RICHMOND, Calif. -- This small, blue-collar city best known for its Chevron refinery has become the unlikely vanguard for anticorporate, left-wing activism in recent years, having seized the mantle from places like Berkeley, just south of here, or San Francisco, across the Bay.
It became the largest American city to be led by a Green Party mayor, who was re-elected two years ago even though the oil giant bankrolled rival efforts with $1.2 million. Social activists belonging to the Richmond Progressive Alliance gained control of the City Council, from where they have been taking on what they refer to as the "Chevron Man."
But this election season, city leaders are fighting on two fronts, against not only Big Oil but also Big Soda, as they like to call their foes. If voters here approve a proposal on Tuesday's ballot, Richmond will become the first city in the United States to add a tax on businesses that sell soda and other sweetened drinks, although many states already collect taxes on such drinks directly as part of anti-obesity efforts.
Fierce campaigning has brought in the kind of money rarely seen in a community of 104,000 people. Soda companies have funneled $2.5 million into efforts to defeat the tax, or Measure N, while supporters have raised only $69,000.
In its continuing fight, Chevron has again spent $1.2 million, this time to oppose two City Council candidates who are critical of the company and to support three who are considered supportive. An otherwise dilapidated downtown is blanketed with signs and billboards attacking the soda tax and backing candidates favored by the beverage industry and Chevron.
"We've been taking on Chevron for so many years, and now we're taking on Big Soda as well, because we know that corporate entities are buying elections and unduly influencing cities and our nation," Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said in an interview in her City Hall office. "We're trying to show the Richmond community that we don't have to sit back and let them take control of our lives. We can stand up to them."
Richmond, though, is not united. The two-pronged battle has sharpened the differences between the Richmond Progressive Alliance and leaders of the city's growing Hispanic population and the once-dominant black establishment. Many in those groups oppose the soda tax and side with Chevron.
The mayor blames the rift on the money from the oil and soda industries. Black and Hispanic leaders say the alliance, whose most prominent leaders are white, failed to reach out to them before moving ahead on a tax that would disproportionately affect small businesses and consumers in their communities. Supporters have said that the tax would combat child obesity, which is highest among black children in Richmond, according to a local study.
"They're using the black community to pass a measure for us without consulting us," said Nathaniel Bates, a veteran councilman whose campaign for re-election has received $157,000 from Moving Forward, a coalition that is heavily financed by Chevron. "We're tired of this Progressive Alliance coming in and telling us what to do. I've renamed them Plantation Alliance."
Supporters of the measure, which would impose a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages, argue that the new revenue would be used to fight childhood obesity in a city where the poverty rate is higher than the state average and where more than half of elementary school students are considered overweight or obese, according to the study, commissioned by the Richmond City Council.
Chuck Finnie, a spokesman for a committee working against Measure N, which is being financed by the American Beverage Association, said the association spent $2.5 million because the local measure is part of a growing national debate over soda.
"There's basically a handful of advocacy organizations who are trying to convince the country that soda companies should be treated like tobacco companies," Mr. Finnie said. "But when we organize a local campaign against the measure -- granted with funding from Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr Pepper -- folks in Richmond can make up their minds themselves."
Jeff Ritterman, the councilman who led the drive for the soda tax measure, said the beverage industry was simply trying to buy votes.
"We have a legitimate, grass-roots community movement that cares about Richmond and wants to change it," said Mr. Ritterman, who is also a cardiologist. "They have an AstroTurf-funded movement."
Complicating matters, a fire broke out at Chevron's refinery in August, spewing smoke into the air and sending thousands to emergency rooms. The Richmond Progressive Alliance renewed demands that Chevron fully modernize its 110-year-old refinery; Ms. McLaughlin said the city and Chevron were negotiating compensation for the fire, adding that the goal was to "make sure Chevron pays the highest amount we can get from them."
Heather Kulp, a spokeswoman for Chevron, Richmond's biggest employer, said that there was "no direct conversation" about compensation between the company and the city. Explaining Chevron's $1.2 million role in the City Council races, Ms. Kulp said: "We think that it's important for voters to have the information about all the candidates running for office so that they can elect the City Council members that are best suited to helping push Richmond further into the future."
Gary Bell, a City Council candidate Moving Forward has supported with $103,000, criticized the Richmond Progressive Alliance.
"Unless they're telling people Chevron should just shut down and go away, the alternative is to find a way to work with them where it's a win-win situation," Mr. Bell said.
A former councilman, Mr. Bell ran for mayor in 2006 and split the black and pro-business votes with Irma Anderson, the incumbent. That handed a narrow victory to Ms. McLaughlin.
The victory also reflected the changing demographics of a longtime moderate Democratic city. The black population has continued to decline; though Hispanics now make up the biggest ethnic group, they remain underrepresented among voters. Many newcomers drawn to Richmond's affordable rents have come from Berkeley and brought along their politics.
"You do see the kinds of issues here that used to be brought up in Berkeley, international affairs and ideological issues, as opposed to the bread-and-butter issues that used to dominate Richmond," said Eric Zell, a local political consultant who has worked for the city and Chevron.
Ms. McLaughlin spoke of using Richmond politics to connect with international movements, including those in developing nations where Western oil companies extract crude.
"One of our slogans at rallies has been: From Richmond to Ecuador to Burma to Nigeria, we are in solidarity, and the oil industry needs to be held accountable," the mayor said.
At home, the city government declared last summer that pet owners would now be called pet "guardians." Richmond allows homeless people to sit or sleep on the streets even as places like San Francisco have taken a harder stance in recent years.
On Tuesday, voters in Berkeley will consider a proposition that would ban sitting or lying on commercial sidewalks. To Ms. McLaughlin, who said Berkeley's rich history of political activism inspired her when she was young, that made it even more important for Richmond to press ahead.
"It's not good to just have one city" known for its political activism, the mayor said, "and certainly not a city that's sliding backward like Berkeley."nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.