Much separates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton as they battle for the Democratic nomination. But few issues show the contrast better than their relationship with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., America’s biggest private employer.

Clinton used to sit on its board. Sanders has used the company as a model for inequality in America -- comparing the vast wealth of the Walton Family, which owns the majority of Wal-Mart, to the low income of its employees, some of whom receive government benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. 

Hillary Clinton, shown in 1990, was the first woman to sit on the board of Wal-Mart.
Hillary Clinton, shown in 1990, was the first woman to sit on the board of Wal-Mart.
Photographer: Richard Berquist

“I say to the Walton family, and all those corporations that are paying workers subsistence wages: Get off of welfare, pay your workers a living wage,” Sanders said at a rally Feb. 21 in Greenville, South Carolina. He regularly points out that the Walton family has more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans.

Retail employees are more likely than other workers to receive government assistance, with about 31 percent getting some type of benefit in 2013, according to a report by the right-leaning American Action Forum.

Maximum Contribution

While Sanders has made Wal-Mart the enemy, Hillary Clinton has ties going back decades with the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company. 

She served on its board from 1986 to 1992 when her husband Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas. The state holds its primary on Super Tuesday next week, and Clinton enjoys a poll lead of almost 30 points. Bill Clinton described Alice Walton, the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, as a friend of some 40 years who helped support his run for governor, during a 2014 speech at a museum Walton built in Wal-Mart’s hometown.

Walton, one of the world’s three richest women, made a $2,700 contribution to Clinton’s campaign, the maximum for the primary phase. She gave $353,400 to Clinton’s joint fundraising committee, which distributes money it raises to Democratic party committees, in the current election cycle. Walton also gave Ready for Hillary, now known as Ready PAC, $25,000 in 2013.

If either of the Democrat contenders gets elected president and can push through their wage programs, it could affect the way Wal-Mart runs its business -- dramatically so if it’s Sanders.

Bernie Sanders in Tama, Iowa.
Bernie Sanders in Tama, Iowa.
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

He’s pledged to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is what Wal-Mart pays some department managers. The retailer is already raising its pay floor to $10 an hour, adding $1.5 billion to this year’s wage bill. The Sanders proposal would cost it billions more -- though there may also be benefits, as Wal-Mart’s customer base among low-income Americans would enjoy more purchasing power.

‘Opportunity Provider’

Clinton, the frontrunner in the Democratic race after wins in Iowa and Nevada, supports a federal minimum of $12 an hour, up from $7.25. She says she would also back state and local efforts to raise wages above that.

“We’re proud of being one of the largest job creators and opportunity providers in the country. That’s why we’re investing $2.7 billion to provide better training, pay, and educational opportunities to our 1.2 million fellow associates,” Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg said.

Clinton has said her past involvement with Wal-Mart’s bosses wouldn’t stop her from fighting for the rights of its workers. The labor union that’s been most active in campaigning for better pay and benefits at the retailer appears to be taking her at her word.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union endorsed Clinton last month saying she was “not just the strongest presidential candidate, but the right one.”

‘Lot of Stuff’

“I know there is a lot of stuff that is said and thrown around,” Clinton said at an MSNBC/Telemundo Democratic Town Hall on Feb. 18, when she was asked about her ties with Wal-Mart. “But look at the facts. Unions have endorsed me because they know I’m on their side. I’m not just showing up at election time telling them what they want to hear.”

Sanders has been citing Wal-Mart as an example of America’s growing inequality since at least 2012. The senator hasn’t talked about Clinton’s role with the company while campaigning, senior adviser Tad Devine said, but he feels the Walton family is an example of “how the economy is rigged and sends all the wealth to the top and he’s used them to point that out.”

The five heirs of Sam Walton have a combined fortune of $110 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The only other one who donated in this election cycle, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, was Jim Walton, whose $40,500 in pledges to the Republican side included contributions to the campaigns of Jeb Bush and John Kasich.

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