Politics & Government

The politics of beer: How craft brewers are using election-style tactics to change a law

Beer production line at Olde Mecklenburg brewery.
Beer production line at Olde Mecklenburg brewery.

It has all the trappings of a political campaign: strategists, pollsters, grassroots organizers and even campaign buttons. But it’s not an election.

It’s the campaign by craft brewers to change a state law that could limit their production.

Like other groups that have faced tough legislative fights, brewers are turning to the tactics of political campaigns, trying not to elect lawmakers but to persuade them – often through their own voters.

It’s a game plan familiar in Washington but still rare in North Carolina, where interest groups traditionally rely on professional lobbyists.

“There’s an inside ball game and an outside ball game,” says strategist Paul Shumaker. “Lobbyists specialize on the inside game. I specialize in the outside game.”

The brewers, led by Charlotte’s John Marrino of Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and Todd and Suzie Ford of NoDa Brewing, want to change the law that forces them to contract with distributors once their annual production hits 25,000 barrels. They say that’s not only costly but would lead to curtailed growth and employee layoffs. They support House Bill 500, which would raise the cap.

Against them are the N.C. Beer & Wine Wholesalers. They say rather than hurt craft brewers, they expand their markets. They’ve reinforced their clout with nearly $1.5 million to political campaigns over the last four years, according to Democracy North Carolina.

Distributors have hired a dozen lobbyists, including former Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca. Brewers have their own lobbyists. But they’re putting much of their hope in what they call the Craft Freedom campaign.

“We certainly can’t outspend our opponents, but they told me people trump money,” Marrino said. “We feel the public is probably our ace in the hole.”

Reaching the public is the job of people like Shumaker, a Republican strategist whose clients include U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis.

He commissioned a poll which bolsters his side, as he explained to supporters Tuesday night at an event sponsored by the John Locke Foundation. Like political campaigns, Craft Freedom also works at the grassroots with an online petition and social media campaign that targets a lawmaker’s constituents with increased efficiency.

It also includes a “grass-tops” component targeting influential people – and campaign donors. One is Salisbury lawyer and Republican Bill Graham, an investor in Salisbury’s New Sarum brewery. He has given at least $107,000 to the state GOP since 2012 and donated to Republican lawmakers.

“For a Republican, to me this is a classic free market exercise,” said Graham, who plans to talk with legislative leaders.

Craft Freedom also has enlisted the support of groups such as the Locke Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform, along with its president Grover Norquist.

“It all comes down to this,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic consultant who has worked on issue campaigns. “The best way to ultimately get the attention of lawmakers is to engage the public, whether it be in the halls of Congress or the halls of the General Assembly.”

Tim Kent, executive director the Beer & Wine Wholesalers, said his group will mount its own grassroots campaign with its 5,600 employees, who live in legislative districts across the state.

The brewery production issue, he said, “affects our business and affects our livelihood.”

One of the state’s first issue campaigns took place in 2007, when consultants helped the real estate and home-building industries defeat county referendums on real estate transfer taxes. The industries spent more than $440,000 on TV ads aimed at voters.

“That was a ground-breaking campaign,” said Democratic consultant Brad Crone. “Never before had trade associations put together a coordinated campaign to defeat a legislative initiative at the county level.”

The secret, said Republican strategist Chris Sinclair, is having a plan and building a campaign team. “You can be either reactive or pro-active,” he said.

GOP strategist Dee Stewart, who partners with Shumaker on issue campaigns, said the key is reaching the people who will make the final decisions.

“Winning the battle for the hearts and minds of constituents across the state,” he said, “is a major key to winning the hearts and minds of the lawmakers in Raleigh.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill