RICHMOND -- Perhaps Jeff Ritterman's finest hour in public office unfolded in secret meetings.
In spring 2010, he and his City Council colleagues grappled with Chevron Corp. leaders in high-stakes negotiations over millions the city sought in new utility tax revenues. Chevron vowed to bankroll a competing ballot measure linking tax cuts for its refinery to tax cuts for average households.
Ritterman's anti-Chevron bona fides were beyond reproach, giving him leverage to strike a deal with the energy giant, then sell it to skeptical constituents.
"Ritterman was kind of like (former President Richard) Nixon, the only leader who could go to China," said Councilman Jim Rogers, who was party to the meetings. "(Ritterman) handled some tricky high-level negotiations (with Chevron officials) about as well as could be done. It was an exemplary performance."
Both sides dropped their threats. The city accepted $114 million in payments over 10 years from Chevron.
Tuesday's City Council meeting will be the final act of what has arguably been among the most energetic and consequential terms ever served on the Richmond council. His four-year term was marked by historic triumphs such as the deal with Chevron and the successful wooing of a Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory campus, as well as high-profile setbacks such as his failed effort to make Richmond the first city in the nation to tax soda.
"He really worked (getting the national lab campus) as hard as it could be worked," Councilman Tom Butt said of Ritterman's public and private efforts to beat out more than a dozen competing cities as the site for the new lab, the largest public project in the East Bay in decades. "It's hard to say one person was the difference between getting LBNL or not, but if there is one person, it's Jeff."
There were big misses, too. Ritterman, who is Jewish, backed down in the face of public outrage after calling on the council to pass a resolution condemning Israel for intercepting a Gaza-bound aid flotilla. In November, Ritterman's quest to pass Measure N, the tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, was crushed by a 2-1 margin at the polls, and the bruising campaign was marred by heated exchanges and charges of racism.
"That was the hardest I worked on anything," Ritterman said. "Sure, some of the attacks hurt, but I don't have any hard feelings."
It was February 2011 when the retired cardiologist decided that his first term on the council would be his last.
He and his partner of 13 years, Vivien Feyer, vacationed in Mexico with liberal icon and anti-Vietnam War activist Daniel Ellsberg, his wife and other couples. Ritterman, 64, acknowledges that Feyer urged him to not seek re-election.
"She sees me more as a healer than as a warrior," Ritterman said. "And she is smarter than me and my most trusted adviser, so I trust her."
He kept his decision a secret for more than a year because he didn't want to jeopardize his courting of LBNL, he said.
Chatting over coffee at the Point Richmond Starbucks on a recent afternoon, Ritterman said the campaign vitriol that marked his war on soda never dampened his spirits.
He spent dozens of hours with radio, television, and print and digital media. Dozens more were spent fighting small rhetorical battles with opponents on social media sites and email groups. On weekends, he trudged around town, pulling a red wagon loaded with 40 pounds of sugar -- the amount he said the average Richmond child drinks in a year, and extolled the virtues of taxing sugary drinks to everyone he could. He was heckled and shouted down but never shrunk away.
Ritterman is a gregarious, warm communicator with a boyish smile, playful sense of humor and a penchant for squeezing shoulders and arms.
But he's not without his prickly side. Along with the shouting matches over the sugar tax, Ritterman had numerous spats with City Councilman and provocateur Corky Booze, occasionally coming inches from literal head butts while seated at the dais.
"I don't regret a single vote I made on the council," Ritterman said. "But I regret losing my cool. I acted unkind at times, and that is my failure."
In September 2011, Ritterman and Booze traded accusations of ethical misconduct, and Ritterman filed a complaint with a state political watchdog agency and the Contra Costa County district attorney, implying that Booze shook down a transit startup company for campaign dollars. The company, Cybertran, was backed by Ritterman, and Booze charged that Cybertran's leaders were swindlers.
But while supporters say Ritterman was a victim of scurrilous attacks by Booze and his supporters, others say Ritterman gave as good as he got.
"He's well-meaning, but he is an ideologue with a huge ego," resident Felix Hunziker said. "And he has no qualms about starting fights and hurling inflated insults."
Hunziker, a member of the city's Police Commission and a veteran of barbed social media debates with Ritterman over the sugar tax, said he nevertheless has high respect for Ritterman's "intelligence and passion," and that his loss is a blow to the city's progressive coalition.
While the spats are burned in the public memory, those close to Ritterman say they belie the councilman's skill at consensus building.
"He knows how to cut a deal, he can compromise, and I don't think he gets enough credit for that," Butt said.
Ritterman said he was never more conflicted than during and after the Chevron negotiations. It was his political allies who were most skeptical of the deal, he said.
"I had to keep everyone, including the (Richmond Progressive Alliance), at arm's length during those secret negotiations," Ritterman said. "Some progressives, maybe most, were not in favor of a deal with Chevron, but I was not willing to risk bankruptcy, and I felt that if the deal was a good one, everyone would eventually embrace it as the practical solution."
Ritterman says he also looks forward to the uncertainty of the future, and having time to relax with family, especially his 16-month-old granddaughter, Amiela. He says he hopes to work consulting and teaching on matters of public health.
But don't expect to see Ritterman at the rambunctious City Council meetings any time soon.
"I'll be taking a long break from Tuesday nights," Ritterman said, grinning.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 and follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.