Richmond races fueled by big money
Updated 10:21 p.m., Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Chevron and soda companies poured more than $3 million into Richmond races this fall, and pretty much got what they were hoping for.
Voters resoundingly defeated a proposed tax on sodas, juice and other sugar-sweetened beverages, and elected two of three City Council candidates backed by Chevron.
"This is a wake-up call," said Jovanka Beckles, a councilwoman who was not up for election Tuesday. "They come here, they throw their money around, then they go back to their mansions and yachts while we're left with the aftermath. It's not fair, and we need to address this on a policy level."
The American Beverage Association spent about $2.5 million to defeat Measure N, which would have taxed business owners a penny per ounce on soda sales in what would have been the first voter-approved soda tax in the United States.
The measure lost by a 2-to-1 margin, with most of the opposition coming from the working-class precincts in the center and northern parts of town. Voters in the hills and Point Richmond mostly voted in favor.
Chevron, meanwhile, spent about $1.2 million backing three candidates for the council: incumbent Nat Bates and newcomers Gary Bell and Bea Roberson. Bates, Bell and incumbent Tom Butt were the top vote-getters.
Chuck Finnie, a political consultant with Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst, Lauter and Partners, the San Francisco firm that ran the No on N campaign, said the measure lost because it was poorly written, and the industry financing helped Richmond voters see that.
"Voters saw that this was a wrong-headed and ineffective proposal," he said. "They know it's futile to fight obesity with local taxes and a blank check for City Hall."
A soda tax measure in El Monte (Los Angeles County) - also opposed by the beverage industry - lost, as well.
Big money and regional attention are relatively new to Richmond politics, said Robert Smith, a longtime Richmond resident and political science professor at San Francisco State University.
For decades, the council and Chevron were mostly in agreement on issues such as taxes, pollution, expansion and jobs. But a few years ago the city, and its elected representatives, began shifting to the left, electing a Green Party mayor in 2006 and several progressive council members who routinely question Chevron.
"Chevron pretty much always had its way, but when (Mayor) Gayle McLaughlin won, the relationship with the city at times became an adversarial one," Smith said. "Then the refinery fire happened (in August), which energized people on both sides."
Richmond voters received glossy mailers and billboards, accusing non-Chevron-backed candidates of not paying their taxes, not showing up for work and in one case, not being tough enough on terrorists.
By comparison, other campaigns in Richmond relied heavily on volunteers knocking on doors, homemade mailers and small donations.
It's frustrating to see elections swayed by highly paid political consultants who rarely set foot in the city, Beckles said.
"They somehow convince Richmond residents to vote for things that are against their own interests," Beckles said. "It's mind-blowing to me, and very disheartening."
On Wednesday, Chevron officials said they were pleased with the election outcome.
"We are looking forward to working with City Council members who share our commitment to policies that foster an economic environment where business can thrive and ... make Richmond an even more attractive place to live and work," said Heather Kulp, public affairs manager for Chevron's Richmond operation.
The top vote-getter Tuesday was Bates, who will be embarking on his eighth term on the Richmond City Council. Bates was first elected in 1967, when the council had six-year terms.
He had no qualms about Chevron spending $1.2 million to help elect him, and he has no qualms about voting against the refinery if need be, he said.
"They don't tell me how to vote," Bates said. "If Chevron was doing something detrimental to the city, I'd hold them responsible."
Furthermore, it's insulting to Richmond residents to imply they were duped, he said.
"Richmond's got an intelligent population that can make its own mind up," he said. "We don't need people telling us what to think."
Carolyn Jones is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/Richmond-races-fueled-by-big-money-4018410.php#ixzz2BeEPW4SX