RICHMOND -- Voters here overwhelmingly rejected the hotly contested sugar-sweetened beverage tax Tuesday, ending the city's effort to become the first in the nation to levy a fee on businesses that sell sodas and other sugary drinks.
With all precincts reporting, 66.9 percent of voters had said no to Measure N. A companion advisory measure, Measure O, which would have advised the city to use proceeds from the tax on youth health and recreation programs, enjoyed 63.8 percent approval, but it was a moot point.
"This was a case of overreach, with the (Richmond Progressive Alliance) overestimating its power and looking to impose its ideas about how to live on the public," said Richmond City Councilman Nat Bates, who joined more than 100 No on N workers and activists for a celebration at the Hotel Mac on Tuesday. "They got what you would expect."
Measure N was written to tax local merchants a penny per ounce on sales of beverages containing added sugar, a category comprising more than 700 products and brands. Both sides estimated Measure N would have generated about $2 million to $4 million in annual revenue initially.
Proponents, led by Councilman Jeff Ritterman, and his allies in the RPA, hoped the tax would raise prices on sugar-added drinks and reduce sales while providing funding to reduce Richmond's high rates of childhood obesity.
The American Beverage Association, a powerful Washington D.C.-based industry lobbying group, had spent nearly $2.5 million as of Oct. 20, saturating the city in campaign signs and filling radio and television waves with the "No on N" message.
At the Hotel Mac celebration, about 50 local workers, most under age 30, were honored for their work on the campaign, for which they were paid an average of $12 per hour to help build opposition to Measure N, said campaign spokesman Chuck Finnie.
"Local residents, young people, worked with us and earned money and learned a great deal about campaigning," Finnie said.
The ABA's overwhelming spending was seen as an effort to head off the burgeoning movement to curb consumption of high-calorie drinks.
The campaign in Richmond was the latest in the ABA's national game of Whac-A-Mole, as the industry seeks to beat down soda regulations with its money and campaign expertise wherever such proposals arise, including in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, as well as states such as Texas and New York.
The dynamic played out elsewhere to the same notes. In El Monte, a Los Angeles County suburb with a nearly 20 percent larger population than Richmond, a similar beverage tax was on the ballot Tuesday; voters there saw more than $1.3 million in ABA funding. As in Richmond, ABA-hired campaign consultants appealed to key ethnic groups, including Latinos and Asians.
El Monte's beverage tax, dubbed Measure H, was getting drubbed late Tuesday by an even wider margin than Richmond's Measure N, with about 76 percent of El Monte voters rejecting the tax.
Richmond and El Monte have some of the state's highest proportions of obese and overweight children, with Richmond's rate at 52 percent. Studies have linked consumption of sugary drinks to diabetes and weight gain.
Richmond's City Council voted 5-2 in April to put the tax to voters, along with Measure O, the advisory measure directing the city to spend proceeds on youth recreation and health programs.
In Richmond, which is smaller than El Monte but has vaunted coalition of progressive groups, the beverage industry spent twice as much to beat back the effort. By Tuesday, the city was effectively covered in "No on N" signs, and the television and radio airwaves looped ads against the measure endlessly.
On Monday, vans and trucks full of paid No on N workers descended on the sidewalk outside the RPA's downtown offices, using bullhorns and signs to get their message out.
The two sides clashed, spraying each other with water bottles and exchanging words. Each subsequently blamed the other for provoking the event. Richmond police were called to restore order, but no injuries were reported.
"We didn't have money to pass out, but we had a message that people were receptive to, and that scared them," said Mike Parker, editor of the RPA's e-newsletter.
"We are proud of our young people for restraining themselves and not striking back," Finnie said.
Supporters of Measure N included medical groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association and actor Danny Glover. The industry-funded coalition against the tax counted hundreds of local businesses and the local branch of the NAACP among its supporters.
Ritterman, the main advocate for the measure, conceded that the tax was headed to failure but said the effort in Richmond was only the beginning.
"Our numbers aren't good, obviously, but it's out of our hands now," Ritterman said, watching a computer screen showing poll results at the RPA's downtown offices, where about 100 supporters gathered Tuesday. "We took a lot of criticism that this tax was more appropriate on the state or national level, and I think it's only a matter of time before we see those efforts take hold, too."