 10,000 workers to spend at least 8 percent of their payrolls on health benefits or contribute to the state's health insurance program for the poor.
The clash has coincided with a national public relations push by Wal-Mart, which has tapped former presidential advisers to counter its reputation as a low-wage employer with benefits so stingy that some workers rely on public assistance. The company recently announced an expansion of health insurance options for employees, more than 15,000 of whom work in Maryland.
The stakes in coming weeks are particularly high because support for the bill in April was very close in both chambers to the three-fifths majority needed to override the governor's veto. The Senate was one vote above that threshold, and the House was one short of it. Several delegates who back the bill missed the vote.
State Ethics Commission records showed Wal-Mart retaining 12 lobbyists as of last month, nine of whom registered in October. Among the new recruits were Joseph A. Schwartz III and J. William Pitcher, both among the 10 highest-paid lobbyists in Annapolis last year, receiving more than $500,000 each from clients.
Other lobbyists registered to represent the company included Pamela Metz Kasemeyer, the wife of a state senator who voted for the bill; a father-and-son team, George N. Manis and Nicholas G. Manis, well known at the State House; and Frank D. Boston III, an African American who represented Wal-Mart during the past session.
The legislation is strongly backed by union officials and health care advocates, who are gearing up lobbying operations that they say will rely more on grass-roots activists than hired guns.
The Service Employees International Union chapter serving Maryland and the District gave $7,500 to support the same late October black caucus event that Wal-Mart sponsored, chapter Executive Director Jamie Kendrick said. Kendrick said the union, whose membership is 54 percent black, routinely contributes to the caucus.
As part of Wal-Mart's outreach, company representatives plan to appear tomorrow at a retreat of the 42-member black caucus. Among those likely to speak, a company representative said, is Fenimore Fisher, Wal-Mart's national director of diversity relations, who is black.
Hurst said the meeting is an opportunity for lawmakers to ask any questions they want about the company, which he said is the largest private-sector employer of blacks in the country. But leaders of the caucus said they expect the focus to be the legislation that became known as "the Wal-Mart bill" last session.
Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George's) said it will be hard to get caucus members, who voted overwhelmingly for the bill in April, to switch their votes. "More than likely, it will not happen," she said. "We are adamant that anybody who comes into Maryland ensure that people who work for them get adequate health care."
That has not deterred the company from making friendly gestures. Wal-Mart promised a $10,000 donation to help underwrite the legislative conference late last month, according to company officials and Del. Rudolph C. Cane (D-Wicomico), the caucus chairman, who was involved in discussions with a Wal-Mart representative.
"I explained to the gentleman he's not buying votes," Cane said. "I made it perfectly clear."
Several other corporations and Annapolis lobbying firms were financial sponsors of the event. Still, Wal-Mart's donation and tomorrow's meeting have made some lawmakers uncomfortable.
"I don't think the caucus needs to create the perception that we're patronizing any one company affected by a bill that we've already cast votes on," said Del. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George's).
Wal-Mart representatives said they are not targeting the caucus any more than other legislators who will give them an audience. But company critics said the tactic is part of a national pattern, citing recent efforts by Wal-Mart to court members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington.
"Wal-Mart's become increasingly aggressive at trying to peddle their influence, and I don't think their money in Maryland is going to buy them the love they want," said Tracy Sefl, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Watch, a national group that monitors the company.
Advocates of the bill said they feel buoyed by a recently leaked internal Wal-Mart document in which a company executive said that "our critics are correct in some of their observations. Specifically, our coverage is expensive for low-income families, and Wal-Mart has a significant percentage of associates and their children on public assistance."
The retailer, which held a fundraiser for Ehrlich last year, has said its expansion of health care options for employees includes a more affordable "value plan" in some markets. It is not clear whether that option and other changes would affect Wal-Mart's status under the Maryland legislation.
The vote in the spring fell largely along party lines, although some Democrats opposed the measure because they saw it as anti-business. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said he does not expect additional defections.
"Any member would be very hard-pressed to change their vote based on a fat-cat lobbyist asking them to side with a big corporation," he said.