The county’s health department has targeted sugary soft drinks as a top worry, especially in the fight against childhood obesity. Internal county emails made public last year show that then-County Chairman Jeff Cogen was weighing whether to impose a tax on soft drinks similar to the one being pushed by then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
And if you’re a soda giant—like, say, Coca-Cola—what happens in one Oregon county may not make a dent in your worldwide sales, but soft-drink companies have made clear they will fight soda taxes and bans wherever they surface.
“Soft-drink issues are continuing to come up in the Legislature and at the local government level,” says Rob Douglas, a lobbyist for the Oregon Soft Drink Association. “That is our concern.”
That’s why money from Big Soda in the race for county chair has become a compelling topic—and a surprising twist in the campaign.
Former Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury has accepted $5,000 each from Coca-Cola and the Oregon Soft Drink Association, through its political action committee. (It’s the biggest single political contribution the Oregon Soft Drink PAC reports giving so far this year.)
Kafoury’s opponent, former City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, is calling her out for taking the soft-drink money.
“To have that level of contribution from an entity when the county needs to regulate obesity and control it is very questionable,” Francesconi says.
Under previous county administrations, the health department took an aggressive approach to other public health issues such as the use of trans fats and restaurantmenu calorie labeling.
In addition, county leaders, including Kafoury, who served as a commissioner from 2009 through 2013, has pushed for the authority to levy local taxes on products such as alcohol and tobacco.
Kafoury has been an anti-soda crusader. As a state representative, she sponsored a bill in 2001 that would have banned sales of sugared soft drinks in Portland Public Schools. The soft-drink lobby fought the bill, which didn’t pass.
Douglas says he’s aware Multnomah County pondered various policies regarding soda under Cogen but says his group has had no specific discussions about potential taxes or regulation with Kafoury.
Anna Arodzero, a lobbyist for Coca-Cola, says her employer contributed to Kafoury because the company has an operation in Portland and many employees who live in the county. Company executives, she adds, think Kafoury is the best choice in the race.
“We’ve had a long-term relationship with Deborah Kafoury dating back to her time as a state legislator,” Arodzero says. “We really believe that she’s a strong and proven leader and the right person for this job.”
Arodzero concedes Coca-Cola is wary of soda taxes. “Taxation is not a direction that we hope state or local governments go,” she says. “It would be of concern to us if the county considered a tax.”
Kafoury says she’s made no representations about what she would do regarding soft drinks if elected.
“I don’t make promises to contributors,” Kafoury says, “and I don’t do things that I don’t believe in. It’s unfortunate my opponent is choosing to make an issue of these contributions.”
In fact, although Francesconi has criticized Kafoury for taking soda money, Arodzero says he called her seeking to talk with her and other Coke employees.
When WW asked Francesconi about the call, he denied calling Arodzero in her capacity as a lobbyist for Coke. He says he called Arodzero for a contribution because she served on the Portland board of the Boys and Girls Clubs. Francesconi says he called other members of the nonprofit’s board for support as well.
“I didn’t even know she was the lobbyist for Coca-Cola,” Francesconi said last week.
Arodzero tells WW Francesconi clearly indicated in a phone message he was interested in her company’s support.
“He left me a message wanting to talk to me and Coca-Cola employees about his race for county chair,” Arodzero says. “I’m happy to share the message with him if he doesn’t recall what he said.”
WW shared a copy of the voice mail with Francesconi, and he acknowledged making the call.
“I did not remember that I knew she was an employee of Coca-Cola, but I obviously did,” Francesconi says. “So I was wrong. That’s my voice. I made that call. I did know. I just didn’t remember that.”