Richmond’s David v. Goliath: the sugar beverage tax

jeff ritterman felix hunziger

Jeff Ritterman, foreground, and Felix Hunziker, background, an anti-Measure N activist.

RICHMOND — Jeff Ritterman made his case for taxing sugar-sweetened beverages at American Public Health Association Conferences, to doctors at a San Francisco Medical School and the Board of Supervisors in San Mateo County — all in the last week.

But perhaps his most important audience was Monday night’s, where 80 people gathered at Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church for a town-hall meeting.

Trim and energetic, with his trademark ponytail pulled tight, the retired cardiologist-turned-councilman relied on local African-American sports and health advocates to do most of the talking to one of the city’s oldest African- American congregations, but he bemoaned the “polarization” that has cleaved the city over his controversial ballot measure.

“We have to keep the focus on our children and how to make the city a better place for them,” Ritterman said.

Erick Avery, coach of the Richmond Half-Steppers, a youth track club, had just finished speaking on the need for recreation funding from Measure N, the penny-per-ounce tax Ritterman has devoted nearly all his energies to.

Click here to see the Beverage Association spending report: BEVERAGEGROUPREPORT pdf pdf

Keenly aware of the $2.5 million spent so far against the measure, Ritterman did what he seldom does — acknowledged the possibility of defeat on Nov. 6. As of Oct. 20, the pro-Measure N “Fit for Life” campaign had spent less than $50,000 from mostly small donors.

“Win or lose, we have to figure out a way to support (the Half Steppers),” Ritterman said.

The pro-Measure N “Fit for Life” campaign has spent less than $50,000 from mostly small donors, a total dwarfed by the $2.5 million in soda industry funding the opposition.

The underdogs have relied on volunteers and creativity to get their message out to local voters.

Youth artists spray-paint anti-soda, “Yes on N” murals on street corner buildings, with the owners’ permission. Ritterman has done hundreds of interviews with media from all over the world, and has spent thousands of hours campaigning. He pulls a wagon carrying 40-pounds of sugar — a prop meant to personify the amount the average child consumes in a year — and spends late nights pecking rhetoric into his keyboard, jousting with critics and naysayers on social media platforms. He’s been shouted down at parks and in church parking lots.

It’s in Richmond’s working-class neighborhoods where the ballot battle will be won or lost, and skeptics say the pro-tax activists can’t overcome the money and the blunt “no on new taxes” message against them.

“Our campaign spending is still considerably less than what Measure N would cost Richmond families in higher grocery bills and Richmond businesses in lost sales and customers,” said Chuck Finnie, a spokesman for the anti-tax group.

Otheree Christian, president of the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Association, said he liked much of what he heard Monday night, but that his mostly African- American and Latino neighborhood is leaning against the ballot measure and can’t be persuaded.

“In this economy, with people struggling, putting in a new tax is not going to work, no matter how you try to dress it up,” Christian said.

Several speakers on Monday appealed directly to the city’s working class African-American and Latino communities, calling sugar-sweetened beverages “poisons” that are fueling obesity, diabetes and other health maladies.

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and other elected leaders joined Ritterman at the church and pushed hard for the measure. McLaughlin pledged to pass postelection legislation requiring that every dollar from Measure N goes to youth health and recreation programs, another in a long line of tweaks to the message that the pro-N side has made over months of campaigning to tamp down critics.

The keynote speaker Monday was Maya Rockeymoore, a Washington D.C.-based scholar.

Rockeymoore called on the African American community to look critically at the beverage industry, its products and its marketing tactics toward ethnic groups.

She called the obesity crisis — 52 percent of children in Richmond are overweight — a “systemic” problem.

“We are surrounded all the time by an environment in which unhealthy drinks are advertised,” Rockeymoore said.

McLaughlin echoed many of Rockeymoore’s theme, at one point noting acerbically that obesity and diabetes has been a bitter fruit of the “Pepsi Generation” marketing campaign.

Doria Robinson, a community advocate for better nutrition and urban farming, said residents needed to come together to tax sugary-drinks and reduce consumption.

“It’s not food,” she said. “It’s hurting us.”

With its unlimited budget, The Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes counts hundreds of local businesses and influential community groups, including the NAACP and Black Women of Political Action (BWOPA) among its members. The city’s streets and its airwaves are awash in “No on N” ads, funded by the Washington D.C.-based American Beverage Association’s support. The coalition has also provided thousands in direct payments to influential community leaders, including the treasurer of the Black American Polical Action Committee (BAPAC).

“Without Big Soda’s money, there would be no organized opposition against the soda tax,” Ritterman said.

The dynamic has played out elsewhere to the same notes. El Monte, a Los Angeles County suburb with a nearly 20 percent larger population than Richmond, is the other major California battleground over beverage taxes.

El Monte Mayor Andre Quintero, the leading proponent of Measure H — which is virtually identical to Richmond’s ordinance — has acknowledged that his measure has little chance in the face of the beverage industry’s sophisticated and well-funded campaign.

Yet in El Monte, the battle is being tipped with far fewer resources. The “No on H” committee has spent about $1.3 million, barely half its spending in Richmond, the smaller city. El Monte’s pro-beverage tax forces have spent about $7,000 more than those in Richmond.

“The comparison shows how strong Richmond’s progressive movement is,” said Andres Soto, a founding member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “We can win here against all the corporate money.”

In both cities, slick campaign strategists have focused on appealing to key ethnic groups.

In Richmond, the campaigns have focused on appealing to African Americans and Latinos. In El Monte, advertising aims at Asians and Latinos.

Critics have complained that Ritterman and his allies initially overlooked the support of local churches and leaders, opening the door for the beverage industry to make inroads. Ritterman disagrees.

“No regrets,” Ritterman said. “We have worked hard. We have run an honest campaign.”

Observers close to the campaigns on both sides say N has a slim chance at passage, but still marvel at the spirited, crafty, bare-bones campaign that has pushed Richmond into the national limelight on issues of public health and sugar-sweetened beverages. The battle in Richmond may be lost this year, they say, but the larger war changing the beverage industry is still in their favor.

“This really advanced the cause no matter how the vote turns out,” said Councilman Tom Butt. “A lot of people have been watching this, learning what to do and what not to do, and I am sure there will be other cities that will take this up.”

Asked if he has ever felt down against the seemingly overwhelming odds, Ritterman brushed that aside.

“I’ve been working on this more than full time for many months. I don’t feel demoralized at all, I feel energized.”


Robert Rogers