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Grassroots Change Interview: Lessons from the Boulder Soda Tax Victory, Part 2

December 20, 2016

Local Politics

Grassroots movements must work with the people key to influencing, changing, and implementing policies: elected officials, business owners, neighborhood and school advocates, and other leaders. This second installment in the Grassroots Change Case Study: Lessons from the Boulder Soda Tax Victory features Angelique Espinoza, the campaign manager for Healthy Boulder Kids, talking about the art of navigating local politics in a grassroots campaign.

This interview series delves in detail into three related aspects of grassroots movement building. In part 1, read an interview with Jorge De Santiago and Elena Aranda of AMISTAD, a Latinx-led social justice nonprofit, about how social and health equity motivated Boulder’s soda tax movement. Part 3 covers the soda industry’s legal challenges to the campaign in an interview with Hillary Jorgensen, JD, Director of Policy Change at Healthier Colorado.

This interview has been edited for length.

Grassroots Change: How did you get involved in the Healthy Boulder Kids [soda tax] campaign?

Angelique Espinoza, Campaign Manager for Healthy Boulder Kids
Angelique Espinoza, Campaign Manager for Healthy Boulder Kids

Angelique Espinoza: I was asked to take on the role of the campaign manager after the process was already underway.  I hadn’t been involved at all in the [soda tax] movement before that; I came on as someone who was familiar with local politics, and who the campaign felt could provide leadership and knowledge about the local political landscape. I thought, “A soda tax, that seems like a really good idea, because we know there are all these externalized costs [to sugary drinks], and it’s important, especially for those of us who care about health equity.”  So it spoke to my personal values.

GC: How well did you know the political landscape in the city of Boulder?

AE: Very well. It’s really important to understand your local community because there are a lot of things you can do in a campaign that are effective and don’t cost money, but you’ve got to know who the players are. I used to be on the City Council, and then was the policy director at our local Boulder Chamber of Commerce. Through that, I was able to participate in numerous City Council elections and campaigns for other local issues. At the time I became the campaign manager for Boulder’s soda tax, I had just come out of running in the primary for the State House of Representatives. That gave me strong insight and relationships in the Democratic Party, which in Boulder is big, important community organization besides just being a party structure.

GC: What were the most pressing needs in the campaign when you came on?

AE: We were in the middle of a court case. The soda industry had recruited a local person to launch a legal challenge against the citizens’ petition and try to keep it off the ballot. That was underway, and a lot of the plans for launching the campaign were on hold until the case was finalized. Honestly, a lot of the funding was also on hold because some of the organizations that were interested in what we were doing wanted to know whether it would move forward before they put skin in the game. We lost six weeks on the ground because of that.

One of the things I would do differently is to make clear from the get-go to expect legal challenges, so that the resources that were needed to get things going weren’t waiting and everyone would just view it for what it was — a distraction on the part of the soda industry. Now, we’ve seen how the industry has been denied in each case, so I think it’s much more realistic to say, “Look they do this every time.” Don’t let this hold up the campaign, don’t let this hold up the funding, don’t let this hold you up in making plans of getting the volunteers organized and out on the ground.

GC: What went well? What were the coalition’s strengths?

AE: So much of a grassroots campaign is about reaching into different communities. We know the most effective voter outreach is person to person.  A piece of mail is minimally effective, a phone call is more effective. A knock at the door from someone you don’t know is much more effective, but the absolute most effective way to reach a voter is if someone they know and trust asks for their vote. We had that; we had people networked into other large communities.  Nicole at CrossFit Roots pulled an event together and leveraged her community. Moxie Moms came on board with us. We had folks in the public health community who were on board with us. The local Democrats endorsed our issue.  There were all of these different people who had access to different groups and were talking to their friends and contacts as trusted leaders, getting the word out.

GC: New Era has been mentioned a lot. What was their role?

AE: New Era was absolutely key. We knew that a big piece of our voter base — the people who are likely to vote for us even if we didn’t reach them with any materials — were young voters. They are also the least reliable voters, so part of our strategy was making sure that we had the most effective organization turning the youth vote as part of our coalition. The fact that New Era worked so hard to turn out of voters and put out a voter guide that endorsed our issue in their hand was huge.

GC: Were there rough spots or missed opportunities?

AE: When I came on board, the local Democratic Party had just voted not to take a stance on our issue, and that should never have happened. We were successful in getting them to reconsider and ultimately endorse us. It’s really important for anyone doing this to have a comprehensive list of local organizations that are key to winning the campaign. The local Democratic Party sends a voter guide to thousands of Boulder voters, and an email to thousands of Boulder voters. Since Boulder is predominantly Democratic, that’s like [reaching almost every voter], but we were not going to get that because somehow it had slipped through the cracks.

GC: If you are new to these campaigns or new to a city, who would you talk to for advice about knowing who gives those key endorsements?

AE: If I were brand new to the city, I would check out any local leadership programs, and look at the organizations they connect with.  You should go to a city council meeting, a school board meeting, the local Chamber of Commerce and local political parties. You’ll meet the people who are the movers and shakers in the community.  As you talk to those people, you’ll be able to find the people who can give you the lay of the land.

GC: So make a list? “This union, this political organization, and so on?”

AE: Exactly, and that’s a good point. Every town is different; every town has its own influencers,

Healthy Boulder Kids' fundraiser at Zeal Restaurant. Credit: Kyle Pfister, Ninjas for Health
Healthy Boulder Kids’ fundraiser at Zeal Restaurant. Credit: Kyle Pfister, Ninjas for Health

and the way to figure out who they are is just to start talking to people in the places you know they’ll be.

GC: Tell me about a time when you were really proud of the campaign.

AE: The first time I really got to see the broader coalition was when we had an event at Zeal [a local restaurant supporting Healthy Boulder Kids]. I got to see what happens when our core coalition members asked their contacts to turn out. With not much other marketing, we had a fantastic showing, introduced new people to the issue, raised money, and highlighted our relationship with a local restaurant. In grassroots efforts of any kind, getting people to actually come to something can be like pulling teeth. The fact that we had a great turnout made it feel vibrant and important. It showed the depth of the coalition’s reach into the community and I was proud of the group for putting that together.

GC: What other lessons can cities take from Boulder’s experience?

AE: A campaign is different than a social movement. Ideally they should be able to merge, but there are some very specific skills, relationships, and sensibilities that are particular to running a campaign and communicating with voters in order to win a vote. The folks who work with the community long term build deep and broad relationships, and that takes a lot of time and energy.  Once you get to the campaign stage, you have to have people on board who know how to boil it down to a few messages that resonate in your particular community. It is really important that the gears link up between that long term work and the speed of campaigning. It can be challenging. You can get along without a strong link, but it’s going to be a much more positive experience for everyone if you can make those gears sync.

I wasn’t involved at the beginning, but if I were to start this over again, I would aim for more regular communication and decision-making in a smaller but representative committee of community and campaign leaders. Ideally, someone would have been involved from the beginning who had knowledge of the national movement and also had experience in the specific needs of a campaign.

Having strong relationships between funders and the local coalition is also really important, and challenging. It’s like a startup company that takes on funders — there’s a certain amount of control that you give up when you bring on funders who are making big investments. The more you have good communication between the hopes and dreams of the local community and the funders who are behind you because of bigger-picture issues that are less localized, the better. Those relationships are really important and the effort to strengthen those relationships would pay off.

GC: One of the unique features of Boulder is the number of both startups and natural food businesses. You had firsthand experience working with these sectors in your earlier role at the Chamber. For other cities that are trying to tap into these spheres, do you have advice?

AE: Tapping into the tech world is really challenging, because in my experience, they have very little interest in participating in politics and government. They tend to be really busy, and similar to the young vote, they’re very issue driven – sometimes they’ll get involved in a cause that grabs their interest, like flood relief or education for girls. You have to start by going to new tech meetups, developing relationships with influencers in that community, and getting a critical mass of people within the group on board. Then they will invite their friends. You can’t bring them on board alone. Then you need to recognize style differences — they might have a great idea and could offer support in a way that hadn’t necessarily been in your game plan.

GC: What about the natural food businesses?

AE: That’s also a challenging one. On the one hand, as soon as you start talking to the business community, you are basically tipping your hand, and the longer the soda industry has to be in campaign mode in your city. On the other hand, if you haven’t made that outreach to the local food producers, particularly the smaller beverage producers, you run the risk of having them express their concerns in the middle of the campaign. Here, the soda industry took advantage of that, and tried to turn this away from being a fight against Big Soda, which we know it was. They framed it as a fight against local businesses. If I’d had the opportunity, I probably would have talked to the local businesses very early on and may have written in exceptions in the policy so it had less of an impact on them, even if it is not everything that health advocates would have liked.   In my experience, policy has to be flexible to multiple stakeholders in the community, and if you can get those people on board early in the campaign, you become almost immune to Big Soda’s anti-tax advertising and messaging. You can show how they’re just trying to protect their interests and there’s nothing humanizing about that.

GC: There’s the political reality and the public health reality. In Berkeley, the coalition decided the policy would have the greatest impact by focusing on the biggest soda manufacturers. It tried to balance genuine concern for small local producers with the reality that the sugary drinks they make are typically marketed to higher income groups, and excluding those products wasn’t fair, even if people drank them less.

AE: Yes – It’s a lot of balancing for sure.

GC: What do you think the national soda tax movement has learned from Boulder?

AE: Boulder often gets teased statewide because some things happen in Boulder that people say couldn’t happen in other places. But we often find ourselves as an example people can start from. People will ask us how we did it. They’ll ask us for the ordinance language; they’ll ask us how it’s working, or problems we run into.  We’re like the beta testers, and we have the privilege of being the beta testers for a lot of great policy, like affordable housing ordinances, open space ordinances, and sustainability taxes. Our legacy is to provide information that can be helpful to other communities. Together with the three cities in the Bay Area that passed taxes like ours on election day, we’ve shown a turning of the tide. I’m hopeful that we’ve been able to turn back industry’s push against soda taxes, and this momentum makes it a little easier for the wave that comes after us.

Angelique Espinoza is a former Boulder City Council member, and was the campaign manager for Healthy Boulder Kids, the successful soda tax campaign in Boulder, Colorado. Boulder voters approved a ballot measure for a 2-cent tax on the distribution of sugar-sweetened beverages on November 8, 2016.