RICHMOND -- After months of raucous campaigning and unprecedented local political spending, the city's soda tax proposal that drew national attention is dead.
At least for now.
"We took a lot of criticism that this tax was more appropriate on the state or national level," said Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a retired cardiologist and the leader of the volunteer-led Yes on N efforts. "We pushed our efforts forward here, even in defeat ... it's only a matter of time before we see (larger) efforts take hold, too."
Measure N, which could have made Richmond the first city in the nation to impose on businesses a tax on all sugar-sweetened beverages, was drubbed at the polls Tuesday, with nearly 67 percent of voters opposed.
But supporters, including Ritterman, wonder whether this was a Pyrrhic victory for the beverage industry, which spent about $2.5 million to garner fewer than 17,000 votes, roughly $150 per vote.
"We won in so many ways," Ritterman said. "We pushed the conversation about their poisonous products, we raised awareness, and we forced Big Soda to spend money in our city. I encourage every city everywhere to take on this effort; it will benefit them."
One other city joined Richmond in defeat Tuesday. The soda industry spent about half what it did in Richmond to crush an identical penny-per-ounce tax measure in El Monte, a Los Angeles County suburb with a slightly larger population than Richmond. Measure H in El Monte drew 76 percent no votes and had scant community support.
Chuck Finnie of Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst, Lauter and Partners, the San Francisco-based public relations firm hired with American Beverage Association funds to wage the No on N campaign in Richmond, disagreed with Ritterman's claim that Measure N would inspire copycats.
"The elections in Richmond and El Monte are a repudiation of the notion that we can fight obesity through taxation of certain products," Finnie said. "It's futile to fight obesity with new taxes that hit families in the pocketbook, hurt local businesses and give a blank check to City Hall."
Efforts to tax sugary drinks had gained some momentum as governments grapple with strained budgets and expanding waistlines. El Monte faces a fiscal crisis, and Richmond may have to reduce worker benefits and find other savings to balance its budget this year. Both are majority-minority communities, with childhood obesity rates around 50 percent.
The Washington D.C.-based ABA -- which represents PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper and other beverage companies -- has been largely successful in beating back local, state and federal taxes and regulations in recent years, spending millions to do so.
On Election Day, dozens of poor and working-class residents were paid $12 per hour to hold "No on N" signs on street corners and do other campaign work.
Measure N supporters were outspent by about 40 to 1 and drew most of their door-to-door and advertising campaign energy from volunteers and small donors. Ritterman was particularly tireless, and earned near-celebrity status with dozens of interviews on the topic with worldwide media eager to tell the story of the blue-collar city trying to become the first to tax sugar-sweetened beverages.
It all resulted in more than 8,000 yes votes.
"The money poured in here was totally unheard of, unimaginable," said Mike Parker, editor of the Richmond Progressive Alliance's newsletter. "And yet we were still competitive because people understand the message once we get past all the campaign garbage big money buys."
Measure N's companion, Measure O, was an advisory measure stating that the estimated $2 million to $4 million in annual proceeds from the tax should go to youth health and recreation programs. The anti-N campaign spent virtually no time or money opposing the advisory measure. Measure O passed with nearly 64 percent of the vote.