RICHMOND -- New billboards dot the city. Town hall meetings well-stocked with foods and cold drinks are commonplace. Mailboxes are stuffed with fliers. Political spinsters are working the phones. Social media is abuzz.

Everyone knew the money would come. Now, it's here.

According to campaign documents filed July 31, the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, the local political action group backed by the Washington D.C.-based American Beverage Association, had spent $354,898 to convince Richmond voters to reject a November ballot measure proposing a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on local businesses that sell sugar-sweetened drinks. Most of the money has gone toward direct mailings, outdoor advertising and polling research.

The tide of funding from corporations that sell soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages has swamped the other side, which has spent about one-fiftieth of that amount.

"Our energy and resources are going into making sure Richmond voters understand this is a regressive tax that is going to hurt lower income people the most," said Chuck Finnie, a vice president of the San Francisco public relations firm Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partner, which has been contracted to direct the campaign against the tax. "It will be passed along in higher prices on everything and a higher cost of living for everyone, without any requirements on how the money is used by city government."


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City Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a retired cardiologist who has become the de facto leader and most prominent spokesman for the tax, said his side is undaunted by the big bucks. Two pro-tax groups, the Richmond Fit For Life Coalition and the Committee Supporting a Healthy Richmond, have spent about $7,300, according to City Clerk Diane Holmes. The groups raised $32,000.

"The disparity in funds and spending shows how frightened the Big Soda powers are," Ritterman said. "But I feel more confident than ever that we will win."

Ritterman said the pro-sugar tax side has two key forces in its favor: Heavy media coverage and emerging science. Ritterman rattles off long lists of scientific, medical and nutritional organizations that have come out either in support of taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks or with research linking the popular drinks to diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other maladies.

"It takes some time, just like it did with cigarettes," Ritterman said. "But we are always getting smarter, thanks to emerging science and the communications that diffuse the results of the new research."

The measure, which was put on the ballot by a 5-2 City Council vote, has drawn national media attention as Richmond could become the nation's first city to tax per-ounce sales of sugar-sweetened-beverages. A companion measure advises city officials to use the proceeds -- estimates are that the tax would raise about $3 million annually -- on anti-obesity and exercise programs aimed at local children.

El Monte, a Los Angeles County suburb, followed Richmond's lead in voting last month to put an identical measure to their voters. But critics have contended that El Monte's tax is as much about a local fiscal crisis as it is about reducing childhood obesity.

The proposed tax is structured as a business license fee imposed on merchants, not at the point of sale, meaning businesses will be able to decide how the fee will affect the price of drinks with added sugar.

Tempers have bubbled over locally. Opponents cast the debate as more about economic loss than public health gains, and divisions have fallen roughly along racial lines. The Chamber of Commerce and more than 100 local merchants have come out against the tax, according to the anti-tax group's website. Ritterman and his progressive allies have been accused of angling for national attention while giving short shrift to the poor and local business interests.

Two of the three African-Americans on the City Council, Nat Bates and Corky Booze, oppose the tax. Former Mayor Irma Anderson, the last African-American to hold that spot, recently came out against the tax, calling it a "publicity stunt."

"It doesn't raise a penny specifically to fight obesity, and the council will probably just use the money to balance the budget," Anderson said in a statement.

A host of African-American groups have come out against the tax, including the local NAACP chapter, the Black American Political Action Committee (BAPAC) and Black Women Organized for Political Action.

But the opposition is not unified among African-Americans, who remain a significant portion of Richmond's population. Black Mobilization Organization and Education (B-MOER) has come out in favor of the tax, as has the Rev. Alvin Bernstine, pastor of Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church.

The tone of the debate over taxing sugary beverages is bitter. Finnie, joining other leaders in the movement against the tax, has taken to calling out council members by name.

"Dr. Ritterman talks about new science," Finnie said, referring to the research associating childhood obesity and other public health concerns with sugar-added drinks. "It looks more like new math and new ploys for balancing budgets on the backs those who can least afford it."

Both sides are not shy about questioning motives.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know Big Soda and their publicity specialists are here to make big bucks," Ritterman said. "Many of us are deeply committed to the health of our children, but Finney and his firm are just paid to come here and do hatchet jobs."

The city's roughly 40,000 registered voters will decide Nov. 6.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers