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How Did Berkeley Pass Soda Tax When Other Cities Failed?

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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 which led to its overwhelming victory. (Courtesy: Berkeley vs Big Soda)

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 two-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.

“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 ban on smoking in restaurants, a ballot measure drawing attention to global warming, and commercial rent control.

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

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.

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“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.

Former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who spent $657,000 to pass the soda tax, (he also spent $10 million to pass a similar tax in Mexico) said he would now look to helping 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. 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 one-cent per ounce tax from distributors on Jan. 1, 2015, but won’t spend the proceeds until the legal issues are resolved.

Why the Tax Won in Berkeley

As soon as the poll results starting trickling in, those who worked to pass Measure D start to speculate on why Berkeley was successful where 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 two-thirds of a vote 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 percent vote also forced the beverage industry to reach more voters – which cost more.

Capitelli told the crowd assembled at the headquarters on Shattuck Avenue 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 City Councilwoman Linda Maio sat down with Dr. Jeff Reiterman, 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. (It spent about $2.4 million in Berkeley)

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

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.

The Yes on 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, adding he might get a bonus payment now that the measure has won.

The beverage industry undermined itself when it flooded Berkeley with so much money, said Tramutola. It used those funds for a blitz of advertising, focus groups, phone calls and on-the-street campaign workers.

“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 D campaign also tried to suggest that the soda tax effort was coming from the political fringe. Tramutola countered that by placing the long list of endorsers in a prominent spot on all the Yes on D mailers. The campaign also focused on the dramatic rise in childhood obesity, a message that resonated with Berkeley voters.

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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 Berkeley's Ecology Center.

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