WITH ELECTION YEAR 2000 shaping up as (yawn) Bush versus Gore, U.S. democracy seems pretty frustrating and irrelevant these days. Heck, tack on Washington's pending mix of beneficent, strange, and appalling initiatives (socialist pipe-dream I-725 would assure health coverage for all, curiously specific I-715 would restrict vehicle accident memorials to two feet squared, and the evil son of I-695, Tim Eyman's I-711, would direct 90 percent of all transportation funds to building more roads), and things get downright wacky.

Look closely, however: Among the kettle of fishy public "interests," there's a proposed ballot measure that's on the cutting edge of progressive politics -- tapping into a 21st-century alliance between unions and environmentalists -- which deserves attention and serious consideration.

Initiative 721 would give voters the power to veto "big-box" stores. In short, any Wal-Mart, Fred Meyer, Costco, etc. that plans to take up over 90,000 square feet would need local voter approval before paving paradise.

Big-box stores are a nightmare for local economies. Since they always appear on the outskirts of town (the only place with the land available to accommodate them), they demand an entirely new system of roads, security, and garbage collection -- all of which is paid for by the town. So not only do the big boxes compete with -- and, thanks to economies of scale, eventually shut down -- mom-and-pop businesses in the town's historical business core, they also heap taxes on locals. Meanwhile, big-box profits are exported to executives at the home base, leaving the town a corporate colony with a gutted economy.

According to Rich Thorsten of Seattle environmental group Thousand Friends of Washington, big-box stores might appeal to small, fledgling economies, but in the end, they are a shady, lose-lose deal. "Big-box development requires an entire infrastructure of roads to be built, encouraging air pollution and other hazards, and is hugely inefficient in terms of land use," he says. As for the tantalizing long-term improvement of small economies, Thorsten observes, "Communities will often offer tax breaks to big-box stores to try and attract jobs. But over time, the store takes over the local market share and raises prices anyway."

Lest the Wal-Mart plague destroy Washington, Kevin Raymond Galik, a graduate student and organizer in Spokane, is asking voters to fight back. He has a reason to take action. Currently, the northeast and northwest areas of Spokane each have a Wal-Mart; a third is in the making in the east, and there is talk of creating a fourth "Supercenter" in the south. Instead of participating in what he calls "site fights," where picketers walk in a circle to vocalize disapproval of a store already under construction, Galik decided to prescribe some preventative medicine: He proposed I-721.

And we quote: "New retail stores or expansions of existing retail stores shall be restricted to no more than ninety thousand square feet without a vote of the people." The initiative also stipulates that both city and county voters would have to approve big-box stores.

Galik's support has been remarkably diverse, casting light on the fact that the issue unites traditionally disparate groups. Environmentalists despise big-box stores because of the polluting automobile society they require. Unions seethe at the thought of another fervently anti-union Wal-Mart. Small businesses fear the towering, local-money-depleting corporations. Indeed, the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) has fueled winning campaigns to put restrictions on big-box stores in Arizona, California, and Las Vegas.

In a March 13 article, BusinessWeek noted the potent alliance: "In places such as Tucson, [the union] has skillfully piggybacked onto neighborhood opposition to giant stores, which residents fear will create noise and congestion. Chris Tanz, head of the Union of Citizens to Save Our Neighborhood (Tucson), says that her group arose out of a shared concern over a proposed Wal-Mart and Home Depot that threatened to disrupt their historic Tucson neighborhood."

Galik is counting on a similar alliance to obtain the 180,000 signatures he needs to get the proposal on the state ballot in November.

However, Galik is likely to face some heavy-duty opposition. Take the example of Tucson: After the city council there passed limits on big boxes last September, Wal-Mart kicked into gear -- setting up a corporate roots campaign ("Consumers for Retail Choice"), and spending nearly $35,000 in one month on a signature-gathering effort to topple the ordinance. The ordinance has since been suspended.

Galik might also have some trouble tapping into the mighty union-environmentalist equation. "I absolutely support the initiative. It's a necessity," says Sue Bonnet of Local 1439 in Spokane. "But some of the companies it affects are good corporate citizens, offering good benefit packages. We haven't had time to sit down with the employers that we respect to be fully educated on what [the initiative] means for them."

Galik, a member of the union, understands the concern, but like all initiative writers in our tangled-web-of-interests democracy, he's confident that the righteousness of his efforts will lead to the initiative's approval. "It's not a Wal-Mart versus grocery stores battle. It's not a Wal-Mart versus UFCW battle," he says. "It's a quality of life battle for small towns and cities."

·News intern Pat Kearney contributed to this report.

·For more information on I-721, contact Kevin Galik at sprawlnot@aol.com.

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