A Brief History of Alcohol in Virginia

A couple days ago, the Governor announced that our recent budget shortfall would be covered (in part) by an increase in taxes on ABC products.  But how did we get an ABC?  And why does the state regulate alcohol sales?

The history begins many hundred years ago and thousands of miles away …

In the late 17th century, the English Crown, having recently conquered Ireland, decided to colonize the Catholic island nation with Presbyterian Scots, who were becoming a surplus population in Lowland Scotland.  These “Ulstermen” and their families moved to northern Ireland, where they attempted to scratch out a living on the rocky soil.  Like their Irish neighbors, they soon found that working for the English landlord was a losing proposition, due to the expensive “rack rents” put on all cash crops like wheat and potatoes.  Pretty soon, the Scots-Irish figured out a way to beat the system — distill the produce into liquid form and sell it on the black market.  They made the whiskey late at night under a harvest moon and called it “moonshine.”  Tax issue solved.

A generation later, unhappy with their step-child status in northern Ireland, the Scots-Irish began to migrate by the hundreds of thousands to America.  They originally landed in Pennsylvania, then migrated south down the Valley into western Virginia and western North Carolina — the “border country” of frontier America.  Pretty soon, they had filled up the ravines and valleys across the Appalachians with small farms.  And, yes, they brought their recipes for “moonshine,” as the old Irish whiskey was called, both for personal consumption and for sale.

These small farmers were pretty much ignored, until the first U.S. Secretary of Treasury, the New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, came up with a Bloomberg-esque idea to raise revenue while tackling a public health issue –  tax the sale of whiskey which was becoming a big market out west.  The frontier went up in arms.  The resulting “Whiskey Rebellion” almost ended the United States before it started.

A few years later, President Thomas Jefferson repealed all Federal taxes on whiskey and the mountain counties remained safely Democratic for a hundred years.  During this time, liquor production was still a small-time affair in rural communities in western Virginia, which lacked access to railways or roads. Alcohol consumption and production in the 19th century (and there was a lot of it) was driven by big-city breweries and distilleries.

All that changed with Prohibition.  In 1919, the U.S. adopted the Volstead Act which made the production and sale of alcohol illegal. All major breweries and distilleries were closed.  America went dry.

Suddenly, the family stills in western Virginia became relevant again.  Isolated by geography and time, the mountain residents still had the recipe for “moonshine” and now the demand for illegal liquor was off the charts.  There have been a lot of histories written about Franklin County (“the Wettest County in the World”) and neighboring counties like Franklin and Henry which were deeply involved in moonshine sales during Prohibition.  I won’t duplicate it here.  Suffice to say that a black market economy was created, which was legendary in scope.

With the repeal of Prohibition, the economic demand for “moonshine” mostly disappeared and things returned to normal.  In Virginia, the repeal led to the 1935 creation of the Alcohol Beverage Commission (or “ABC”) which regulated and taxed all sales of alcohol, at least in those counties which allowed it.  (By now, it’s all of them)

The system works as follows:  ABC itself handles the distribution and sale of spirits and hard liquor (whiskey, vodka, etc).  For beer and wine, it established a “three tier” system, which requires all brands to sell their products through a distributorship, which then supplies convenience stores, grocery stores and restaurants.  The advantage is that quality can be managed and taxes collected from the distributors, while retailers must obey laws relating to the marketing and sale of alcohol.

As a result of this system, Virginia has a robust market with lots of consumer choice (like farm wineries or the new micro-brews) and competitive prices, which also provides local jobs and a revenue stream to the Commonwealth.  By and large, it’s a system that’s both safe and accountable.

You no longer need a shotgun or an iron cask to have a drink in Virginia.  But that is how it all got started.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fall Festival Weekend

Saturday morning I woke up early and felt normal for the first time in a week.  I started off from the University Giant and began running south (aka “Ox Road South”).  It was still dark and the rain was coming down in buckets. I splashed my way down to Burke Lake Park, and then turned and came back.

Perfect weather for duck hunting.

It was dreary but tolerable all day Saturday for the annual Fall Festival.  Nonetheless there were hands to shake at our booth on Main Street.  The crowd was about 70% of normal, which is pretty good considering the morning rain.

I took a break from 1-2 p.m. to speak at an event at the historic courthouse hosted by the Friends of Historic Fairfax Courthouse, along with Clerk John Frey, Chief Judge Dennis Smith and County Board Chair Sharon Bulova.

(By the way, I am all in for undefeated Mississippi State football.  Elvis with a cowbell is easily the best look of October.  Stark Vegas Baby!)

My story focused on Fairfax native Thomas Moore:  family patriarch, US Army veteran (Mexican War), secessionist, Confederate Army veteran, Clerk of Court (post-war), Town Councilman, church vestryman and father of a future U.S. Congressman and Assistant Secretary of State.  He also lived about two blocks from the courthouse (in the “Moore House”) and was my grandmother’s great-grandfather.

Continued door-knocking today (Sunday) in the Covington neighborhood off Rte. 50, nearby Fairhill Elementary.  Days are getting cooler and shorter.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Third CD Struck Down — Can We Do Something Completely New?

It’s been a wild few days in Virginia.  Unfortunately, I’ve been way too sick this week to do much writing.  However, this opinion on Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady striking down Virginia’s Third Congressional seat is simply too fat a target to pass up.

The conventional progressive reaction (quickly to Twitter!) is to blame the Richmond Republicans for “packing” African American voters into a district that went from a desirable 51% black majority to a nefarious 56%.  The purpose of that “packing” was clearly to strengthen the campaign odds of surrounding Republican congressmen.  And it resulted in a district that was a geographic joke — with no discernible connection between Richmond City and the precincts in Newport News and then blatantly carved out slices of Hampton, Norfolk and Portsmouth tossed in for effect.

But that’s not my issue.  My question is — why are we still using race at all in this process?

The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 after one hundred years of organized segregation, equalized access to the ballot for the first time in U.S. history in the Southern states.  It was a great and necessary law.  However, it wasn’t meant to predetermine the outcome of subsequent races or create “safe seats” for any group of politicians, liberal or conservative.

After the VRA became law, it was amended it to strike down districts where the minority vote was “diluted” so as to effectively silence their voice in selecting representatives.  This was to deal with legislatures, like Virginia, which simply split up the minority vote. Again, the purpose and effect of that change was salutary.

Then the Bush I administration did something both devious and brilliant that forever altered the landscape of Southern politics.  Starting after the 1990 census, the Bush DOJ refused to “pre-clear” Southern legislative maps unless they had “maxed out” the number of majority-minority legislative districts.  This process, done with no statutory mandate, led to a wholesale election of new minority members in 1991-1992 (good thing), while simultaneously tilting the legislative landscape to the Republicans.

In the short run, that was mostly good.  The South needed a good shakeup.  But the long run of that standard is highly flawed and, frankly, it’s got to change.

The result of the “Bush Push” for minority districts, and the continued application of that standard a generation later, is that states like Virginia, which are evenly divided or lean Democratic, can still have a legislature which is 68-32 Republican.  (There are other reasons, but this is far and away #1 in my opinion).

Oddly enough, the Democratic Party, flummoxed by the language of inclusion and their own parochial concerns, refused to object to this strategy either in 1991 or today — much less challenge its constitutionality.  Most political scientists are careful not to mention it when they talk about “gerrymandering” and Republican majorities.

That obliviousness has led to odd and self-defeating rhetoric, such as a 2011 debate in which Virginia House Democrats challenged the Republican map because it didn’t create enough minority districts.    Umm, guys?  Where is that result going to take you?

The stance is doubly bizarre in Virginia, in which Barack Obama has twice won state-wide.  (And nobody drew the boundaries of the Commonwealth with that in mind).  In Northern Virginia, “minority” candidates are elected all the time in white-majority seats.  And I have a hard time seeing anyone beat Don McEachin in Richmond or Louise Lucas in Portsmouth in a traditional, city-wide seat.

(Finally I’ve yet to hear a plausible way of acknowledging the existence of those families, numbering over 10% of the population, which draw from multiple cultures and colors.  Are you going to draw a Congressional line through the bedroom next?).

I’m sure this paltry cry for help will pass unnoticed or be rebutted by the scholarly edicts of $600/hr lawyers who use terms like “Gingles standard”, “retrogressivity” or the “five-part compactness test.”  Sorry, I’m not that smart.

But I did stay near a Holiday Inn Express last night.  And I know that this cynical format cannot last forever.  Hopefully, our kids won’t stand for it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Three Thoughts for this a.m.

This morning, I saw the latest scandal du jour in the VPAP clips.  Three thoughts on that.

1.  I’ve known Paul Reagan for fifteen years, as an official for Mark Warner, Jim Webb and now Terry McAuliffe.  (Back in the 90′s, he also served on the Consumer Protection Commission, where I used to appear as an attorney).  I regard him as one of the most honest and reputable people I’ve met in Virginia.  Nothing he said or suggested with Senator Puckett has changed my opinion.  I’ll leave it at that.

2.  The Puckett investigation is a road to nowhere and we’re slowly getting there.  While Phil’s actions in resigning just before a key vote were wrong (in my humble opinion), that is a matter between him and his friends.  It does not involve the U.S. Attorney.  This is not “McDonnell Part Deux.” There is nothing illegal about resigning from a public office to take a better-paid position, either with the private sector or with state government.  If it was, then you could lock up a lot of people in River City right now.

3.  The Puckett resignation was never about his taking a job with the Tobacco Commission or allowing a full-time judicial position for his daughter.  (Neither of which has happened to date).  It was about THE TIMING.  In June, the Senate budget still contained Medicaid expansion through “Marketplace Virginia,” but we needed a couple more weeks to enact that in the final state budget.  Phil’s resignation killed that opportunity.  It also cost us the majority — but that’s a separate issue.

In summary, this whole thing is getting absurd.  The Puckett resignation happened.  Each side took actions to make it happen (or keep it from happening).   Neither set of actions were illegal, although we can all agree that the situation was awkward — especially for Democrats who were blindsided and tried to react.

Regardless, the Governor and Paul were doing all they could to save a legislative measure (Medicaid expansion) which had great value to thousands of Virginians.  If that’s a scandal, well then lock us all up.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

VDOT Projects = on-time, on-budget

As the resident curmudgeon in Richmond, I spend a lot of time criticizing state government and its faults.  I don’t spend enough time pointing out when state agencies do  things right.  So let me address that flaw right now.

On Tuesday afternoon, I attended the annual “State of Transportation” in NoVA, which was hosted by the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.  The presentation featured brief (five-minute) summaries by the various agency heads charged with moving people around in Virginia’s urban core.

The summary by Virginia’s Department of Transportation, ubiquitously known across the Commonwealth as “VDOT,” was especially well done.  After a major overhaul during the Warner administration, VDOT has emerged as a state agency which gets things done and, just as importantly, tells you what it’s doing.

In fact, in the past three years, VDOT has a record of completing its projects on time (95%) and on budget (98%).  Hard to argue with that kind of success.

In the 34th Senate District, VDOT is coordinating the final design of the I-66 improvement project, our #1 transportation need.  At the same time, it is managing local projects like the Stringfellow Road widening ($60M budget, completion date July 2015) and the Route 50 widening, beyond Rte. 28 ($100M budget, completion date November 2015).

Of course, VDOT’s major pending project in northern Virginia is the new “HOV/HOT lanes” along I-95 in Fairfax and Prince William.  The price tag is $1 billion for all improvements and the completion date is “early 2015.”  While that project does not physically touch the 34th Senate District, we all travel north/south on that corridor — and it’s the biggest parking lot in Virginia (especially going to the beach in the summer).

Did I get all this inside information because I’m a State Senator?  No.  I just checked VDOT’s public website which is www.vamegaprojects.com.  All the information is listed there, along with supervisors to call if you have any construction-related issues.

Construction projects take time.  They clog traffic.  But it’s a lot more tolerable when you know what’s going on — and when it will be over.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off