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.”