As Election Day approaches, food retail associations on the state and national levels are keeping an eye on key U.S. Senate races that they say could make for an especially difficult political environment in the event John Kerry takes the White House.
And all eyes will again be on Florida, where a controversial amendment that would raise the minimum wage and institute a yearly escalator linked to the consumer price index is winning popular support but has retailers panicked.
Republicans currently hold a 51 to 48 edge in the Senate, with one Independent. Thirty-four seats (19 Democrat, 15 Republican) will be decided on Nov. 2, including eight open seats.
In an interview with SN last week, Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, said maintaining a Republican edge in the Senate will be key to counterbalancing the platform of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, should Kerry prevail in the election. A Kerry victory, combined with Democratic majority in the Senate, could quickly reverse gains food retailers made under the Bush presidency, Hammonds said.
"It is looking increasingly likely that the Senate will hold, but the Senate is very important for us no matter who wins the presidency," Hammonds told SN. "If the presidential election should switch parties in the White House, the Senate will be absolutely critical."
FMI is supporting Republican candidates in several open-seat Senate races that appear especially close, Hammonds said. In Florida, FMI is advocating Mel Martinez over Betty Castor to occupy the seat belonging to outgoing Democrat Bob Graham. In North Carolina, it favors Rich Burr over Erskine Bowles for John Edwards' vacated seat; and in South Carolina, FMI is supporting Jim DeMint, the Republican opposing Inez Tenenbaum for the Senate seat belonging to Democrat Fritz Hollings. In seats vacated by Republicans in Colorado (Ben Nighthorse Campbell) and Oklahoma (Don Nickles), FMI is supporting challengers Pete Coors and Tom Coburn, respectively. The FMI is also supporting South Dakota Republican John Thune in his bid against incumbent Tom Daschle, the Senate Minority Leader.
A Kerry White House victory would reopen debate on such issues as ergonomics, the death tax, income tax reductions, overtime rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act and on country-of-origin labeling, Hammonds predicted. All are issues the food industry has fought to gain ground on during the Bush administration.
"We do support candidates on both sides of the aisle but because of issues in play in the Kerry candidacy, it's that much more critical that we have the status quo maintained or an increase in Republican representation in the Senate," Hammonds said. FMI has been less active in U.S. House of Representatives races in this election, Hammonds added, because it appears less likely Democrats can regain control there.
Among state initiatives, FMI has joined the Tallahassee-based Florida Retail Federation and other pro-business groups scrambling to defeat a state constitutional amendment to raise Florida's minimum wage by $1, to $6.15, and link future increases to yearly adjustments in the national consumer price index. Known as Amendment 5, the measure, if approved by Florida voters, would cost Florida employers in all industries an estimated $500 million a year in added costs, and ultimately hurt the lower-income families it intends to help, Rick McAllister, president and chief executive officer of the FRF, told SN.
"This is disastrous for food retailers and everybody else," said McAllister, adding that in addition to costing jobs and raising prices, the wage adjustment would cost many families their eligibility for state-subsidized health care. "The worst part about it is the automatic adjustment for cost of living -- it doesn't go down, it only goes up, so the impact on all wages for the future is going to be substantial.
"It's also terrible for our economy right now. We're just getting over four terrible hurricanes and small businesses and grocery retailers all over are hurting," he added. "This will just be an additional burden put on top of them just as they try to get back on their feet."
Amendment 5's supporters, a St. Petersburg-based group called Floridians for All, backed by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, argues the measure would benefit 300,000 workers directly and 600,000 overall, more than 75% of which are adults. ACORN was founded by union organizer Wade Rathke and has ties to the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO.
FRF is fighting Amendment 5 as part of a coalition of other state business groups. Along with support of national associations such as FMI, the coalition began a series of television ads last week, McAllister said. Calling itself the Coalition to Save Florida Jobs, it's trying to dampen enthusiasm in a measure that when first introduced had a public approval rating of 80%, McAllister said. That's declined in recent weeks to around 63%.
FMI is taking a special interest in the issue because, according to Hammonds, if successful it will likely be attempted in other states. FMI is also opposing a similar initiative in Nevada, where voters will decide whether to raise the minimum wage by $1 on jobs where health insurance is not provided.
Food Marketing Institute is monitoring the outcome of Election Day Senate races. There are eight open Senate-seat races, and the food industry is throwing its support behind Republicans in several of those races.