RICHMOND -- Election Day didn't go as the Richmond Progressive Alliance had planned.
Now the volunteer political group is intent on making sure it doesn't get drubbed again.
"We never faced this level of overwhelming corporate influence in the city," Zak Wear, a member of the RPA's steering committee, said at a Thursday night town hall meeting. "We did well on Election Day but not with early mail-in ballots ... we have to make grass-roots leadership and organizing a permanent feature of our local politics."
The RPA's immediate setbacks Nov. 6 were losing a council seat and watching its much-publicized Measure N -- a penny-per-ounce tax on merchants who sell sugar-sweetened beverages -- receive less than 33 percent of the vote.
But longer term, the coalition's members say it's in good position to continue its vanguard role in local politics.
On Thursday night, about 60 supporters and community groups gathered at the RPA headquarters for a meeting to discuss what went wrong and lay out a strategy for the future.
Mostly, panelists and supporters expressed the belief that the losses this year were in part a vindication of their strategy and effectiveness -- noting that it took unprecedented local spending to beat Measure N and elect Chevron-backed Gary Bell to the City Council by a margin of just a few hundred votes. Despite voluminous coverage of the soda tax in the regional, national and globalmedia, some speakers blamed news agencies for not spending more time focusing on which local clergy and other leaders received beverage industry funding and for not vetting Bell more thoroughly.
But Councilman Jeff Ritterman, an RPA stalwart, struck a more conciliatory tone, saying he was proud of advancing the public conversation about sugary beverages and children's health and cautioning supporters not to play the blame game or hold grudges.
"It was a disappointment to lose 2-1, sure," Ritterman said. "But we should continue to push the public health envelope ... and it does us no good to be resentful (of the opposition),. Let's take an embrace-everybody-we-can position."
Wear acknowledged that the RPA has work to do in reaching out to Richmond's large African-American community, saying the group suffered from the "race baiting" tactics of beverage industry campaign operatives.
"We have to address this rift," Wear said.
Of the seven members of the City Council, four are still RPA members or generally in line with the RPA agenda, which includes a tough environmental stance on Chevron's Richmond refinery, public health and nutrition measures, increasing bike lanes and pedestrian amenities, pushing urban gardening and parks, reducing pesticide use, and continuing the city's holistic approach to public safety.
The group was founded in 2004 by activists Andres Soto, Juan Reardon, Roberto Reyes and a then-unknown newcomer named Gayle McLaughlin.
McLaughlin rode her grass-roots support to the mayor's office. Then came other legislative victories, and the ascent of allies on the City Council who helped strengthen the RPA's grip.
With the twin victories of progressive candidate Jovanka Beckles and a measure that killed a proposed $1.2 billion casino-hotel project at Point Molate, the RPA reached a zenith by 2010. Five of seven members of the City Council are solidly progressive votes.
This year's election was arguably the RPA's worst defeat, but it also represented the biggest challenge, largely of its own making.
In taking on Measure N, the RPA drew in the powerful Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association, which spent $2.5 million to crush the measure. That money combined with $1.2 million from Moving Forward, the Chevron-funded business coalition that put its wallet on the side of council candidates opposed to the RPA. In all, the RPA was outspent more than 50-1.
"Each election, we see an escalation of spending by the corporatacracy," Soto said.
But opponents don't see the silver lining in an electoral rout.
"You got beat," gleeful Councilman Corky Booze told City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller at Tuesday's City Council meeting, referring to Measure N. "(The ABA) came in and stomped your face in the ground."
Incumbents Tom Butt and Nat Bates retained their council seats, while Bell narrowly edged RPA candidate Eduardo Martinez for the last open seat, which was previously held by Ritterman, who chose not to run. Bell has been hospitalized in recent weeks with meningitis.
What the new council composition will mean for policy direction in the city remains to be seen, but most close observers think the addition of Bell will change little because the RPA majority still leads.