Mayor’s office sent activists to ‘corner’ councilwoman over soda tax, emails reveal

Charles Mostoller

In the weeks leading up to City Council’s passage of the new sweetened drinks tax, the debate over the tax was getting heated.

So heated, in fact, that Mayor Jim Kenney’s chief of staff decided to help send activists from ACTION United to “corner” City Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, who opposed the tax.

“Have we made any progress on getting them to deliver statement to Maria to pledge not take soda $$$?” wrote Jane Slusser, Kenney’s chief of staff, in a May 11 email to a consultant working with the activists. “There is an event tomorrow where we know she’ll be and could corner her out in front with cameras.”

City&StatePA broke the story after obtaining the email through a Right-to-Know request.

Kenney wasn’t aware of their plot, a spokeswoman said.

The mayor issued a statement Thursday defending his staff’s intentions.

“While I believe it was fair for my staff to draw attention to the soda industry’s attempts to buy votes, I understand how you could look back now and say that their methods were aggressive,” the statement reads.

“At the time, it probably seemed like a drop in the bucket compared to what the soda industry and their allies were orchestrating. But, looking back,we agree, no matter the circumstances, taking the high road is always the right thing to do.What’s important now is that we focus on ensuring the tax benefits as many of our pre-k babies and neighborhoods as possible. They have already waited for too long.”

ACTION United didn’t corner Quinones-Sanchez on May 12, when she attendeda City Hall news conference for Kenney to sign an executive order for the Language Access Philly program. Butthey did storm her offices four days later.

The organization didn’t respond to requests for comment,

Quinones-Sanchez called the tactics “disrespectful.”

“Today it’s me, tomorrow it will be another one of my colleagues if they don’t fall in line,” she said. “I’m more disappointed that he still hasn’t apologized and just thinks it’s campaign theatrics.”

Quinones-Sanchez stressed that she supports the initiatives the soda tax is supposed to fund — universal pre-K, the Rebuild program,and community schools.

“I agreed with the initiative. I disagreed with the funding mechanism. That should not make me the target of an ambush,” she said. “Tactics like embarrassing a councilwoman are not a policy debate.”

David Thornburgh, executive director of good government nonprofit Committee of Seventy, said he couldn’t recall hearing of such a tactic being used before, but said it didn’t surprise him.

“The mayor wants to get stuff done,” he said. “Sometimes his staff wants to get stuff done even more eagerly than he does. It’s more about the political style that the mayor and his folks employ, and how that’s perceived by the people that they want to influence.”

The 1.5 cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened drinks is set to take effect Jan. 1.

However, it still hinges on how a city judge rules on a lawsuit filed by the American Beverage Association to stop the tax.

A decision on the suit is expected before the end of the year. Regardless of whether the tax is halted or goes into effect, the losing side is expected to appeal the verdict.

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