by William Harless, The Bay Citizen
RICHMOND – A powerful Washington, D.C., trade organization that represents PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and other major beverage companies is helping fund a Richmond group that is fighting a November ballot measure to raise taxes on soda and other sweetened beverages, interviews and records show.
A Richmond resident, Rosa Lara, is going door to door identifying herself as an organizer with the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes and collecting signatures on a petition. Although Lara doesn't mention it unless specifically asked, her group is supported by the American Beverage Association, the industry's main trade organization.
In May, Lara presented the Richmond City Council with a petition that she said included 900 signatures against the sweetened-beverage tax. Holding up a pile of papers, she also told the council that 100 businesses had signed up to oppose the measure.
“We only have one grocery store. What’s going to happen to us? We’re going to have to walk,” Lara told the council. “We don’t have the resources to go out of the city. I’ve lived here my whole life – I haven’t seen changes. We need to make a change for the community. This isn’t the way.”
Lara, who also presented her case to the council in Spanish, said she represented the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, but did not note the beverage association was helping fund her petition drive.
The city council subsequently voted to place the soda tax on the November ballot. The measure would raise an estimated $2 million to $8 million, which advocates want to fund obesity programs, school fruit and vegetable gardens, and playing fields. The tax would apply to soft drinks and other beverages with added sugar.
In an interview, Lara said she does not mention the American Beverage Association funding when she is collecting signatures. But if asked, Lara said she will acknowledge that she's a paid community organizer.
“What I tell them is I live in the community,” she said. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I tell them I’m with the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, and I’m a community organizer. Most of the people that I talk to ... know me already, they know what I do, so I really don’t have to explain who I am.”
In a brief statement, Karen Hanretty, vice president of public affairs for the American Beverage Association, said: "ABA is and will continue supporting the growing community coalition that includes Teamsters and approximately 145 businesses against the proposed beverage tax in Richmond."
Representatives with public relations firm Goddard Gunster, which represents the American Beverage Association, did not return calls for comment.
But Chuck Finnie, a vice president of the San Francisco public relations firm Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners, confirmed in an interview that his firm is working for the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes and rented the office across from the Richmond city hall on behalf of the coalition.
“There are stakeholders nationwide who care about what happens in Richmond,” including soft drink makers, bottlers, distributors, retailers and local union workers, Finnie said.
Barnes Mosher partner Sam Lauter is registered as an American Beverage Association lobbyist in San Francisco. Finnie declined to say which organization initially retained the firm but said public campaign finance disclosures due this month will indicate who is funding the coalition and where its money is going.
At the Richmond City Council meeting, Lara also did not mention her association with the beverage lobbying group, though the petition listed it as a funder and member of the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes. Last week, the coalition filed documents with the Richmond city clerk indicating it is sponsored by the American Beverage Association, though as of Monday, the coalition’s website did not mention the group.
The website’s domain is registered under Goddard Claussen Public Affairs in Washington. The beverage association hired the same public relations company, now known as Goddard Gunster, when former New York Gov. David Paterson proposed a similar tax in that state.
A page on the Goddard Gunster website says the company has worked on behalf of the food and beverage industries against fat and soda taxes since 2009. “Today as the food and beverage tax battles wage on state-by-state, you will find us right there every step of the way,” the website reads.
According to Finnie, rallying the community “is how elections are won and lost in Richmond.”
“They’re won and lost by organizing voters, bringing the debate to the local level, to the street, and talking with people one on one," he said. "And we will have built a coalition of thousands of voters before this is over to oppose the tax.”
The office rented by Barnes Mosher previously served as campaign headquarters for Richmond City Council Member Corky Boozé, an outspoken soda-tax opponent. Boozé has appeared on Fox News and PBS and was quoted in The New York Times this month speaking against the tax. The office was vacant when Lara approached Boozé to ask who its landlord was, according to Boozé.
The councilman said he was unaware that either the American Beverage Association or Barnes Mosher had any involvement in the anti-tax effort.
Jeff Ritterman, the cardiologist-turned-council member spearheading the fight for the sweetened-beverage tax, said he, too, was unaware that the American Beverage Association had entered the local fray, but he said he is not surprised.
“I think it says that there’s intense interest from people outside of Richmond, primarily the beverage industry, to defeat the measure and that they’re willing to commit significant resources to do that,” said Ritterman, who hopes the tax will encourage children to reduce their consumption of sugary drinks and cut rates of obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.
In Richmond, 52 percent of schoolchildren are overweight or obese, according to Contra Costa County Health Services statistics. Among adults, 58 percent of the population is obese or overweight.
Ritterman has started his own group, Richmond Fit for Life, to fundraise for the pro-tax effort. Juan Reardon, an activist working with Ritterman, said that as of Monday, the group had raised about $6,000. Reardon said the group does not have any institutional support but would welcome it.
As for the American Beverage Association, Ritterman said: “I think the sad thing is that they recruit local people who work with them when in fact the end result of what they’re doing hurts our children and hurts our community.”
The Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes disagrees. On a petition to gather supporters, the group told Richmond business owners: “Some politicians say the money will solve the city’s obesity problem, but there is no guarantee the money will actually be spent on children’s health.”
“Their ‘promise’ is a bait-and-switch tax to get voters to approve their tax hike,” the petition said. “The city council should pay attention to real problems like unemployment, violent crimes, and gangs.”
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.