El Monte Mayor Andre Quintero thought he had a winner on his hands when he placed a measure on the November ballot to tax sugary drinks.
The working-class San Gabriel Valley city was facing the possibility of insolvency, and it has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the state. So Quintero was confident he could sell the tax to residents.
But then the beverage industry converged on El Monte, turning the race into the most expensive campaign in the city’s history — and giving it an increasingly David-versus-Goliath feel.
The beverage industry forces are open about their desire to not just kill El Monte’s proposal but to make the sugary drinks tax politically unfeasible to other cities. They’ve brought together consultants from across the country, including the firm of a Washington, D.C., political strategist whose famous “Harry and Louise” advertisements helped derail the Clinton administration’s healthcare legislation in the early 1990s.
El Monte is now covered with “No on Measure H” signs and billboards. The measure’s foes launched a sophisticated political campaign with phone banks and paid canvassers and blanketed the city with mailers catering to El Monte’s diverse ethnic mix. Ads targeting Asians, for example, feature a woman named Stephanie Dang explaining how the tax would hit “boba milk tea.” Ads targeting Latinos show a Mexican American woman talking about chocolate milk.
They have handed out placards for mini-mart merchants to attach to soda bottles warning customers that the drinks will cost more if Measure H is approved. The proposal calls for a one-cent tax on each ounce of “sugar-sweetened” beverage sold. If approved, it could raise as much as $7 million for the city each year.
Driving around El Monte last week, Quintero seemed overwhelmed by the opposition. The “No on H” committee has spent close to $1.3 million, compared to his side’s $57,000.
“What they’re trying to do is not just defeat this measure, they’re trying to obliterate it, so that no elected official ever again considers putting something like this on the ballot,” said Quintero, 37, who grew up in El Monte. “A lot of people are saying to me, ‘You know this will be the end of your political career?’ ”
As he drove by a “No on Measure H” banner outside a 7-Eleven, Quintero acknowledged his is probably a losing battle.
The backlash against the measure was clear at the Valley Mall, the city’s downtown shopping center, where some merchants posted campaign signs in their front windows.
“Soda is bad for everybody, but taxes are even worse,” said Maria Aguilar, 60, who was shopping with her daughter and two grandchildren. “We have enough taxes already. Everyone knows that.”
The battle in El Monte comes as health advocates are more aggressively targeting sodas and sweet drinks as a cause of obesity, diabetes and other health problems. This year, New York famously became the first city to limit the size of sugar-filled drinks that can be sold in restaurants.
But for the beverage industry, the bigger fear has been talk of adding extra taxes onto drinks. Over the last three years, industry lobbyists have successfully opposed tax measures in cash-strapped cities like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Last year, a sugary-drink tax bill in the California state Legislature never even made it out of committee for a full Assembly vote.
Still, as California cities struggle to balance their budgets, beverage taxes have become an appealing option. In addition to El Monte, a sugary-drink tax measure is on the ballot in the Bay Area community of Richmond, which has also been struggling financially. There, an opposition committee has spent more than $2.2 million.
“We feel this is really bad public policy and really bad legislation — we don’t want to see it catch on,” said Matt Rodriguez, a regional director on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, who is now managing the “No on H” effort in El Monte.
The “No on H” forces struck early, going to court in early September to convince a judge to tone down the ballot language. They were also able to win the support of council member Victoria Martinez, who had originally backed Quintero on the measure.
The anti-tax forces have focused on letting the public know that the ballot measure covers not only soda but hundreds of other drinks containing sugar. They created a website that lists more than 500 products that would be taxed, ranging from Starbucks’ Frappuccino, Red Bull and Gatorade to tomato juice and iced tea.
There are also English- and Spanish-language radio advertisements, television commercials and even a spot at the local movie theater, warning that Measure H would hurt families and small businesses.
The message is resonating.
“El Monte is already low-income,” said Art Meier, who runs a popular burger stand on Valley Boulevard, next to the 10 Freeway. “To put this on the burden of the people, to me, it’s like stealing out of their pockets.”
Meier figures his extra large, 44-ounce Pepsi (which contains about 150 grams of sugar) would shoot up from $2.02 to $2.52 if the city’s tax proposal passes in November. He also pointed out a flaw in Measure H that even Quintero acknowledges — residents could simply drive to buy cheaper drinks in nearby cities like La Puente and West Covina.
Quintero tries to sell the tax by explaining El Monte’s gloomy financial picture. The city has reduced its workforce by about 30% since the start of the recession and has no money for street improvements in the new budget. In May, its credit rating was downgraded to “junk bond” status.
Quintero also emphasizes the health angle, arguing that children are becoming “addicted” to sugary drinks. But that argument has had limited effect. Polling has shown that many El Monte voters recognize the obesity problem, he said, but reject the concept of a new tax as a solution.
“I agree, kids shouldn’t drink so much soda, but that’s the parents’ responsibility, not the city’s and not the mayor’s,” said Christian O’Brien, 23, as she sat at a small playground in El Monte with her son Donovan.
In the middle of a hectic day, Quintero attended a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk) at a local Mexican restaurant. He arrived to see a “No on Measure H” sign planted firmly at the front of the parking lot.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Quintero exclaimed. “These things are everywhere.”