Oakland's Costly Campaign

This year’s election could turn out to be the most expensive in city history—thanks to four high-profile ballot measures.


Pablo Martinez and Temur Khwaja expressed regrets about being involved in No on HH.

By June 30, more than four months before Election Day, the American Beverage Association had already spent $747,268 in opposition to a soda tax measure on the Nov. 8 ballot in Oakland. And that was before the beverage association—which represents industry giants like Coca Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and Dr Pepper—had flooded mailboxes, the airwaves, and social media feeds in August and September with ads urging Oakland voters to reject what it calls “The Grocery Tax.” In all, Big Soda is expected to spend upward of $10 million this year, fighting proposed soda tax proposals in Oakland, San Francisco, and Albany.

And the soda tax, Measure HH, is just one of four high-profile measures on the Oakland ballot. The other three—a proposal to strengthen the city’s rent control law, a plan to create an independent civilian police review commission, and a $600 million infrastructure bond—are also expected to attract significant campaign spending. When it’s over, the 2016 election will likely go down as the most expensive in city history.

In a move that critics charge is an overt attempt to mislead voters, the beverage industry has tried to recast soda tax as a tax on all groceries, enlisting a handful of small Oakland storeowners to be the chief spokespeople for the No on HH campaign. But by late August, No on Measure HH had already stirred so much controversy that two of the storeowners expressed regrets about getting involved in it. Pablo Martinez, owner of International Produce Market in East Oakland, told Oakland Magazine that he wished he had never appeared in the campaign and no longer opposes the soda tax. “I don’t agree with it,” said Martinez of the No on HH campaign.

Similarly, Temur Khwaja, owner of Marwa Market in North Oakland, said he had a change of heart about being involved in the No on HH campaign after hearing complaints from some of his customers about the political stance he had taken in the ads. He told Oakland Magazine in late August that he wasn’t going to film any more ads for the beverage industry. “If it comes to politics, I’m going to stay out of it,” he said. The No on HH campaign, however, continued to run a TV ad in September that Khwaja had filmed earlier this year.

As for the pro-Measure HH campaign, it won’t be able to compete financially with Big Soda. Its only hope is that Oakland voters will be smart enough to realize that a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages is not a grocery tax. “I think the behavior of the beverage industry has been disgusting,” said Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. Measure HH requires a simple majority to pass, and Oakland plans to use the proceeds it generates to fund a citywide health education campaign—like Berkeley has done with its soda tax measure.

Meanwhile, Measure JJ, the renters’ protection proposal, is expected to generate serious opposition from landlord groups. The measure would expand the number of rental units covered by the city’s just cause eviction law and would require landlords to petition the city to raise rents beyond what Oakland rent control law allows.

Currently, tenants must challenge illegal rent hikes through a cumbersome city process that can be particularly difficult for immigrants to navigate. “It can be a hardship for anyone, and especially for someone whose first language is not English,” Kaplan said.

City officials also anticipate that the Oakland police union will mount a campaign to defeat Measure LL, an initiative that would create a civilian police review commission. The new commission would have the ability to not only fire the police chief, but also to investigate, discipline, and terminate cops for wrongdoing. By early September, the police union had yet to announce a campaign against LL, although it had threatened earlier to sue to block the measure and only relented when councilmembers agreed to protect the union’s right to arbitration in discipline cases. “We believe it will create a good set of checks and balances on the Oakland Police Department,” said Councilmember Dan Kalb, who co-authored the measure.

Finally, many city leaders are concerned that real estate and landlord groups will also finance a campaign against Measure KK, the infrastructure bond, because of its size: $600 million. The measure would raise property taxes by $70 per $100,000 of assessed value by the time all the bonds are sold. For a home assessed at $500,000, that’s a $350 annual tax increase. The East Bay Rental Housing Association opposes both Measure KK and JJ.

But Mayor Libby Schaaf, the chief proponent of KK, believes Oakland voters will back the measure because the city has a dire need for infrastructure upgrades, especially street repaving. In addition, the city plans to use $100 million of the bonds to help prevent displacement of low- and middle-income residents from the city. “I believe the bond will improve the quality of life for all Oaklanders,” she said.

Published online on Sept. 26, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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