It’s been a good long time since a room full of union members cheered Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).
They’re usually at odds over collective bargaining agreements and other personnel issues. But the peculiar politics of liquor control produced just such a scene at a contentious state legislative hearing that ended shortly before 2 a.m. Tuesday in Rockville.
Leggett told members of the Montgomery delegation that the county risked a huge financial hit if the General Assembly passed a bill that placed privatization of the county’s liquor monopoly on the 2016 ballot. Since the end of Prohibition in 1933, the county has been the exclusive wholesaler of beer, wine and spirits.
Proponents, led by Del. C. William Frick (D-Montgomery) and five other state lawmakers, contend that the bill only opens the county’s liquor business to private competition. But Leggett called the idea “irresponsible,” arguing that it will effectively scuttle the county’s Department of Liquor Control, costing taxpayers more than $30 million in annual revenue. It would also force the county to find a way of refinancing more than $100 million in bonds leveraged by the liquor revenue.
For those who believe that the bill will only foster competition, “then I have some land I want to sell you in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans right now,” Leggett said, as dozens of yellow-shirted members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994 (MCGEO) whistled and cheered. The union represents about 5,000 county workers, including 300 or so who work in the liquor control warehouse and the 25 county-operated retail stores whose jobs would be at risk if the monopoly ended.
The delegation worked its way through public comments on a laundry list of other bills before getting to the liquor issue around 11 p.m. It heard from more than 40 witnesses, including restaurant owners who repeated their long-standing complaints about poor service from the DLC. Most vexing, they said, was the agency’s inability to supply “special orders” — or increasingly popular fine wines and craft beers — in a timely manner. The lack of variety is driving customers out of the county, they contend.
Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) spoke for council colleagues in favor of a compromise measure allowing businesses to buy special order products from private wholesalers but keeping the rest of the county system intact. Riemer said it was important that the county improve its “urban quality of life” by allowing restaurants to offer expanded alcohol offerings.
The most pointed exchanges involved county and state elected officials, including a post-midnight set-to between council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) and Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery). Dumais, concerned about responding to business complaints, said the council had unfairly cut out state lawmakers in discussions on the issue.
“I don't remember getting an invitation. I guess if I went online I could find it,” Dumais said tartly.
“Actually, Delegate, generally the Montgomery County Council exercises oversight over county departments,” said Leventhal, in the final day of his one-year term as council president.
Leventhal added that liquor revenue served other needs the county was obligated to meet.
“We must also be responsible to schoolchildren who deserve an education. . . . I’m chairman of the [council’s] health and human services committee, and I’m very concerned about the effect of $30 million in revenue reduction on the poor, the sick, the elderly, the homeless, the mentally ill.”
Dumais, an attorney who practices family law and frequently sees clients in desperate circumstances, was in no mood for a lecture about her obligations.
“I don’t want to hear your guilt trip about your responsibility versus mine,” she said.
Leventhal replied that it was a valid question “as to how high a priority we need to place on our residents being able to satisfy every single desire of every single sommelier.”
One expected confrontation did not break out into the open. Last week, MCGEO President Gino Renne called for a state ethics investigation into Frick, alleging that the dismantling of the county system would directly benefit him financially. Frick’s wife is an executive with Diageo, a multinational liquor manufacturer. The couple own at least $20,000 in Diageo North America stock, according to financial disclosure statements.
In his formal submission to the state delegation, Renne included campaign finance reports showing more than $13,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to Frick from the Trone family, owners of the Bethesda-based retailer Total Wine and More. Frick says neither he nor Total Wine would benefit directly from ending the monopoly.
Frick and co-sponsor Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery) faced questions from fellow lawmakers about the consequences of the revenue loss.
“I might not love the idea of being in the alcohol business, but that’s where we are,” said state Sen. Roger Manno (D-Montgomery).
Frick and Reznik said they were confident that alterative funding could be worked out, especially because any changes approved by voters in 2016 would not become effective until 2018.
“We could structure some kind of revenue source that could accommodate the county’s needs,” Reznik said.
Frick also defended his assertion that constituents were “clamoring” for changes in the county’s alcohol control system that would bring a wider variety to restaurants and retail stores.
Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) said that over the course of door-to-door campaigning in three elections, “not on one single occasion” had he heard a voter say, “Delegate Kramer, I can’t get enough liquor. You’ve got to do something about that.”
Frick’s explanation: “You can be a little scary, Ben.”