I Was There: The Berkeley Soda Tax Victory
What a week it’s been! As an unabashed political junkie, election day can feel like Christmas come early. The drama, the suspense, the agony and ecstasy of an election!
(Ok, reel it in, Russell, reel it in).
Of course there were many dramas to follow, but as a resident of Berkeley, California, there was one clear front runner for my attention: the proposed soda tax, Measure D. I’ve been writing about this one in a couple blogs, and it’s a race that received a decent amount of national attention, too. Could Berkeley pull off what 30 other cities tried and failed to do in the face of massive spending by industry interests? If not then could any city realistically hope to?
Seeing as the Yes on D headquarters was just a ten minute bike ride from my house, on election night I rolled over there to get a sense of the mood.
The Yes on D camp occupied a no frills, two-story space in downtown Berkeley. The bottom floor lined with inexpensive plywood tables and plastic fold-out chairs, the walls covered with precinct maps and charts tracking voter outreach, I would say close to 100 people showed up to do some last minute phone banking as the clock ticked closer to 8 pm when the polls closed.
Over the course of the campaign, anti-tax groups – primarily the American Beverage Association – outspent the Yes on D campaign $2.3 million compared to $647,000. This is the most money spent in a Berkeley election ever. The American Beverage Association sent out reams of mailers to Berkeley residents. They purchased advertising space in nearly all of Berkeley’s major transit hubs. Legions of paid canvassers stood in front of bus stops and went door-to-door in neighborhoods urging voters to cast a no vote on Measure D.
In the face of such a lopsided campaign spending, you’d think the Yes on D campaign would be intimidated or at least a little anxious on election night, right?
What I saw on election night was a group of people who exalted in the David versus Goliath narrative that they were a part of, feeling like they were on the cusp of making history. At the strike of 8-o’clock, the closing of the polls, cheers rose from the crowd, and high fives bounced all over the room. A local bluegrass band started setting up, and those in attendance quickly packed up all the tables and chairs, making space for a standing room only crowd. At that point one of the campaign’s leaders, Josh Daniels, stood up on the podium, firing up the crowd and congratulating them on all their hard work.
But he didn’t get very far before a campaign aide came over and interrupted him, carrying a laptop. Josh looked at the screen for a couple seconds and then addressed the crowd – “I have just been shown some of the initial results. Now, this is only with 7% of precincts reporting so we still got a long night ahead of us…but right now we are ahead 77% to 23%.”
An eruption of cheers and applause shook the room.
The rest of the night was a who’s who of Berkeley activists. About a dozen speakers addressed the crowd, from longtime Berkeley activists, city council members, Berkeley’s state assembly representative, a local pastor, medical professionals, and lead campaign staff. Over and over the theme was “this is for the health of the city’s children and community.” People told stories about their own or their family’s struggle with diabetes and how there had to had to be push back against the beverage industry. Speakers also talked about how Berkeley had triumphantly lead the way on a range of other issues, such as requiring separate smoking sections in restaurants, banning Styrofoam food containers, installing curb cuts for people in wheelchairs, and that this would be similarly be the beginning of a national movement.
According to one speaker: “This is a watershed moment for us and a Waterloo moment for Big Soda.”
As it would turn out, the results of the vote would stay pretty much the same for the rest of the night – Berkeley voters approved the soda tax 76% to 24%.
Whether this marks a turning point of course remains to be seen. Advocates of the measure certainly believe it will be. And of course opponents of the measure were quick to dismiss the victory – No on D spokesperson Roger Salazar said in a press release, “If politicians want to stake their reputations on what Berkeley did, they do so at their own risk.”
Either way, what happened on Tuesday is historic. And whatever happens in the upcoming election cycles, for now the feeling of local pride in Berkeley is so thick you could cut it with a butter knife and spread it on a fresh loaf from the Cheeseboard.