Sylvia Matthews Burwell, President Barack Obama’s expected choice to replace Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services, could encounter some resistance on the left based on her affiliation with one of labor’s favorite targets, Walmart.
Burwell served as the president of the Walmart Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the corporation, from mid-2011 to early 2013 before returning to Washington to serve as Obama’s director of the White House Office of Management and Budget in 2013.
The Nation, a liberal publication, reported ahead of her Senate confirmation that Walmart’s charitable giving was based on advancing the corporate goals of establishing stores in certain areas, namely in New York, where the Walmart Foundation gave to preferred causes of local politicians and politically connected people to get their stores approved.
Though she sailed through her Senate confirmation for the OMB role, Burwell, also a former Clinton White House official, could face more questions about her ties to Walmart during her next confirmation. Democrats have routinely criticized Walmart, the nation’s largest retail chain, for its low wages and opposition to unionization by employees.
The nominations for holiday giving were in part chosen by stores, according to a Walmart statement from 2012.
“The number of nominations from around the country this year was truly extraordinary—nearly four times as many nominations as last year’s campaign,” Burwell said at the time. “We were inspired by the support from thousands of people around the country who took the time to nominate organizations they felt needed assistance this holiday season. By helping us to identify those organizations doing great work, we will be able to make an impact in the local communities that need it most.”
Of Burwell’s OMB nomination, the Nation wrote in February 2013: “Her nomination would be a coup for Walmart and its foundation, which under Burwell’s watch has wielded its massive budget to expand the retail giant’s influence at all levels of government and to pave the way for store expansions.”
Specifically, the magazine reported that the Walmart Foundation donated to the New York chapter of the NAACP and to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s pet causes to sway support and stop opposition to a controversial store that the retailer wanted to build in Brooklyn. This reportedly happened before Burwell came on board.
“Our review of the foundation’s giving reveals that it has donated considerable cash to groups that have gone on the record to support Walmart during its most contentious political disputes, including the ongoing effort to open stores in New York City,” the article said. “The foundation also donates directly to municipalities, funds groups tied to powerful elected officials and instructs grantees to publicize Walmart’s generosity.”
“Walmart itself was listed as the largest sponsor of the NAACP New York State Conference convention in 2011; the Walmart Foundation donated to several local chapters, although not the New York state conference,” it continued.
The story went on to say, “In the summer of 2011, Walmart spent about $150,000 to become a corporate sponsor of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s summer concert series, prompting the headline ‘Just call him Wal-Marty Markowitz’ in the conservative New York Post. The Post said the Borough President had “softened his once-staunch criticism of the store.”
The magazine further reported that it obtained a four-page memo that “makes explicit” Walmart’s goals in donations. The memo to grant recipients reportedly says, “Recognizing the Walmart Foundation For Its Good Works, we are looking to the grantees that turn to the Walmart Foundation for funding to help us spread the word.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Burwell would be in charge of continued implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.