On election night in November, the success of local ballot measures raising the minimum wage, endorsing election law reform, or calling for other much-needed policy changes produced some political cheer on an otherwise dismal evening.
Such measures may be our best form of resistance in the Trump era, but progressives need to be careful about what questions they put before the electorate locally and statewide. Some ballot initiatives aid movement-building in poor and working-class communities. Others can be political poison, even when the rationale for their adoption is unassailable from a public policy standpoint.
Two initiatives backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) in 2012 and 2016 illustrate the point, as I recount in Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. The RPA is a multi-racial, working-class oriented membership organization that combines electoral activity and year-round community organizing. Since 2004, it has fielded 16 candidates in “non-partisan” races for mayor or city council in a blue-collar city of 110,000 that is 80% non-white.
RPA candidates won ten of those elections, Richmond now has a progressive city council “super-majority”—five members out of seven, four of whom are Asian, Black, and/or Latino. RPA won those seats despite well-financed opposition. Since 2012, corporate political action committees have spent more than $7 million trying to elect business friendly council candidates (mainly African-American and Latino Democrats).
The RPA’s recent electoral success represents a major comeback after a crushing defeat at the polls just four years ago. In 2012, only a few months after a fire at the city’s largest employer, a Chevron refinery, sent 15,000 residents scrambling for medical attention, the RPA campaigned in support of a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks proposed by then-city councilor, Dr. Jeff Ritterman, director of cardiology at a local hospital. He had treated hundreds of lower-income black and Latino patients suffering from heart disease, type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other weight-related ailments – problems that were, increasingly, affecting children and young adults.
To address this public health crisis and discourage soda consumption, Ritterman proposed a modest soda levy that would raise $3 million annually, which would support expanded youth sports programs and health education. Some African-American ministers and public health workers endorsed Ritterman’s Measure N campaign, including Reverend Alvin Bernstine, pastor of Richmond’s Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, who proudly maintains what he calls a “no fry/no soda zone” in his congregation’s social hall. Bernstine invokes the historical connection between sugar plantations and slavery. “Soda companies have been exploiting black people for too long,” he says, “with products that have no nutritional benefit and no community economic benefit.”
That was not the message delivered by local allies of the American Beverage Association (ABA), the powerful industry lobbyist opposed to the soda tax. The ABA’s high-powered San Francisco consulting firm recruited and deployed teams of paid canvassers, all young people of color in need of a summer job. They distributed hundreds of “Vote No on N” lawn signs in black and Latino neighborhoods. They enlisted Latino grocery store owners and hired former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown to deliver an anti–soda tax speech to a big audience of African-American ministers and other NAACP members in Richmond.
Measure N was the wedge issue from heaven. It enabled opponents to depict would-be soda taxers as racist, elitist agents of a local nanny state opposed even to the simple pleasures of an ice-cold Coke. As Richmond’s senior city councilor Nat Bates told the New York Times, “They’re using the black community to pass a measure for us without consulting us. . . . We’re tired of this Progressive Alliance coming in and telling us what to do. I’ve renamed them ‘the Plantation Alliance.’” Corky Booze, a council ally of Bates, predicted that the RPA would next try to tax sweet potato pie, candied yams, and cupcakes.
The Contra Costa labor council urged its affiliates to reject Measure N because it might reduce employment for Teamster delivery drivers and bottling plant workers. “We can’t make Richmond healthier with a new tax that takes money out of people’s pockets,” said one union official.
Big Soda’s successful racialization of the Measure N debate put local progressives on the defensive, in a campaign year when they should have been capitalizing on widespread public concern about lax Chevron maintenance practices which caused its catastrophic pipe rupture and fire. On election night, the RPA paid a heavy price for soda tax advocacy. Not only was Measure N defeated in a landslide, but for the first time since Progressives started running candidates, none were elected.
Fast forward to 2016 and a local ballot measure empowering Richmond to regulate rents and require landlords to have just cause for evictions. Hundreds of lower-income African-American, Asian, and Latino tenants signed petitions to get rent control on the ballot, in a campaign initiated by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and strongly supported by the RPA.
No one knocked on more doors to talk to Richmond tenants about rent hikes and other landlord problems than 25-year old Richmond-born Melvin Willis, an ACCE organizer and new RPA steering committee member. Four years earlier, Willis was a somewhat reluctant canvasser on behalf of Measure N. As he recently confessed to the Richmond Pulse, a community newspaper, “I wasn’t necessarily for the soda tax, being somebody who drank soda and was low income.”
Inspired by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign—and encouraged by the RPA– Willis ran for an open seat on the city council last year. Only three of the nine candidates supported rent control, including Willis and fellow RPA leader, Ben Choi, a local environmentalist and city planning commission member. Both refused any corporate contributions—the only candidates in the field to do so. But their “Team Richmond” ticket received fund-raising help from Bernie Sanders’s post-campaign organization, Our Revolution, and qualified for Richmond’s modest program of public matching funs.
An estimated 25,000 people in 9,000 residential units stood to gain from rent control in Richmond, so both RPA candidates campaigned tirelessly among them. On November 8, Willis topped the field, finishing 2,000 votes ahead of RPA foe Bates, who was not re-elected. Choi ran a strong second. Jael Myrick, an incumbent city councilor in favor or rent regulation, placed third. Richmond voters also adopted rent control, by a margin of 14,734 to 8,134.
The lessons of progressive defeat in Richmond four years ago remain relevant to other communities of color where corporate America will defend its turf with renewed vigor during the Trump Era. It seems that business has learned the value of minority outreach from campaigns like the ABA’s anti-soda tax efforts. The New York Times reports that Koch Industries plans to spend millions in its “Fueling Forward” campaign,“ reminding black voters that they benefit most from cheap and abundant fossil fuels and have the most to lose if energy costs rise.”
That game plan looks very familiar. Progressives in minority communities who are trying to make electoral gains, while winning environmental and public health protections, will see more ABA-style propaganda campaigns, utilizing minority front groups. Fossil fuel defenders will try to recast much-needed measures to reduce global warming as “regressive taxation” of poor and working-class people.
Countering these strategies may require local organizational retooling. In Richmond, the RPA responded to its 2012 defeat by becoming more attuned to the felt needs of voters. A younger, more racially and gender diverse leadership cadre was recruited and elected to the Alliance steering committee. RPA also consulted with Richmond community leaders about how to make the group more inclusive and welcoming to new people.
Meanwhile, soda taxers in other cities have learned from the ABA’s 2012 win in Richmond. Just two years later, voters in neighboring Berkeley embraced the idea after an “inclusive effort with a very strong diverse coalition” that avoided the bad “racial dynamics of Richmond,” according to Marion Nestle author of Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda.
Real grassroots organizations with their finger on the pulse of the community, strong canvassing operations and diverse leadership can overcome corporate campaigns. But carefully picking your fights—where possible—greatly improves the odds of beating far better funded “astro-turf” opponents.
Steve Early was a national union representative for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. He was a Labor for Bernie volunteer and belongs to the Richmond Progress Alliance. His book about the political transformation of Richmond, Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, was published this month by Beacon Press.