Last week, Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose found herself in the same pickle as slumber-party planners at junior highs across this land. Ambrose, you see, had scheduled a meeting of her Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to consider legislation regulating D.C. liquor establishments. Now, she just needed a few friends to show up for the event.
When the councilmember heard through back channels that a couple of key colleagues were planning on blowing off the meeting, she canceled the partyor, rather, she withdrew the legislation from consideration. “I wasn’t entirely sure that my colleagues were going to give me a quorum,” explains Ambrose, who says that Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil had sent hints about staying away.
Graham, though, says that Ambrose has always been part of the popular clique as far as he’s concerned. “I never had any intention other than showing up,” says Graham.
The attendance clash is certain to be only the first of many large and small battlesfrom cafeteria-seating snubs to playground wedgiesas the council weighs a massive, complicated overhaul of the city’s liquor laws. Title 25, D.C. Code Enactment and Related Amendments Act of 2000, as the Ambrose-sponsored bill is known to legislative wonks, would create a new, independent Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, stipulate that a liquor license is a “privilege” granted by the city government, and otherwise place stricter limitations on how booze is dispensed in town.
Limiting the D.C. liquor industry to more stringent licensing is a lot like limiting At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz to one self-congratulatory remark per week. The industry consists of 1,600 establishments that in years past have formed a lobby formidable enough to head off initiatives tinkering with their stock in trade: the D.C. liquor license. According to the Greater Washington Restaurant Association, eating and drinking establishments generate $156 million in sales taxes and $1.5 billion in annual revenueswhich creates plenty of cash for political contributions.
“We are working hard to help the city council understand the ramifications of the legislation as currently written,” says association President Eric Peterson, who is pushing 64 amendments to the Ambrose bill.
If Peterson is implying that Ambrose’s bill will facilitate a classic battle between a moneyed industry and longtime residents who feel hemmed in by bars, he’s right. But that’s only part of the reason the overhaul will soon be the thorniest legislation the council will likely touch this year. If it were simply a matter of protecting locals from loud bars and wandering drunks, the current D.C. Councildominated by folks like Ambrose and, for that matter, Graham, who both came to power demanding more council attention to neighborhood concernswould find the courage to battle even these wealthy merchants.
But the bill aims to do a lot more than crack down on neighborhood pet peeves like so-called temporary liquor licenses. It includes a few special-pleading provisions that will broaden the debate beyond how hard it is to protest a licensed establishment and on what grounds the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board can shutter a dance hall. And that’s where folks like Graham and Ambroseallies of neighborhood busybodies, both of themmay find room to disagree. And to brawl about it.
Wine and liquor wholesalers in the District, for starters, will be breaking out the champagne if the bill passes. That’s because Ambrose is proposing to boost licensing and permitting fees for out-of-town suppliers that have in the past circumvented traditional wholesale distribution channels (“War of the Rosés,” 9/22). The new requirement should please Ambrose loyalist and campaign contributor Paul Pascal, who runs the D.C. Association of Beverage Alcohol Wholesalers. “I made no bones about the fact that I put that provision in because Paul asked me to,” says Ambrose, who has gotten reliable contributions from liquor wholesalers.
The councilmember scoffs at wine snobs who project a cutoff of the exotic but reasonably priced wines now available at D.C. stores. A prime example, she says, is K. William Harter, a doctor at Georgetown University Medical Center who claims that the legislation would cramp his wine-collecting hobby. “He buys $100,000 in wine per year, and he’s saying this will break him,” says Ambrose. (Actually, Harter merely says he’ll procure his rare wines in New York, which has a “fine wine climate” similar to what D.C. has had up to now.)
The wine whiners, though, have drafted teetotaler Graham to their cause. The rookie councilmember views the wholesaler provision as a slight to regular folks and plans to address the problem when Ambrose convenes the bill’s markup later this month. “This would be a pro-consumer amendment,” says Graham, who accepted several contributions from restaurants in his 1998 campaign but none from liquor retailers.
Graham and Brazil will also challenge Ambrose on another provision that’s not exactly a burning citywide issue. The so-called “H.H. Leonards” provision would shut down all “club” establishments in residential neighborhoods that received their licenses on or after May 24, 1994. The law would thus apply almost exclusively to the famed Mansion on O Street owned by Leonards, a savvy entrepreneur who has created a banquet hall out of a string of Dupont Circle town houses.
“If it’s just H.H. Leonards, it seems to me to be unduly focused,” says Graham, who notes that Brazil will likely introduce an amendment to save the mansion. Brazil did not return LL’s calls.
As is the case in most flashpoints in the liquor debate, loyalties on the provision aren’t hard to trace. Brazil, for example, is a close friend of booze in D.C. and is apparently swept away with Leonards’ status as a darling of the national Democratic Party establishment, for which she hosts lavish events at the mansion. On the other side, Ambrose has received political contributions from Dupont Circle activists like Marilyn Groves, who has crusaded against the mansion as an encroachment on a fragile residential neighborhood.
And Ambrose suspects that the controversy over the mansion is the real reason why her colleagues are allegedly skittish over her bill. “My ABC problems are really an ‘H’ problem,” she says.
Down the road, still more peripheral issues look likely to incite legislative skirmishes over the 87-page bill. Like the repeal of a 1994 moratorium on nude-dancing establishments. Terry Lynch, a lobbyist with the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, opposes the pro-nudity clause and insists that it contradicts Ambrose’s pro-neighborhood ideology. “This doesn’t sound like her at all,” says Lynch.
Ambrose added the nude-dancing provision in deference to the city’s gay lobby, which doesn’t share the prejudices of local churches. “These petty moral fascists should not be allowed to impede [private enterprise],” explains Frank Kameny, chief proponent of the moratorium’s repeal.
And that’s all before the council gets to talking about liquor licenses themselves.
“Once this thing gets out of committee, there are going to be a lot of people who get up and look at it,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.
•Whatever special-interest provisions lie within Councilmember Ambrose’s liquor bill, LL sure hopes there’s nothing to limit the flow of wine at candidates forums sponsored by tony community associations. A veteran of community forums across the city, LL generally turns up his nose at the usual offering of hyper-glucosized, bright-colored punches offered to local political die-hards.
Last Wednesday night, though, LL ventured west of Rock Creek Park to a neighborhood determined to maintain its citywide image as a refuge of class and comfort. At a forum for school board candidates, the Citizens Association of Georgetown offered all comers a bottomless glass of Pierre Dourthe Cuvée 202 French red table wine.
The Pierre Dourthe’s brisk aroma and fruity aftertaste helped LL survive a brutal round of platitudes from candidates for the District 1 (Wards 1 and 2) seat. To wit, candidates Linda Softli, Ann Wilcox, Thomas Smith, Julie Mikuta, and Malcolm Lovell, respectively, dished the following insights on the schools:
“We have a school system that’s in crisis.”
“Board members need to work together.”
“We need to make sure we have teachers and principals that can teach.”
“The system is failing too many students.”
“Our long-term goal ought to be to bring the best city schools in the country.”
Then longtime Ward 1 politico Lenwood Johnson approached the dais to outline his eight-point program for improving the schools. After listing half of his agenda, Johnson burst out with this proclamation: “If elected to the board, I will put my agenda alongside other members’,” said Johnson.
•Expenditure summaries submitted by candidates for political offices in D.C. generally make for boring reading. There are inevitably a few checks to Kinko’s (de rigueur candidate flier reproduction costs), an allotment to Costco (bogus finger food for campaign kickoff), and a couple of payments to the candidates’ friends and relatives (no campaign is complete without a little cronyism and nepotism).
But incumbent Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous must have been trying to attract attention to an entry in one of his primary election summaries by listing a $597.63 outlay for “office supplies.”
Most candidates procure their notepads and pencils from low-cost purveyors like Staples and Office Depot. Chavous, however, chose a less conventional supplier: D.C. political fundraiser Kerry S. Pearson. When he’s not beating big-box stores on bulk paper-clip prices, Pearson is busy raising millions of dollars for D.C. politicos, from Evans to Chavous to Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen.
“I’m not in the office-supply business,” says Pearson, who says Chavous owes him for stationary and invites used for a fundraiser. CP
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