Why Berkeley passed a soda tax while other cities failed

Sara Soka, campaign chair, talks. Left Larry Tramutola, political advisor, Laurie Capitelli, Kad Smith of Ecology Center
Sara Soka, chair of the Yes on D campaign, talks at a press conference Wednesday morning after Berkeley voted overwhelmingly for a soda tax in Tuesday’s election. On the left is political advisor Larry Tramutola, with Berkeley Councilman Laurie Capitelli and Kad Smith of the Ecology Center on the right. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The city of Berkeley was basking in glory Wednesday over its passage of the nation’s first soda tax, an accomplishment that the beverage industry dismissed as just a whacky — and inconsequential — victory.

Although the soda industry was quick to release a press statement Tuesday night after San Francisco’s defeat of a 2-cent-an-ounce tax on soda, it took them hours to respond to the win in Berkeley, where voters passed Measure D with 75% of the vote.

Berkeley vs Big soda rally outside City Hall in July
Vicki Alexander, co-chair of the Yes on D campaign, speaks at a pro-soda tax demo outside Old City Hall in July. Photo: Berkeley vs Big Soda

“The outcome of Measure D is unfortunate but not surprising, given some of the dubious measures that have come out of Berkeley,” Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the No on Measure D campaign said in a prepared statement that was sent out around 9 a.m. Wednesday. “Soda tax activists have been venue shopping for more than five years. Over that time more than 30 cities and states have rejected similar taxes. Berkeley was low-hanging fruit, and doesn’t look like mainstream America. If politicians want to stake their reputations on what Berkeley did, they do so at their own risk.”

Berkeley was the first city in the country to adopt many measures that have gone on to become mainstream, including voluntary integration of its public schools, benefits for domestic partners, a ban on Styrofoam cups, a requirement that restaurants set up no-smoking areas, a ballot measure drawing attention to global warming, and commercial rent control.

When the returns started to pour in early Tuesday night showing that Measure D had a commanding lead, those that worked on the campaign vowed to take it to other cities around the country.

“Today is a historic day for our kids’ health,” Dr. Vicki Alexander, the co-chair of the Yes on Measure D campaign, said Tuesday. “Today is the day when the tide turns against Big Soda. Today is the day when the tide turns for the whole country. Big Soda knows this and that’s why it’s freaking out.”

Another commentator said the passage of the soda tax was a watershed moment for health activists and a Waterloo moment for the beverage industry.

kids and sign
Children pose outside a Yes on D sign put up by Jan Cecil outside her house on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley — one of many efforts in a city-wide pro-soda tax campaign that led to its overwhelming victory. Photo: Berkeley vs Big Soda

Former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who spent $657,000 to help pass the soda tax (he also spent $10 million to pass a similar tax in Mexico), said he would now look to help other municipalities.

“Last night was a huge defeat for Big Soda and a historic victory for public health and all the advocates who worked so hard in Berkeley,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “The results will surely encourage other municipalities across the nation to pursue similar initiatives to fight obesity and diabetes. We stand ready to assess and assist other local efforts in the coming election cycle.”

The battle is not over. Berkeley City Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who worked hard to pass Measure D, said the city expects the beverage industry to sue to stop the tax. It is unlikely that a judge will issue a temporary restraining order against a tax, he said. Berkeley will begin collecting the 1-cent-per-ounce tax from distributors Jan. 1, 2015, but won’t spend the proceeds until the legal issues are resolved.

Why Berkeley won where other cities were unsuccessful

As soon as the poll results starting trickling in, those who worked to pass Measure D started to speculate on why Berkeley was successful while so many other cities were not.

Of course, the bar was lower for Berkeley, where the tax only needed a majority vote to pass. In San Francisco, Measure E needed approval from two-thirds of the voters to pass since the tax revenues were going into a special fund. (Revenues from the Berkeley tax will go into the city’s general fund.) As it turns out, Measure D passed with much more than a two-thirds majority.

But only requiring a 50% vote also forced the beverage industry to reach more voters — which cost more.

City Councilman Laurie Capitelli addresses the crowd at the Yes on Measure D headquarters Tuesday night. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
City Councilman Laurie Capitelli addresses the crowd at the Yes on Measure D headquarters Tuesday night. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Capitelli told the crowd assembled at the Yes on D headquarters on Shattuck Avenue on Tuesday night that Berkeley had learned a lot from the 2010 Richmond fight to pass a tax.

Almost a year and a half ago, he and Berkeley City Councilwoman Linda Maio sat down with Dr. Jeff Ritterman, a former Richmond City Councilman who spearheaded Richmond’s unsuccessful attempt to adopt a soda tax. They started a string of discussions about what succeeded and failed in Richmond. The soda industry spent about $2.3 million there to defeat the measure in Richmond. (It spent about $2.4 million in Berkeley)

One of the primary takeaways was that the soda industry adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy in Richmond, offering money to churches and other groups to come out against the tax, and paying people to boycott businesses that supported the tax. This strategy also worked in Philadelphia, where the beverage industry donated $10 million to the children’s hospital there in exchange for the City Council’s agreement not to impose a tax.

“Without the wisdom we gained from Richmond, there is no way we would have been successful here,” said Meleah Hall, who worked with Alexander in bringing together focus groups of African-American women.. “We knew the tactics of Big Soda ahead of time. We went to the people and warned them: ‘They are trying to buy you out. They are trying to buy your vote.’ This is Berkeley. We don’t do that.”

Berkeley started to build a diverse coalition early, and that was key to its success, according to many members of the campaign. There were more than 250 volunteers who handed out 2,000 lawn signs and got 10,000 people to commit to a yes vote before election day.

The coalition not only included every member of the Berkeley City Council, but historically black churches, Latino Health groups, doctors, medical clinics, teachers, environmental groups, students, political groups and many more. (See a complete list of endorsers.)

The Yes on Measure D campaign also had the benefit of services from Larry Tramutola, an experienced and successful political strategist. Tramutola had a number of his employees work on the campaign — for free he said. (He said he might get a bonus payment now that the measure was successful.)

Dog and Big Soda
One of the many Yes on D lawn signs that were seen all over Berkeley in the run-up to the Nov. 4 election. Photo: Berkeley vs Big Soda

The beverage industry undermined itself when it flooded its campaign with so much money, said Tramutola. They used the money to saturate Berkeley with ads, to do focus groups, to make calls, and to run television ads.

“They had an unlimited checkbook,” said Tramutola. “There was nothing that couldn’t be bought.… The combination of all that turned Berkeley voters off.”

The No on Measure D campaign also tried to suggest that the soda tax effort was coming from a marginalized group. For that reason, Tramutola put the long and broad list of endorsers in a prominent spot on all the mailers, he said. The campaign information also focused on the dramatic rise in childhood obesity, a message that resonated widely.

This shows that “communities do have the power to fight for their kids’ health and win against obscene amounts of outside money spent in its own interest,” said Martin Bourque, the executive director of the Ecology Center.

The article has been updated to say Berkeley was the first city to require a mandatory non-smoking section in restaurants, not to ban smoking in restaurants.

A record $3.6 million spent in Berkeley campaigns (10.03.14)
Beverage companies donate $800,000 to fight soda tax (09.22.14)
Campaign donations reach record levels in Berkeley
Beverage companies spend $1.675m to defeat soda tax (10.09.14)
Bloomberg donates $85k to support Berkeley soda tax (10.16.14)
Outside money, solar funds in Assembly race (10.22.14)
Berkeley ballot snafu, more money for 2014 election (10.22.14)
Michael Bloomberg has now spent $370k on Measure D (10.27.14)

Do you rely on Berkeleyside for your local news? You can support independent local journalism bybecoming a Berkeleyside member. You can choose either a monthly payment or a one-time donation.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Cityside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.