What now, Jeff Ritterman?
on December 13, 2012
Early one Tuesday morning in November, as Richmond residents began to trickle into polling stations dotted around the sprawling city, some with hardly an idea what was on the ballot, one councilman fought hard to make sure every voter knew what was at stake.
Standing 100 feet away from Nevin Community Center, tucked in the midst of a residential area that is home to some of the poorest residents in this industrial city, Jeff Ritterman handed out fliers encouraging voters to vote Yes on Measure N, a proposal he authored to impose a one cent per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages as part of the city’s effort to combat childhood obesity.
Like a preacher on a busy sidewalk, the retired cardiologist repeatedly tried to convince each person he spoke to, before moving onto the next as voters approached him, sometimes in couples. “Why vote yes on N? I am voting No,” one woman challenged Ritterman as she walked in to cast her vote. “Yes on N!,” he retorted, as he turned to meet an elderly couple. His message came too late to many, and he was running out of time.
Three blocks away at the Richmond Civic Center, a convoy of white minivans rented by the measure’s opponents, the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, and emblazoned with red and white “No on N” posters prepared for the committee’s final push to turn undecided residents against the measure.
The coalition, bankrolled to the tune of $2.7 million by the Washington-based beverage industry lobby group, the American Beverage Association, had launched an all-out campaign with giant billboards punctuating major streets and shopping centers, and describing the measure as a ‘soda-tax’ that would hurt an already struggling population. No matter, Ritterman said, it was the engagement that counted.
“We have already won this fight,” Ritterman said, barely four hours into Election Day. “We have set the agenda on this issue.”
The measure was rejected by a two-to-one margin, but Ritterman did not lose his narrative. At Nevin Center, Ritterman saw the residents that his campaign had lobbied for the better part of the year walking into the booth and casting their ballots. “I voted Yes on N,” said Councilman Nat Bates — all along, one of Ritterman’s staunchest opponents — jokingly as he arrived at the polling station.
A month after the election, the departing Ritterman can see the end of his term on the council, if not an end to the debate.
“We do not have consensus about what will make Richmond a healthy city,” he said in an interview at a Berkeley café, while holding his 15-month-old granddaughter, Miranda. “We have an oil refinery that has been in Richmond for one hundred years, how do we transition an economy that gets tens of millions of dollars from that asset? How do we get retailers who make a living out of selling soft-drinks to make a living out of something else?”
Industrial safety at the 257,000 barrel-per-day Chevron refinery is one of the issues that has dominated debate during Ritterman’s term as councilman, more so since a fire gutted part of the refinery in August. Ritterman says he wants his legacy to be a new recognition about the way public health and public policy can guarantee a sustainable path for the city’s development.
“Bill – city manager Bill Lindsay – tells me that I influenced his thinking,” Ritterman said, reflecting on his term in a council led by progressives. “We have changed the philosophy in a way that impacts public policy, especially in policing where we have managed to transform the Richmond Police Department and restored the dignity that had been taken away from members of the community.”
Starting off as head of the cardiology unit at Kaiser Permanente’s Richmond branch at the age of 32 in 1981, Ritterman’s involvement with public health issues spans the greater part of his adult life. In 1967 while at the University of Wisconsin, Ritterman took part in protests against Dow Chemical for its role in manufacturing napalm, used in the Vietnam War.
“We were very active politically,” Ritterman said. “After I got into medical school, I began to look closely at the impact of social conditions on health. There was no field of social epidemiology at the time I moved to Richmond.”
Ritterman joined the Richmond Progressive Alliance while still working for Kaiser in 2004, and won a four-year council seat in 2008. He resigned from Kaiser in 2010, he says, in order to commit to the council’s efforts to bring the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to Richmond. By the beginning of 2011, he said, he had decided that he would not run for a second term.
“I knew I wasn’t running again in February 2011,” Ritterman said. “My decision predates this council, but my time on the council confirmed that it was the right decision.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Ritterman learned to deal with diversity at a very early age and saw the beginnings of his interest in public health.
“My grandpa had a candy store and my treat would be to go to his store and get a canned soda once a week,” Ritterman said. Another relative ran a Texaco gas station – Texaco is now part of Chevron Corp. – and he would go to the gas station once a month for another treat, a candy soda cone. “This was long before people began to question the health benefits of drinks like coke syrup.”
But in the first several years on the council, Ritterman found himself mired in fights over a wide range of issues that took his focus away from public health, an issue he says has a more significant impact on economic development. “My partner Vivian said Jeff, I love you more as a healer than as a warrior,” Ritterman said. “It’s not the best contribution I can make to the world and I think Vivian was right.”
So he took on a public health issue as the defining issue of his last year on council, attracting global media attention and millions of dollars in campaign contributions from lobbyists and multinational corporations.
“I was disappointed losing by a margin of two-to-one but that disappointment did not last long,” Ritterman said. “We got lots of press, going as far as China and it was the first time that I have been connected with a health issue that is national and international in nature. Now we know that we can accelerate the rate at which we can effect social change.”
That acceleration, for Ritterman, includes a bringing a similar measure against sugar-sweetened beverages to 14 cities in the 2014 elections, in a blanket campaign strategy dubbed 14 in ‘14. If successful, Ritterman says the campaign would cost the beverage industry upwards of $20 million in campaign contributions to defeat the separate measures, considering that the American Beverage Association spent $4 million in Richmond and El Monte.
“Fourteen in 14 has a nice ring to it, I think we’re on a roll,” Ritterman said, adding that councilmembers in Vallejo, San Mateo, San Leandro and Alameda had already expressed interest in introducing a similar measure. “Let them – the beverage companies – defend it, and it will make a much more intense conversation.”
An alternative to 14 in 14, Ritterman said, would be to introduce the measure at state level with the help of his longtime friend and newly elected senator from Santa Cruz, Bill Monning.
Working with Monning, Ritterman took medical supplies to El Salvador through the Salvadorean Medical Relief Fund and started the Southern Africa Medical Aid Fund, which took him to Zambia and South Africa where he came face to face with the excesses of the apartheid era. “Richmond’s suffering comes nowhere near what I have seen in other parts of the world,” Ritterman said.
Beyond the campaign against sugary beverages, Ritterman sees a broader agenda in public health that would help improve health outcomes for residents, including the installation of water hydration points in public locations around the city of Richmond and construction of bike paths to make cycling safer and inculcate healthier lifestyles.
“What I would like to figure out is to work in a capacity that can lead Richmond to have a higher standard of living,” Ritterman said. “How can we tolerate the proliferation of products and habits that do not promote longevity, sustainability and happiness?”
While Ritterman’s departure leaves a dent on the RPA’s balance on council and takes the steam out of the public health thrust of the progressive agenda, he sees himself as having been part of a movement whose members have been involved longer than he has, and admits that leaving council will negatively impact his influence within the RPA, where he is a member of the steering committee but not in the inner core of the party.
During the campaign Ritterman bemoaned the polarization of the city and called on the RPA to do more to find common ground with opponents, yet the campaign took a predominantly negative tone, ruining prospects for compromise.
“The center of gravity in the RPA has been more confrontational than would have been my choice,” Ritterman said. “I have been told I see things through rose-colored glasses. The RPA has endorsed positions I have articulated with some big exceptions, and the common ground approach has not won the day.
“My power within the RPA is in flux,” he said. “I may end up as a private consultant with the city or the county at a foundation on public health, and spend time with my granddaughter.”
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