What's really at stake in Portland's mayoral race? Low, low prices.
The top contenders in the 13-candidate field, Commissioner Sam Adams and businessman Sho Dozono, agree that education is important and jobs are hard to find. Stop the presses!
But the candidates have at least one actual substantive difference on a big (box) issue: Wal-Mart. Adams loves to bash the country's largest non-union employer and leader on the Fortune 500 list. Dozono welcomes the house of Walton as an indication to all business that Portland is open.
The fuss may seem silly, given that there's only one Wal-Mart within city limits. But depending on who wins, we could see another. And that means trouble for local businesses forced to compete with a company that did $379 billion in sales last year—an amount roughly equal to Sweden's annual gross domestic product.
Adams has made it clear he'd make it very hard for Wal-Mart to "storm into Portland, which is part of their master plan." He's got a sign in the window of his City Hall office that says, over a yellow frowny face, "No Wal-Mart in Ardenwald." Such is Adams' antipathy to Wal-Mart in that Southeast neighborhood, or anywhere else in Portland, that he's recused himself from votes affecting the company.
In 2006, Adams freaked out about a possible Wal-Mart on Hayden Island, and got the Council to pass a moratorium on development there. (A state appeals court overturned the moratorium last month.)
Adams says Wal-Mart is welcome where zoning rules and traffic conditions allow it—but he can't name a single place west of 82nd Avenue where that's the case.
Dozono, by contrast, says he wouldn't close the gates if Wal-Mart wanted to build another store here.
Make no mistake—Wal-Mart wants to expand in Portland, says Seattle-based Wal-Mart rep Jennifer Spall. She just won't say where.
In the past few years, Wal-Mart has dropped reported plans for new stores near Madison High School in Northeast Portland, in Ardenwald, and on Hayden Island—which faces redevelopment in coming years, with the advent of a new bridge that could give easier access to Washingtonians seeking sales-tax-free shopping.
Spall says Wal-Mart isn't getting involved in the Portland mayor's race.
At the same time, she faults Adams for "beating up Wal-Mart" to please labor unions. "Other businesses and consultants are saying, 'What message does it send to business in general?'" says Spall.
That echoes Dozono's line about the anti-Wal-Mart sign in Adams' window. "Do I want to hang a sign that says, 'We're closed for business'? That's the message you send," Dozono says.
The Azumano Travel exec says he's never spoken to any Wal-Mart reps, and doesn't own stock in the company. (Dozono adviser Len Bergstein, a lobbyist who sparred with Adams over development on Hayden Island, says Wal-Mart has "never been a client of mine—not that I wouldn't take them.")
Adams calls Dozono's message-sending argument "just ridiculous." "Do we have to support an Enron, do we have to support a WorldCom in order for us to get our bona fides as a business-friendly city? I don't think so," he adds.
But how is Wal-Mart different from IKEA (see "The Big Box-Off," WW, Aug. 2, 2006), which came to Portland on Adams' watch?
"IKEA provides benefits," says Adams. "They recycle. They work on energy reduction. They're a much different business than Wal-Mart."
Neither candidate has much firsthand experience with America's biggest retailer. Adams toured the Eastport Plaza location on Southeast 82nd Avenue, and says he once shopped at the Wal-Mart in Sunnyside, Wash. "I didn't buy anything," he says. A couple of years ago, Dozono bought a fishing license at the Wood Village Wal-Mart near Gresham. It was his first and only visit. "They were convenient," Dozono recalls.