The Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune, are stepping up their involvement in California politics. The son-in-law to Walmart Board Chair Rob Walton, Greg Penner has launched a new California-based organization set on influencing state elections. Penner also sits on the Walmart Board of Directors and has been discussed for possible leadership roles in the company.
Penner’s organization, Govern for California, touts itself as non-partisan, citing the alleged diversity of its three co-founders. The other co-founders are David Crane, a registered Democrat who was a special advisor to former Governor Arnold Schwarzeneger and has been known to rail against public employee pensions, and Ronald Coway, a billionaire Republican with a history as a Silicon Valley deal-maker and investor.
Penner is touted as the group’s independent, since he declined to state a political party while registering to vote. But, Penner’s political history reveals much about his political leanings. From 1990 to 2010, Penner spent more than $600,000 in political races in California and beyond. Fully 90% of Penner’s contributions at the federal level went to Republican candidates or party committees. At the state level, Penner has put most of his money toward conservative ballot initiatives (more below). Aside from those contributions, 78% of his state-level contributions have been to Republican candidates or the Republican Party.
In 2006, Penner contributed $250,000 to the campaign to oppose an initiative that would have established a universal preschool system for four-year-olds in the state by placing an additional income tax on individuals making more than $400,000 a year and couples making more than $800,000 a year. universal pre-school in California.
This wasn’t the first time the Waltons had weighed in heavily on California politics. In 2005, the California legislature approved a bill, often referred to as “The Walmart Bill,” that would have required the state to publicly disclose the names of companies with twenty-five or more workers and whose employees receive state health benefits through the Medi-Cal, Healthy Families, and Access for Infants and Mothers Programs. And, as reported by the Los Angeles Times: “On Oct. 7, the day the governor vetoed [the Walmart bill], Christy Walton, widow of Walmart heir John Walton, was recorded as giving $250,000 to Schwarzenegger’s California Recovery Team campaign account.”
Just eleven days later, Penner’s father-in-law Rob Walton, who is also current Walmart chairman andson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, donated $250,000 to “Yes on 77,” a proposition that would have given authority to redraw congressional and legislative districts to three retired judges, shifting that power from the Democrat-controlled General Assembly and strengthening the Republican governor’s hand. The measure was defeated.
Penner’s Govern for California organization aims to raise money to help elect“courageous candidates who will tell the truth and govern for California.” But, despite any“independent”rhetoric, history suggests that the Waltons support candidates who help advance the family’s predominately right-wing agenda – particularly on education. For example, in 2010, the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) gave more than $157 million to organizations that work to support for vouchers and charter schools. In addition, the WFF has funded conservative groups like the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the anti-union National Right to Work Foundation.
In fact, Govern for California’s first endorsed candidate, Brian Johnson, has extensive ties to charter-schools and the education privatization movement. Mr. Johnson is a Democrat running in the state’s 46th Assembly District, a relatively progressive district that includes much of Hollywood, Downtown Los Angeles and Southeast Los Angeles. What will Johnson’s ties to the Waltons mean in a state that has voted to defeat proposals for school vouchers and in a progressive district where voters have often supported greater funding for public education?
While the Koch brothers have gained national notoriety by funding the various arms of the right-wing, the Waltons also appear to be escalating their involvement in the electoral arena, in California and beyond. In the last two decades, the Waltons have spent more than $$4.6 million on federal elections alone.
When the nation’s wealthiest family, with a combined wealth greater than the bottom 35 million families combined, gets involved in politics, those who care about democracy and transparency should take note. We should ask whether the company that has destroyed 3 retail jobs for every 2 they created, and cost nearly 200,000 US jobs a result of their practice of sourcing goods from China is the model we want for our state, our nation and our economy.
 Data from OpenSecrets.org and FollowtheMoney.org