Richmond residents vote down Measure N

A billboard in Richmond shows No on N

A billboard on Cutting Blvd in Richmond urged residents to vote no on Measure N. (Photo by: Jason Jaacks)

Measure N was defeated in Tuesday’s election with an overwhelming two-thirds of voters saying no to the one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Of the roughly 25,000 votes cast, more than 16,000 went against the measure.

Championed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance, the proposed tax attracted national media attention, and drew the ire of local pro-business groups and the national soda industry, which spent more than $2.6 million to defeat the measure. A victory would have made Richmond the first city in the nation to approve a tax of its type.

“This was a total and utter repudiation of that tax,” said Chuck Finnie, a spokesman for the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, which led the effort to defeat the measure.

Their campaign culminated in a last-minute push to boost voter attendance, with vans full of employees and volunteers going door to door to get voters to the polls.

It also seemed likely to be a major defeat for the Richmond Progressive Alliance, and in particular Councilmember Jeff Ritterman, who designed the measure. A retired cardiologist, Ritterman enthusiastically campaigned behind it. He often appeared in public dragging a red Radio Flyer wagon loaded with 40 pounds of sugar, representing how much sugar the average American child consumes annually.

Of course, “winning is better,” Ritterman said after all the votes had been tallied. “But I actually feel quite energized about the campaign. And we got 10 percent more than El Monte did and we have a lot more money spent against us.”

The measure aimed to reduce obesity in Richmond, where nearly a quarter of adults are obese, and more than half of children are overweight or obese. But opponents called the measure overbearing, misguided, and potentially harmful to local businesses.

Dr. Brazell Carter, who’s been an internal medicine doctor in Richmond for more than 30 years, has been shown on mailers and in an ad produced by the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes opposing the measure.

“The tax will not make people healthier,” Carter said in the ad. “Diet and exercise will make people healthier.”

Meanwhile, many local sellers of sugary drinks worried about what the measure would mean for their business. Keeping track of sales in ounces would be a challenge for some. In a September interview, Muhamad Nasser, whose family owns the Richmond Food Center grocery on the corner of 23rd Street and Cutting Boulevard, said he doesn’t know how much soda the business sells each week, and that it would be difficult to start keeping track. The grocery sells more than a dozen different sizes of sugary drinks, some of them measured in fractions of ounces.

“Red Bulls, they got four different sizes themselves,” Nasser said.

Additionally, because the measure would have only affected businesses in Richmond, Nasser and others worried that a soda tax would drive consumers to buy their soda just outside the city limits.

Perhaps the measure’s biggest opponent, though was the national soda industry. Soon after the City Council approved the ballot measure in May, the American Beverage Association, an industry trade group, began pouring money into the campaign to defeat it. Most of the $2.6 million the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes raised as of Nov. 1 was from the association.

The money allowed Measure N’s opponents to run advertising circles around its supporters, funding campaign advisors, media consultants, graphic designers, canvassers and phone bankers, and paying for billboards, TV and radio ads, yard signs, mailers, T-shirts and other anti-N schwag.

Meanwhile, Richmond Fit for Life, the committee supporting Measure N, raised about $61,000, or roughly two percent of what the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes has raised.

After the first returns showed Measure N down, Finnie congratulated his campaign workers, who were celebrating in an upstairs bar room of the Hotel Mac in Point Richmond.

The community, he said, has a history of passing measures that benefit the public. They didn’t vote for Measure N, he said, because it was a regressive, ineffective way to combat obesity. The way to fight obesity, he said, is through education, not through a tax that would primarily–and negatively–affect Richmond businesses.

“This tax got rejected because it’s stupid,” Finnie said.

Ritterman, who will retire from the council in January, was reflective, but said that this isn’t the end of the road in the battle against soda. “This is the best national publicity that Richmond has ever enjoyed in the time that I’ve been in Richmond,” he said. “I think the genie’s out of the bottle. I don’t think they can put it back in.”

8 Comments

  1. Tim Patel

    Finnie and No on N care nothing about Richmond. Think about how that $2.6 million could been used to combat obesity. Instead our streets are littered with No on N signs! Will any of the No on N folks do anything to positively impact the health of Richmond’s youth?

    • Tony Sugs

      It is the parents job to raise their children. Not the government! It is their job to be the first and primary educators, mentors and guardians of their health.

      You want to impact chldrens health? Get them off the butts from in front of the tv, video games and iPods. Have them go out and play. Then put basic physcial ed back in the schools.

      The district and state will get all the money they need now that many tax measures have past. Have them put actual PhyEd back in middle and high schools.

      • Tim Patel

        Tony,

        I agree with you that kids should be active and spend time outdoors. Prop N along with O would have given them many more opportunities to do so.

        I do my best with my own kids, but I can’t make other kids stop watching TV or playing video games. But reducing the amount of sugary drinks they consume, without question, will reduce obesity and improve health.

        Furthermore, it IS a role of the government to watch out for the health of its citizens, children included. That is why we have PE in public schools, the FDA, the NIH, etc. We cannot afford to keep up with the rising costs of healthcare due to obesity, diabetes, and heart problems.

        Tim

        • Tony SUggs

          So, if you are going to “help” someone elses kids reduce the amount of sugar intake by government actions, what is next?

          Tax them on the fat in the foods they eat? What about the other sources of sugar? Candy, cereals, pastries?

          As far as the FDA, NIH, CDC etc, I have not heard of them imposing taxes on foods that they deemed harmful to the public.

          In todays world, especially in the USofA, there is no excuse what so ever for anyone in this country not to know or at least have access to nutritional information.

          We don’t need the government imposing their will on the public. Especially when all it is, was just a way to raise more tax money that no matter what the propostions stated, that money could be spent anywhere they wanted to.

          Maybe all our politicians should go on a spending diet. Because, as long as I can remember, they have never had enough money for all of their pet projects.

          • Tim Patel

            I think you know that the FDA, NIH, CDC cannot impose taxes on foods. Only state and local governments can.

            Much more sugar can be consumed in a drink than in candy or food. The research is out there. Cut sugary drinks, reduce obesity.

            Your statements sound anti-tax, anti-government, but you seem ok with the taxes that “past” (sic) for school funding. Do those taxes not “allow the government to impose their will on the public?”

            Oh, and if you really think the “district and state will get all the money they need now that many tax measures have past” (sic) you are really unaware of how lacking our public schools are. These taxes will not reopen the schools that have been forced to close in the recent years, or reduce class sizes, much less keep kids from watching tv or playing video games.

    • Peter Dycus

      This is an example of right motives wrong method. we need to fight childhood obesity, but we need to mantain a balance between the public good and individual freedom. Liberty is what this country is all about. The people of Richmond agree.

      • Tim Patel

        Yeah, I don’t think anyone in Richmond is anti-liberty. But with obesity and diabetes being such a burden on our healthcare system, our freedom for affordable healthcare is slipping away. We all pay for it one way or another. It’s better to have a deterrent to cut the obesity early.

        The same argument about freedom was made when cigarette taxes were proposed. There is no way now that we are getting rid of those taxes. It’s too beneficial for the public health.

        Even though N didn’t pass, I not convinced it was the wrong method. The millions the beverage companies (from outside Richmond) dumped into our city elections definitely obscures the results. They certainly obscured the facts. And all those damn signs are still littered on our streets, on the right-of-ways and privately owned vacant lots, which is illegal. Is no on N going to pick up the signs? Nope, they’ve already left town.

  2. Charles T. Smith

    I was disappointed with local and national press coverage of Richmond’s Measure N, a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. Ignoring the regressive nature of this tax, the mainstream press characterized the campaign as being a struggle between the “big-bad” beverage lobby and the “noble underdogs,” Dr. Ritterman and his entourage of dedicated middle class activists. Ignored in this scenario were the targets of this regressive tax: the working class, minority communities and small local merchants. Dr. Ritterman repeatedly told the press that there was no organized opposition until the beverage lobby arrived. The press never challenged this erroneous assertion. In fact, there was a lot of grassroots opposition from the beginning. This opposition came from all segments of the community, especially the working class elements, but was dismissed by the measure’s proponents and the press, implicitly communicating class and racial bias by assuming that the citizens of Richmond can’t think for ourselves. In fact, we can and have and two-thirds of the electorate demonstrated this Tuesday by soundly defeating this poorly conceived regressive tax.

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