Race-Baiting in Richmond 

How Big Business used race to drive a wedge through Richmond's progressive community — and why you should be concerned about it.

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As for the cash-strapped City of Richmond, it doesn't have money for education efforts to combat childhood obesity. And so Ritterman reasoned that a tax would raise cash for such programs while deterring youth from buying soda at the same time. Recent data supports his theory. A meta-analysis completed last year of 32 scientific studies found that an increase in the cost of soda likely would result in a decrease of consumption by as much as 24 percent, according to a report published in the journal Plos Medicine.

But Measure N became an easy victim of race-baiting in part because of the complexities of the California tax code. Because of issues related to sales taxes in the state, Ritterman decided that Measure N would have to be a business tax — a one-cent assessment on each business for every ounce of soda sold.

Measure N also was known as a general tax, which meant that it only needed 50 percent plus one vote to win. But it also meant that it could not specify exactly where the money would go, thereby opening the door to suspicion and derision. After criticism arose, Ritterman authored an advisory measure — Measure O — that stated that the money would be spent on anti-obesity programs for youth. However, because of California law, Measure O was non-binding.

Measure O also was too late. Some opponents of the soda tax had already spread false rumors that white liberal councilmembers intended to use the tax proceeds to give themselves raises. Some campaign workers even told residents this lie. "Just by human nature, somebody is going to make a mistake," Nick Panagopoulos, the office manager for the anti-soda-tax campaign, said when asked about what campaign workers had done. "Sometimes when you are in the trenches doing the hard work, you get that mentality — it's like tunnel vision. It doesn't matter, you just want to win."

Corky Booze, who proved pivotal in the campaign against the soda tax, is a longtime City Hall gadfly who ran for the city council more than ten times. He finally won a seat on the council in 2010 with the help of BMWL & Partners and white progressive Councilman Tom Butt. However, once on the city council, Booze switched sides, and aligned himself with Nat Bates. "What they thought is that by me being elected, they would have control over me," Booze said of progressives.

Booze also started clashing with Ritterman almost immediately. And he began calling Mayor McLaughlin "racist." He has referred to progressive Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who is black, the same way. "I think the Richmond Progressive Alliance is very racist," he said. (McLaughlin, Ritterman, and Beckles are members). He also consistently and vehemently opposes progressive proposals, and the arguments he has with them often disrupt council meetings, delaying them late into the night.

The racial divide in the city also proved to be fertile ground for the beverage industry and Chevron, which spent a combined total of at least $4 million on the November 2012 election in Richmond, making it perhaps the most expensive one in East Bay history. All that money and race-baiting worked, too: Measure N lost by a wide margin — 67 percent of voters cast ballots against it. And Bates and Gary Bell, two black Chevron-friendly politicians, took two of the three council seats that were up for grabs — the other went to Butt. Progressive candidate Eduardo Martinez finished a close fourth.

(However, since the election, Bell has become seriously ill, and is unable to take his seat on the council. Progressives want Martinez to take over for him, but Bates and Booze have pushed for a special election — a move that would allow Chevron and BMWL & Partners to back a candidate of their own.)

As for the No on N office across from City Hall, it's now closed and abandoned; all the computers are gone, the phones have been disconnected, and the tables have been folded and propped up against the wall. The office looks like no one has ever used it before — cold and empty. The beverage industry left Richmond as quickly as it came in.

Ritterman, however, isn't disheartened. The nation paid attention to Richmond last fall, with Fox News hosting a debate and food writer Mark Bittman writing about the city in The New York Times. And Ritterman is already talking about a statewide initiative and a plan he calls "14 in 14," in which fourteen cities in California would join efforts to pass a soda tax in 2014 — forcing Big Soda to fight and spend on many battlefields at once.

But the beverage industry discovered a winning formula in Richmond last year that it might be able to replicate elsewhere — an argument that the costs associated with taxes or governmental regulation on Big Business are "regressive" because they will merely be passed onto to low-income residents. And if that were to happen, it could drive a wedge through traditional Democratic constituencies in many communities, with blacks and Latinos opposing their longtime political allies — progressives and environmentalists — just like they did in Richmond.

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