Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sour Wine Spilled on Main Street

In an incisive cover story, the Village Voice's Graham Raymond lays bare the phony grass roots campaign by the liquor lobby to prevent the sale of wine in grocery stores: "New York's grocery store wine ban is purely about political power. In the last six months, the state's supermarkets mounted another sustained political campaign to repeal the wine ban—this time, enlisting the help of a supportive governor. But once again, a powerful group of New Yorkers succeeded in blocking the measure. Who was it that blocked wine sales in grocery stores? Our own version of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union? Or some other association of uptight Carrie Nations? No. It was the state's liquor stores and their lobbyists."

At a time when there is much public discussion of what constitutes legitimate grass roots protest, it is instructive to take a look at a real astroturf effort-just so we can clearly distinguish it from the spontaneous out pouring of a genuinely concerned citizenry: "When Governor David Paterson declared his support for supermarkets and added a wine ban repeal to his 2009 budget package, backers of the measure believed they finally had a chance to get it through the state legislature. But on January 28, just as the bill had reached a point of serious consideration in Albany, a previously unknown group calling itself "The Last Store on Main Street" suddenly appeared on the scene, circulating press releases opposing the measure. The coalition showed off a sophisticated website and a large group of supporters that included various local and statewide liquor store associations and distributors. And it had somehow also enlisted some wineries to support its cause."

Quite an impressive array of local support-but everything isn't what it appears to be: ""The Last Store is a coalition of wine retailers from around the state," says Wendi Leggitt, the group's spokeswoman. "These are one of the last remaining independent businesses in the state." Leggitt works for Mercury Public Affairs, a powerful political consultancy partnered by ex–Pataki administration officials. They also employ ex–Democratic pols including former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. Leggitt was also the contact person for Mercury's political action committee, which doles out tens of thousands of dollars each year in campaign contributions to elected officials and political party organizations."

In other words, the kind of grass roots that needs to have a weed whacker taken to them: "Despite the roster of prominent Albany lobbyists on the payroll, the Last Store isn't a lobbying group, Leggitt says. She calls it a "grassroots coalition of wine retailers from around the state." In fact, the group itself is a registered lobbyist, according to state filings. In all, eight lobbyists are listed in the filing, including Saunders."

Eight lobbyists? The grass roots were never greener: "Not that the supermarkets' own lobbyists didn't spend a lot of money themselves, but the state documents also show that the Last Store group spent $412,000 on lobbying—including $3,875 for a party, $100,000 for an economic study, and more than $200,000 for "consulting services" paid to Mercury—mostly in February and March, right when the wine bill was being considered."

And to insure that the lawn stayed as green as possible-the Last Store brought in the Last Straw-a phony collection of law enforcement groups who were bamboozled to support the liquor lobby's protectionism: "Just a few days after the Last Store showed up, another group also surfaced. On February 2, another organization calling itself a "grassroots" group began circulating press releases opposing the wine ban repeal. This one called itself "Law Enforcement Against Drunk Driving."

LEAD, however, failed to inform its coalition partners what exactly was going on: "By March, the state's Sheriffs' Association was complaining about being included on LEADD's list of supporters. The association had actually decided to stay neutral in the debate over the bill. "While there are many sound arguments advanced by both sides, they seem to be more related to political, practical, and financial policy concerns than specifically related to law enforcement concerns," the association's executive director, Peter Kehoe, noted on March 12. Subsequently, the group was removed from LEADD's list of backers. Other law enforcement officials who also appeared on the LEADD list of supporters admit to the Voice that they had no idea the liquor lobby was underwriting the group's efforts."

And LEAD, ostensibly with a larger drunk driving agenda, was really created out of whole cloth for one purpose: "One of the other prominent names in the law enforcement group was Daniel Sisto, vice president and legislative director of the troopers' union, where Warnock once worked. Sisto says that LEADD was not formed specifically to block the wine bill and that Mercury did not come to him and ask him to form it. Actually, he says, he asked Mercury to get involved. "We had been discussing how to make it more accessible for law enforcement to weigh in on issues that would further enforcement, and we decided to get together and become a cohesive group," Sisto says. "This issue just happened to be a jumping-off point." In other words, Sisto is saying that LEADD wasn't merely created by the liquor lobby to give a law enforcement gloss to its efforts, and will not be dismantled when the wine bill goes away. If that's true, however, why hasn't LEADD taken positions on any other issues?"

All of which indicates the extent to which the successful effort to kill the wine in supermarkets legislation was underwritten by anti-consumer special interests who were understandably ashamed to reveal their true bona fides. With the state facing an even greater budget shortfall-and the legislature probably returning next month to address it-the obstruction of the protectionists needs to be exposed and aggressively overridden.

The state's tax payers and wine consumers need to be treated with deference-and the phony efforts at covering up the interests of some of the state's most retrograde forces needs to be given the kind of disinfectant that only sunlight can bring. Because, in the light of day, there is no public policy reason to prevent the reform of the state's alcoholic beverage laws. Let's get started soon.