This Blog Post was published on April 14, 2005.
We hear that Pa. Sen. Rick Santorum hasn't been spending much time of late in his adopted hometown of Penn Hills near Pittsburgh, the town that spent nearly $34,000 (NOTE: SEE UPDATE) to educate the senator's five kids while they were living in a luxury home in Virginia.
So Santorum probably doesn't even know that his neighbors are upset that a new Wal-Mart is coming to Penn Hills, so upset they held a meeting last night to complain about everything from traffic to the mom-and-pop stores that will likely be driven out of business.
But even the folks back in Penn Hills could get close enough to Santorum to complain, he might not hear them. Especially over the din of Wal-Mart corporate jet -- the jet that recently chauffered the Republican around the Sunshine State while Santorum alternately mugged for the cameras on Terri Schiavo's death watch and raised some $250,000 in campaign cash from deep-pocketed Florida donors. Under federal election rules, Santorum only need reimburse the retail giant at the rate of first-class air fares to Florida and not for the real cost of the lavish chartered travel.
When that story was broken earlier this week by our Daily News colleague John Baer, most of the outrage focused -- and rightfully so -- on the fact that Santorum had cancelled a public meeting on Social Security reform "out of respect" for the Schiavo family but didn't cancel his closed fundraising events.
But lost in the uproar was the close relationship between Wal-Mart, Santorum, and the political agenda of the massive $256-billion-a-year retailer whose actions drive everything from American labor relations to the U.S. relationship with China.
Attytood checked into it and quickly found out in addition to Santorum's sky perks program, the Arkansas retail chain has also become one of the senator's most generous campaign donors as well.
According to campaign records. Wal-Mart's political action committee -- which has become a major backer of the GOP in the last few years -- gave $10,000 to Santorum's campaign in late November.
Lobbyists who work for the firms hired in recent years by Wal-Mart to represent its sweeping political interests -- including Patton Boggs, Cassidy and Associates and Ernst & Young, have given at least $21,793 more, most of that to a Santorum controlled political action committee called America's Foundation.
What does Wal-Mart get out of the relationship? Well, it's clear there's a huge overlap between what the retail monolith wants and what Santorum actually works for in Congress...when he's not busy assailing "judicial tyranny" or a "culture of death" for the TV cameras.
* Overtime and minimum wages: It's hard to imagine an issue of greater importance to Wal-Mart -- the nation's largest low-wage employer. The overtime issues may be the most critical, because in recent years, Wal-mart has faced dozens of lawsuits over not paying its workers for overtime.
This winter, between the time that Wal-Mart PAC gave the $10,000 to Santorum's campaign and the jet trip to Florida, Santorum introduced an amendment for a sweeping overhaul of the nation's minimum wage and related overtime laws.
Santorum's amendment, which failed, would have raised the minimum wage, but only to $6.25 an hour, or about a doillar less than Democrats are seeking. More important was the overtime provision. Under Santorum's proposed rule, an employee could work 50 hours one week and 30 hours the next, but not receive overtime for that additional ten hours. Democrats noted that millions of workers might lose overtime pay.
* Tort reform: Santorum is a major supporter of new proposals to limit lawsuits, including one that would move most suits against large companies from state to federal courts. Guess what? Wal-mart and its ally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, support this as well. Maybe that's because Wal-Mart is facing the largest class-action suit in history, a gender-discrimination case involving 1.5 million female employees.
Wal-Mart, the retailer many experts consider the most-sued company in America, stands to benefit from the new class-action law, which is designed to cut down on lawsuits and big verdicts by steering some cases into federal courts, away from state courts with track records of siding with plaintiffs and awarding multimillion-dollar verdicts, according to policy experts.
* Estate taxes and charitable giving: Most of Santorum's constituents are unaware that their senator is a main sponsor and advocate for the Charitable Giving, or CARE, Act. One of the proposal's obscure provisions would allow a foundation to receive a gift from an "interested" corporation in excess of $1 billion, if the foundation agrees to divest itself of the gift within 10 years and adopt a 12 percent all-grants payout rate while holding the stock.
Who cares about that? Well, read this:
NCRP opposes this provision, on the grounds that it breaks down the "Chinese Wall" between corporations and foundations; it results in legislative particularism, regulating certain foundations and not others; and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) is pushing it, apparently at the urging of the Walton (Wal-Mart) family
Of course, as the world's wealthiest family, the Waltons also are eager to see the estate tax repealed. And so is Rick Santorum.
We don't know if anyone from Wal-Mart or their lobbyists was on the jet with Santorum on his money-raising tour of Florida -- if there had been, they sure would have had a lot to talk about. We also don't know if he was staying in his Penn Hills "house" while his neighbors were trying to keep Wal-Mart out, but we doubt he'd have much useful to say to them.
Santorum may be Pennsylvania's junior senator, but when it comes to representing the interests of Wal-Mart, he's the top dog.
UPDATE: We promised an update if and when we spoke to a Santorum representative, and here it is. John Brabender, the senator's Pittsburgh-based political consultant, said the Florida trip was the only time that Santorum had flown on a Wal-Mart jet and that the campaign was reimbursing the firm at the first-class rate. He didn't know the exact figure but said it would be in the area of $3300.
Regarding the broader issues raised in this piece, he acknowledged that Santorum has been lobbied by Wal-Mart but said he believes the retailer wouldn't like ANY hike in the minimum wage and that the senator has backed "legislation that Wal-Mart would agree with and from time to time legislation that Wal-Mart would not agree with."
Regarding the cyber-schooling of Santorum's children, the senator's office said that the local cost to Penn Hills was $33,969.04, that the rest of the overall $72,686.72 bill came from state education dollars. We also revised the sentence on air fare to make it clear that candidates pay at the rate of first-class travel.