RICHMOND -- Supporters of the hotly contested ballot measure here to tax sugar-sweetened beverages are relying on volunteers and creativity to get their message out to local voters in the closing days of a campaign that has drawn national attention and millions in anti-tax spending by the soda industry.
Youth artists spray-paint anti-soda "Yes on N" murals on street corner buildings, with the owners' permission. And Councilman Jeff Ritterman, the retired cardiologist-turned-councilman who leads the Measure N effort, has done dozens of interviews with media from around the world and spent hundreds of hours campaigning.
He pulls a wagon carrying 40 pounds of sugar -- a prop meant to personify the amount the average child consumes in a year -- and spends late nights pecking rhetoric into his keyboard, jousting with critics and naysayers on social media platforms.
He's been shouted down at parks and in church parking lots, but on Monday night, he made his case to 80 people gathered at Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church for a town-hall meeting.
Relying on local African-American sports and health advocates to do most of the talking to one of the city's oldest black congregations, he nevertheless bemoaned the "polarization" that has cleaved residents over his measure that could make Richmond the first city in the nation to tax sugar-sweetened drinks.
"We have to keep the focus on our children and how to make the city a better
Eric Avery, coach of the Richmond Half-Steppers, a youth track club, had just finished speaking on the need for recreation funding from the penny-per-ounce business tax.
Keenly aware of the $2.5million spent so far against the measure, Ritterman did what he seldom does -- acknowledged the possibility of defeat on Tuesday. As of Oct. 20, the pro-Measure N "Fit for Life" campaign had spent less than $50,000 from mostly small donors.
"Win or lose, we have to figure out a way to support" the Half Steppers, Ritterman said.
It's in Richmond's working-class neighborhoods where the ballot battle will be won or lost, and skeptics say the pro-tax activists can't overcome the money and the blunt "no on new taxes" message against them.
Otheree Christian, president of the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Association, said he liked much of what he heard Monday but that his mostly African-American and Latino neighborhood is leaning against the measure and can't be persuaded.
"In this economy, with people struggling, putting in a new tax is not going to work, no matter how you try to dress it up," Christian said.
Several speakers Monday appealed directly to the city's African-American and Latino communities, calling sugar-sweetened beverages "poisons" that are fueling obesity, diabetes and other health maladies.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and other elected leaders joined Ritterman at the church and pushed hard for the measure. McLaughlin pledged to pass postelection legislation requiring that every dollar from Measure N goes to youth health and recreation programs, another in a long line of tweaks to the message that the pro-N side has made over months of campaigning to counter critics.
With its vast budget, The Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes counts hundreds of local businesses and influential community groups, including the NAACP and Black Women of Political Action, among its members. The city's streets and airwaves are awash in "No on N" ads, funded by the Washington D.C.-based American Beverage Association. The coalition has also provided thousands in direct payments to influential community leaders, including to the Black American Political Action Committee and its treasurer, Joe Fisher.
"Without Big Soda's money, there would be no organized opposition against the soda tax," Ritterman said. Critics have complained that Ritterman and his allies initially overlooked the support of local churches and leaders, opening the door for the beverage industry to make inroads. Ritterman disagrees.
"No regrets," Ritterman said. "We have worked hard. We have run an honest campaign."
Observers close to the campaigns on both sides say N has a slim chance at passage but still marvel at the spirited, crafty, bare-bones campaign that pushed Richmond into the national spotlight on public health policy.
The battle in Richmond may be lost this year, they say, but the larger war changing the beverage industry is still in their favor.
"This really advanced the cause no matter how the vote turns out," said Councilman Tom Butt. "A lot of people have been watching this, learning what to do and what not to do, and I am sure there will be other cities that will take this up."
Here is a synopsis of Measure N, which could make Richmond the nation's first city to impose a penny-per-ounce tax on merchants who sell sugar-sweetened beverages.