I had to pinch myself after Tuesday morning’s monthly commission meeting of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC). I’ve been to plenty of DABC meetings and hearings since this paper was founded 26 years ago—with the conspicuous and nervous blessing of the DABC, no less. Some of the meetings have been downright mean. Some have been quite sad, too, as people who have put their life savings into a restaurant or club were denied a liquor license, effectively ensuring either a foreclosure, a business sale at a loss, or just plain hubby and wife misery as times get tough, then tougher.
Today, even though those licenses are as scarce as ever, one commissioner spoke up with words I never thought I’d hear. Richard Sperry, who has been on the commission just one year and is a self-described nondrinker, delivered an ad-libbed, sentimental, several-minute pitch about his experience as a liquor commissioner that gave me hope that enlightenment and understanding is actually not dead in Utah. He genuinely cares for the little guy, even if the little guy is in the liquor business. I’ve watched certain commissioners nearly gloat at the notion they could make or break a club or restaurant. I’ve watched them nod off during the sessions, only to then vote against this or that seller of the Devil’s Juice—either by denying a license or by imposing fines and sanctions far beyond what was necessary.
For a time there in the early 1990s, it looked like every alcohol infraction was related to an advertising snafu. After three infractions, a club faced closure, often for offenses related to advertising type-font size or irregular membership disclaimers. Why look for bootleggers or service to minors when you can just pick up a paper and close a place down? Ironically, the efforts of those commissioners worked in reverse—Utahns are now spending more than ever in state liquor stores, which do more than $250 million in annual sales.
At the meeting today, every applicant was awarded the license he or she sought, although some were granted only temporary summer licenses and will have to re-apply for full licenses (if available) in October.
Of course, since there are few licenses out there, there are fewer applicants, too. Among those was Everest Tibetan Restaurant in Salt Lake City and Thai House Cuisine 2 in Draper. Both had been denied licenses on multiple previous visits to the DABC, and it was hard not to notice that the language barriers each faced might have been a problem.
I think Sperry took a good look into the eyes of the Thai man and the Tibetan woman before him, and he didn’t see evil. He also didn’t see all the other stereotypes, as did so many of those who preceded him on the DABC commission. He saw people trying to survive, and he attached no preconceived notions to them. Good for him. It appears that this commission, with the forward thinking of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to thank, may finally be one where people can get a fair shake without shaking in fear.
In a piece of bitter irony during the meeting, resident Jim Davis spoke to the commission, asking them to reconsider closing the liquor store in Salt Lake City’s ballpark neighborhood. He cited lost tax base, said the liquor store is a much-needed anchor business that attracts new business, pointed to a potential for blight, focused on less walkability and reminded the commission that that particular store had had a $1.2 million profit in the prior fiscal year. Usually when a resident speaks to the commission, it’s to cite all the evils that a club or liquor store will bring to the neighborhood. Davis said the exact opposite, basically stunning everyone in the room with each bull’s-eye he hit for progress.
When he was through, he produced more than 3,000 names of petition-signers and gave them to the commission. This one isn’t the fault of the DABC or the commission. Our Legislature, which gobbles up liquor profits for its own pet projects the way a fish chases a worm, gave the DABC an operating budget that ensures the department lay off people even in a time of liquor financial boon. It’s theft, really. It’s crazy. Ballpark residents who now walk to the liquor store will have to drive elsewhere.
The store is wildly profitable. Ballpark residents want it. Gov. Gary Herbert must not. Whatever Herbert may be, he is no Jon Huntsman. He will not stand up to the far right of his party that makes fools of laws and men. Herbert has other fish to fry, anyway, like playing the Mormon card against his Democratic opponent for governor, Peter Corroon. Corroon suggested we refocus on education, even looking at school-release time. Herbert took that to mean that the Catholic Corroon wants to dismantle LDS seminaries statewide. That’s religious baiting, plain and simple.
Herbert also recently suggested that Corroon has no room to talk about public education because his kids go to private schools. That’s odd, because Herbert himself went to a private school—BYU. A full 30 percent of the Utah House and Senate also attended privately funded BYU, including a Who’s Who of bogeymen Utah legislators like Sens. Michael Waddoups, Howard Stephenson, Margaret Dayton, John Valentine and Curt Bramble. Since Utah public education is a mess, I think we can safely assume that passing beneficial education laws while having attended BYU are mutually exclusive events.
And extending the governor’s logic, since he appoints nondrinkers to the liquor commission, where is the sin in allowing the wonderfully educated Peter Corroon to opine about public education? Sometimes, as with Mr. Sperry, the answers come from wise people, not pawns.