D.C. voters rejected a proposal yesterday to place deposits on bottles and cans, responding to a record $2 million campaign by a beverage industry coalition that argued such a measure would raise prices and create inconvenience for consumers and businesses.
With the D.C. Board of Elections reporting final returns for more than 77,000 ballots cast, the bottle proposal known as Initiative 28 failed by 55 percent to 45 percent. The initiative, which was backed by environmentalists and numerous civic groups as a means of combatting litter, received its heaviest support in predominantly white, upper-income and professional areas such as Kalorama, Georgetown, Cleveland Park and Capitol Hill.
But in black middle-class areas of Wards 4, 5 and 7, where voter turnout was heavy, voters who said they feared the bottle bill would be bad for business and would do little to clean up litter cast their ballots against the initiative by a wide margin. Results were much closer in such integrated areas as Shepherd Park and Takoma Park.
The voting along racial lines resembled results of several recent elections, but was not so clearly pronounced as in Mayor Marion Barry's reelection campaign last year, when he was rejected by voters in solidly white Ward 3 and narrowly defeated in mixed Ward 2.
In District school races, five incumbents easily won new terms, while voters in Ward 5 ousted three-term member Bettie Benjamin, electing guidance counselor Angie Corley by only 140 votes. Benjamin did not concede last night and absentee ballots, to be counted Nov. 13, may still affect the outcome. Incumbents Eugene Kinlow (At Large), Nate Bush (Ward 7), Bob Boyd (Ward 6), Linda Cropp (Ward 4) and Wilma Harvey (Ward 1) won new terms.
Voters also overwhelmingly approved Initiative 25, a school measure that declared education to be "of the highest priority."
Opponents of the bottle initiative, who stirred controversy by spending unprecedented amounts on advertising and a small army of paid campaign workers, declared victory at 11:30 p.m.
"We worked long and hard for the victory," said John N. Downs, vice president for public affairs for the Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Co. He declared victory around 11:30 p.m. "I want to compliment the citizens of Washington, D.C., for making the right choice today." Downs said his group is committed to helping to get a cleaner city and wants to fashion a "comprehensive solution" to litter problems.
Asked about the apparent pattern of voting along racial lines, Downs said, "We targeted all kinds of voters just like the other side did."
Jonathan Puth, director of the Bottle Bill Initiative Campaign, said of the industry's victory, "They got what they could buy, but it was ugly. They spread some vicious lies at the polls . . . . They fought common sense with nonsense."
Puth said his group would try to mount another initiative campaign in the future if the bottle industry fails to take steps to curb litter in the city.
The deposit initiative appeared to have prompted voters to turn out in much greater numbers than in other off-year elections. The 77,408 votes cast represented 30.4 percent of the voters, compared to 18 percent who voted in 1985.
Both supporters and opponents of Initiative 28 carried the intensity of their campaigns into the final hours, with massive get-out-the-vote efforts and charges of Election Day trickery.
The antideposit forces appeared to have taken a powerful advantage at polling places, marshalling hundreds of paid workers and support teams paid out of the beverage industry war chest.
At some precincts, three or more paid antideposit workers handed out literature and made last-minute appeals against the bottle bill. In many cases, they received support throughout the day from roving campaign vans carrying food and drink. By contrast, deposit proponents relied almost exclusively on voluntary support. At many polls the probottle interests were absent.
Lawrence Guyot, a longtime community activist and paid coordinator of the industry's campaign in Ward 1, cruised from precinct to precinct in a van equipped with a two-way radio so that he could communicate developments to superiors, who focused on telephoning supporters who had not voted.
Other tactics were more controversial. According to two witnesses, at least one truck driver for Coca-Cola Co. was spotted tearing prodeposit posters from lamp posts in separate areas of the city.
Scott Mills, a pro-Initiative 28 volunteer, said he approached one such driver after watching him remove posters near Vermont Avenue and V Street NW. Mills said that when he told the driver that pulling down signs "was illegal," the driver responded: "Catch me if you can."
A Coca-Cola official in suburban Maryland said last night said he was unaware of the incident.
Other deposit supporters complained of opponents telling voters that handling bottles -- if Initiative 28 were approved -- would transmit acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Such reports had enraged gay activists in the last week of the campaign after the subject of AIDS and bottles was broached in a television debate by D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), who campaigned against the deposit initiative.
Doll Fitzgerald, a community activist who signed on with the industry campaign to coordinate activities with senior citizens, acknowledged yesterday warning voters about possible AIDS contamination from bottles at several church meetings in the last days of the campaign.
Medical officials have stressed that AIDS cannot be contracted through casual contact with the virus, which cannot survive outside the body.
Most voters interviewed yesterday said they had formed strong views about the initiative independent of the heavy advertising campaign waged by the industry coalition.
"Just driving Georgia Avenue earlier today and looking at plastic cups blowing all over the street convinced me even more that the bill wasn't going to reduce litter," said Chevy Chase voter Charles Kyle.
"You only have to walk around and see the broken glass on the street to know how to vote," said 72-year-old Ward 2 resident Willard Kidd.
Some voters apparently were just plain tired of the months of politicking over the bottle bill.
With at least one dozen states considering bottle deposit legislation, the vote here on Initiative 28 was seen nationally as a key test of strength between deposit advocates and their beverage industry opponents, who have been battling over the issue around the country since 1970.
In the final month of the campaign, the deposit issue drew increasing attention as the industry forces took their message to television.
Having raised nearly $2 million, the industry campaign easily outstripped the amount Barry raised to win a third term last year. Consumer advocates said the campaign was the most ever spent per voter over a bottle issue.
The battle over bottles had been simmering here for more than a decade, with proposals either failing to make it out of the D.C. Council or being vetoed by the mayor. The fight to win over D.C. voters began in 1984, when a proposed deposit measure failed to garner enough support in the council and deposit advocates decided it was time to put the issue to a citywide vote.
Deposit proponents, consisting of environmentalists, civic associations and an army of volunteers, targeted 1987 as their moment of maximum opportunity, an electoral off-year when community-conscious voters most likely to favor their position traditionally come to the polls.
While members of the Bottle Initiative Committee were amassing petition signatures last fall to place Initiative 28 on the ballot, the industry coalition -- led by beverage giants such as Coca-Cola Co., Pepsi-Cola Co. and can and bottle manufacturing trade associations -- grouped as the Clean Capital City Committee to map their antideposit strategy.
An early survey found that most persuasive were suggestions that a deposit law would raise beverage prices and create too much inconvenience. But city residents most likely to sympathize with those arguments were grouped in lower-income brackets -- the least likely to vote.
With the demographic information showing the most support in the city's black neighborhoods, the industry opponents opted to build a campaign organization consisting of minority consulting firms with ties to the city's black community. Clean Capital City then hired dozens of black political operatives to take the antideposit message to the city's wards and precincts.
The industry group inundated District homes with phone calls, glossy pamphlets and continuous advertisements on predominantly black radio stations, arguing that deposits would be too expensive and cause inconvenience. Clean Capital City also enlisted the aid of numerous black ministers and set up a glass recycling program in an effort to show there was an alternative to mandatory deposits.
Outspent 20 to 1, initiative backers repeatedly complained that industry advertising was either misleading or false.