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Al Norman

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Wal-Mart Welcomes Back 'Dirty Tricks' Republican Operative

Posted: 05/25/11 10:46 AM ET

Terry Nelson, all is forgiven.

The Republican operative who was fired by Wal-Mart five years ago for his role in a race-baiting ad, has now been welcomed back to the fold in Bentonville.

Nelson, a native of Iowa, who began his political life in the Hawkeye state almost twenty years ago, has a 'dirty tricks' rap sheet that dates back a decade ago to his early days as Executive Director of Political Operations for the Republican National Committee.

According to the website Sourcewatch.org, Terry Nelson "has the unique distinction of being tied to two of the biggest cases of Republican campaign corruption" during the George W. Bush era -- the New Hampshire-phone jamming scandal in 2002, and as an unindicted co-conspirator in the political money-laundering case which ended former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's career.

In the phone-jamming case, a Republican telemarketing firm made repeated hang-up phone calls to get-out-the-vote phone lines being run by Democrats, gumming up the works with 800 computer-generated calls over a 1 1/2 hour period.

Nelson served as political director for the Bush/Cheney 2004 committee, and went to work for the Republican National Committee in 2006. While Deputy Chief of Staff at the RNC, Nelson accepted a $190,000 check from a DeLay political action committee in an alleged money-laundering scheme to pass corporate political donations illegally through the RNC to support candidates in Texas state elections.

That same year, Nelson was behind an ad in a Tennessee U.S. Senate race featuring Democratic candidate Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., in which a bare-shouldered blonde woman winked into the camera and said, "I met Harold at the Playboy Party! Harold, call me sometime." Nelson resigned his position in response to the firestorm the racially-saturated spot created.

In the midst of the DeLay money laundering scandal, and the Harold Ford, Jr. fiasco, Nelson still found time to go on Wal-Mart's payroll. Terry Nelson's firm, Crosslink Strategy, had been hired by Wal-Mart as early as 2005 to strong arm the retailer's suppliers to endorse a company PR initiative called "Working Families for Wal-Mart." The group was supposed to mimic a grassroots advocacy effort that would counter the rising visibility of anti-Wal-Mart union groups. Terry Nelson sent a letter to thousands of Wal-Mart suppliers , urging them to become part of the "standing army of supporters from all aspects of Wal-Mart's business."

Nelson had co-founded the Crosslink Strategy Group in 2005, which became an operating unit of Mercury Public Affairs the following year, a communications firm which is a member of the Fleishman-Hillard conpanies, which in turn is owned by the Omnicom Group, the world's third largest advertising conglomerate.

By the end of October, 2006, the racial backlash from the Harold Ford, Jr. ad forced Wal-Mart to severe its ties with Nelson. The Rev. Jesse Jackson had asked Wal-Mart to dump Nelson because of his connection to the Harold Ford, Jr. smear campaign. A statement from Jackson printed in The New York Times said, ''Wal-Mart has the responsibility to dismiss Terry Nelson, with explanation, and apologize to Harold Ford Jr. Even though the Republican Party pulled the ad, if you throw ink on a suit, you leave a stain. They threw ink on Harold Ford Jr., and many people believed it to be true, resulting in a negative impact.''

Wal-Mart promptly ended its working relationship with Crosslink, saying only, "We believe this is the right course of action." According to The New York Times, "Wal-Mart's relationship with Mr. Nelson threatened to set back the retailer's extensive efforts to reach out to African-Americans, who account for a large number of its employees and customers." According to a blog on democraticunderground.com, Nelson submitted a resignation letter to Wal-Mart saying that the company was under "political pressure from liberal special interest groups" and labor unions. "It's unfortunate that this pressure has had an impact on Wal-Mart," Nelson vented. The same blog suggested that Wal-Mart had told Nelson that if he did not resign, Wal-Mart would "air radio and television commercials demanding his dismissal."

But time heals all wounds, and Wal-Mart at some point decided it was the "right course of action" to rehabilitate Terry Nelson, whose firm is now helping to steer the retailer's campaign against Amazon over the issue of internet sales taxes. Nelson's firm does strategy work for the The Alliance for Main Street Fairness (AMSF), another creation of big box retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target.

The Arlington, Virginia based Alliance for Main Street Fairness is coordinating campaigns in at least 12 states to force Amazon to pay sales tax on internet sales. Although it repeats the words "small business" twice in its one-line mission statement, the Alliance has some powerful backers who are not located on Main Street, and who have brought Terry Nelson into the game.

This month, Nelson has been helping with Wal-Mart's offensive against Amazon in South Carolina -- a fight that has turned into what The State newspaper called "a political twister." With a 1 million square foot Amazon distribution center and 2,000 jobs at stake -- the battle over exempting Amazon internet sales from taxation has whipsawed the South Carolina House of Representatives.The chamber voted first against -- and then for -- Amazon.

Nelson's group created a South Carolina chapter of the Alliance, and placed up front a phalanx of small Mom and Pop Main Street merchants. But some South Carolina lawmakers were not fooled. "We knew that the money behind the lobbying effort was from the big-box retailers," one House member said. "Calling it Main Street was a little disingenuous. Call it Wal-Mart if it's Wal-Mart. Call it Target if it's Target. But don't call it Main Street. I know what Main Street is. My office is on Main Street.."

Wal-Mart has embraced the trickster once again -- paying Nelson to masquerade as the protector of Main Street Mom & Pop merchants. It's bad political theater -- but the retailer and the Republican have been putting on this show for years. As Groucho Marx would have said: they make a lovely couple.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated to clarify the nature of Terry Nelson's connection to The Alliance for Main Street Fairness.


Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters, and the author of The Case Against Wal-Mart.