By November, the headquarters for the campaign against the soda tax had become a familiar fixture in the Richmond cityscape. The office sat directly across from City Hall, and every window was plastered with bright red and yellow signs that read “NO on N.” Inside, the space felt temporary. There were no posters on the walls. Cardboard boxes leaned against the corners of the office, holding stacks of glossy fliers, and most of the furniture was foldable. The previous tenant had left two red children’s bikes in a corner, and no one had bothered to move them.
On most days, around 3 p.m., the employees — mostly young African-Americans and Latinos — poured into the office, sometimes holding 32-ounce Slurpees or cans of Grape Fanta. Nine workers at a time then sat down at desks in front of mini laptops, while an automated machine connected them to the phone numbers of Richmond residents. When someone answered, the workers read from a script: “My name is _________. I am calling on behalf of No on Measure N — the campaign against the unfair soda tax.” The machines were capable of making more than 120 phone calls an hour, and during each five-hour shift, the nine workers dialed thousands of numbers.
The No on Measure N workers’ paychecks were signed by political consultant Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners (BMWL), which had been hired by the American Beverage Association — an industry trade group representing PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, Snapple, and other big companies. The beverage industry set up shop in Richmond just after the city council’s progressive majority decided to put Measure N, a proposed one-cent-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, on the November 2012 ballot.
By the time that Big Soda had arrived, the issue of race was already a factor in the campaign. Some opponents of the tax had alleged that it was racist, arguing that it would unfairly harm low-income residents in the city. And the No on Measure N campaign, bankrolled by large corporations that make a fortune from selling cheap soda to low-income consumers, nurtured that sentiment. Indeed, there is evidence that the beverage association helped keep race at the forefront of the campaign as part of a strategy that exploited Richmond’s existing tensions. And after spending at least $2.7 million — believed to be a record in East Bay politics — against Measure N, the beverage industry emerged victorious as the soda tax was beaten soundly.
In retrospect, BMWL & Partners and the beverage industry had made their intentions clear to anyone who was paying attention. Two of their first forays in the community were at Cinco de Mayo, a popular Latino celebration, and Juneteenth, an event that commemorates the anniversary of African-American emancipation from slavery. The anti-soda-tax campaign then quickly teamed up with black politicians and leaders who labeled Measure N as “regressive” and “racist.” Some had described the white liberals who supported the tax in the same way. “It is an overbroad tax that is going to have regressive effects and raise the cost of living and grocery bills,” said Chuck Finnie of BMWL & Partners, summing up the No on Measure N messaging.
The irony, of course, was that the proceeds from Measure N were to fund programs designed to help low-income youth combat obesity. One-third of Latino and African-American children in Richmond are obese, and as that generation reaches adulthood, obesity will cause the early deaths of many of them, according to a Fitnessgram study that came out in 2010. The connection between obesity and soda, in fact, is undeniable to many public health advocates. Sodas don’t satiate appetites like other junk food, and so it’s easy to overindulge. Each twenty-ounce Sprite contains twenty teaspoons of sugar.
“When I think back to when I was a boy, a Coke or a Pepsi came in an eight-ounce bottle, and I remember very well that when you were lucky enough to get one of those things, you drank the eight ounces and the event was over,” Kelly Brownell, a prominent health advocate said during the campaign at a lecture to UC Berkeley students. “You didn’t go have another.”
But the health debate was ultimately drowned out in the election by arguments related to race and class. And that’s not unusual for Richmond: It might be one of the few cities in the country that has a history of black leaders calling white liberals “racists” and of contending that progressive ideas hurt people of color. For example, black politicians in town, like Councilman Nat Bates, have fought for years against environmentalists who oppose Chevron’s plans to expand its massive refinery. Bates and other black leaders in the city have contended that blocking Chevron could cost African-Americans jobs and hurt Richmond’s economy.
In addition, BMWL & Partners was well aware of the racial divide within the city and deftly exploited it. Along with running the anti-soda-tax campaign on behalf of the beverage industry, BMWL & Partners worked with Chevron in 2012 as part of the oil giant’s $1 million effort to elect Chevron-friendly candidates running for the city council, including Bates.
Richmond is unique because of its longstanding issues surrounding race, but the strategies employed by the anti-Measure N campaign have the potential to be repeated in other communities, particularly in those that attempt to levy taxes on large corporations that have a history of harming human health and the environment.
Although BMWL & Partners never explicitly called Measure N racist, the campaign against the soda tax clearly exploited racial tensions in Richmond. The campaign pushed the notion that the soda tax was regressive, in the same way that Big Tobacco declared that taxes on cigarettes unfairly harm low-income consumers. In both cases, the argument is dubious: Brownell noted that an item needs to be a necessary commodity for the tax on it to be regressive, and soda and tobacco are definitely not necessary. But the argument that Measure N was a regressive tax worked, nonetheless.
From the start, the beverage industry and BMWL & Partners understood the ramifications of race in this argument and didn’t waste time seeking out community members who might be receptive to their message. “We were at Cinco de Mayo,” noted Finnie of BMWL & Partners. “We were at Juneteenth.” Finnie and the anti-Measure N campaign began to form alliances at these events, typically with leaders of minority communities.
Perhaps the most crucial alliance that Finnie formed was with Councilman Corky Booze, an ally of Nat Bates who had already labeled the soda tax as racist. Booze, who is also African-American, proved to be an ideal ally because he was a political enemy of Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a white liberal who had authored Measure N. A few months prior, Booze and Ritterman were embroiled in a public dispute that included threats of physical violence. “I will punch you in the nose,” Booze had said to Ritterman. The first night Ritterman introduced the soda tax, Booze announced: “This is an elitist tax on the poor.”
In an interview, Booze (pronounced Boo-ZAY) said that when talk of a soda tax first started, he felt as if whites liberals on the city council were teaming up against him, so he sought out consultation from BMWL & Partners, since the firm had represented him during his campaign for office. “They actually got me elected to the Richmond City Council,” he said.
Not long after Booze met with the BMWL & Partners, he said he introduced Finnie to Joe Fisher, forming yet another ideal alliance for the beverage industry. Fisher, a leader of the Black American Political Action Committee (BAPAC) in Richmond, also contended early on that the soda tax was racist. Over the years, BAPAC also has taken money from Chevron and Fisher has used it to fight progressive and environmental causes, as the Express has previously reported (see “A Friend of Chevron Gives It a Costly Gift,” 10/29/2009). And during the anti-soda-tax campaign, Fisher worked for the beverage industry as a consultant; he and BAPAC received more than $30,000. He said his job entailed “sharing my opinion with African Americans, sharing with them what I perceive as being the truth.”
For Fisher, the truth meant playing the race card throughout the campaign. And BMWL & Partners hammered home the message by employing numerous black and Latino youth to work on the effort. Racial divisions over the soda tax soon became prominent. “You go to the predominantly white community, you see ‘Yes’ signs on this issue,” Fisher said during the campaign. “Go into the black community, you see ‘No’ signs.”
Jeff Ritterman, who has a long, gray ponytail and often wears Hawaiian shirts, worked on the soda-tax concept for years. Before he retired from office last month, he was known in town for championing idealistic, liberal ideas, including the creation of a citywide greywater system and the construction of cleaner forms of public transit. Most often he sided with Green Party Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and was a leader of the Richmond Progressive Alliance in its battle with Chevron.
Before he won election to the council, Ritterman was the chief cardiologist at Kaiser Richmond. During his time there, he treated numerous patients who suffered from heart disease and diabetes. Tears welled up in his eyes when he described the fear and pain he saw in patients when they were in the grips of a heart attack. He also said he was influenced greatly by the 2010 Fitnessgram study that showed that one-third of African-American and Latino children in Richmond are obese. As a physician, Ritterman knew all too well that obesity in youth often translates to early death via stroke, diabetes, or heart problems. “[The study] actually even tells you that there will be so many more heart attacks, so many more strokes,” Ritterman said, “and [it] just felt unconscionable to do nothing.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of the black population nationwide is overweight or obese, and among Latinos, it’s 40 percent. At the same time, the overconsumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages is increasingly being linked to health problems. Sugar-laden beverages are much easier to consume in mass quantities than solid foods, like say, a cupcake. In addition, soda companies have increasingly targeted low-income communities with advertising, directing ads especially at youth.
According to Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UC San Francisco, it’s a dangerous trend. The mass consumption of sugar via soda affects the human body much like drugs and tobacco. “In ten words or less, sugar is both toxic and abused,” he said. “Every substance that is both toxic and abused at the same time requires both personal intervention, which, for lack of a better word, we can call ‘rehab,’ or societal intervention [which], for lack of a better word, we call ‘a tax.’ Same thing we do with alcohol and tobacco.” Lustig also argued that education alone is not enough to fight sugar addiction.
As for the cash-strapped City of Richmond, it doesn’t have money for education efforts to combat childhood obesity. And so Ritterman reasoned that a tax would raise cash for such programs while deterring youth from buying soda at the same time. Recent data supports his theory. A meta-analysis completed last year of 32 scientific studies found that an increase in the cost of soda likely would result in a decrease of consumption by as much as 24 percent, according to a report published in the journal Plos Medicine.
But Measure N became an easy victim of race-baiting in part because of the complexities of the California tax code. Because of issues related to sales taxes in the state, Ritterman decided that Measure N would have to be a business tax — a one-cent assessment on each business for every ounce of soda sold.
Measure N also was known as a general tax, which meant that it only needed 50 percent plus one vote to win. But it also meant that it could not specify exactly where the money would go, thereby opening the door to suspicion and derision. After criticism arose, Ritterman authored an advisory measure — Measure O — that stated that the money would be spent on anti-obesity programs for youth. However, because of California law, Measure O was non-binding.
Measure O also was too late. Some opponents of the soda tax had already spread false rumors that white liberal councilmembers intended to use the tax proceeds to give themselves raises. Some campaign workers even told residents this lie. “Just by human nature, somebody is going to make a mistake,” Nick Panagopoulos, the office manager for the anti-soda-tax campaign, said when asked about what campaign workers had done. “Sometimes when you are in the trenches doing the hard work, you get that mentality — it’s like tunnel vision. It doesn’t matter, you just want to win.”
Corky Booze, who proved pivotal in the campaign against the soda tax, is a longtime City Hall gadfly who ran for the city council more than ten times. He finally won a seat on the council in 2010 with the help of BMWL & Partners and white progressive Councilman Tom Butt. However, once on the city council, Booze switched sides, and aligned himself with Nat Bates. “What they thought is that by me being elected, they would have control over me,” Booze said of progressives.
Booze also started clashing with Ritterman almost immediately. And he began calling Mayor McLaughlin “racist.” He has referred to progressive Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who is black, the same way. “I think the Richmond Progressive Alliance is very racist,” he said. (McLaughlin, Ritterman, and Beckles are members). He also consistently and vehemently opposes progressive proposals, and the arguments he has with them often disrupt council meetings, delaying them late into the night.
The racial divide in the city also proved to be fertile ground for the beverage industry and Chevron, which spent a combined total of at least $4 million on the November 2012 election in Richmond, making it perhaps the most expensive one in East Bay history. All that money and race-baiting worked, too: Measure N lost by a wide margin — 67 percent of voters cast ballots against it. And Bates and Gary Bell, two black Chevron-friendly politicians, took two of the three council seats that were up for grabs — the other went to Butt. Progressive candidate Eduardo Martinez finished a close fourth.
(However, since the election, Bell has become seriously ill, and is unable to take his seat on the council. Progressives want Martinez to take over for him, but Bates and Booze have pushed for a special election — a move that would allow Chevron and BMWL & Partners to back a candidate of their own.)
As for the No on N office across from City Hall, it’s now closed and abandoned; all the computers are gone, the phones have been disconnected, and the tables have been folded and propped up against the wall. The office looks like no one has ever used it before — cold and empty. The beverage industry left Richmond as quickly as it came in.
Ritterman, however, isn’t disheartened. The nation paid attention to Richmond last fall, with Fox News hosting a debate and food writer Mark Bittman writing about the city in The New York Times. And Ritterman is already talking about a statewide initiative and a plan he calls “14 in 14,” in which fourteen cities in California would join efforts to pass a soda tax in 2014 — forcing Big Soda to fight and spend on many battlefields at once.
But the beverage industry discovered a winning formula in Richmond last year that it might be able to replicate elsewhere — an argument that the costs associated with taxes or governmental regulation on Big Business are “regressive” because they will merely be passed onto to low-income residents. And if that were to happen, it could drive a wedge through traditional Democratic constituencies in many communities, with blacks and Latinos opposing their longtime political allies — progressives and environmentalists — just like they did in Richmond.