NCGA to ABC: Pour Yourself a Drink, Relax, Live a Little

Wed., Sept. 8: Inside the ABC Omnibus bill + Raleigh ponders more election changes + the perils of politics when you’re married to an alleged sex offender + on the death of Roe


1. The NCGA’s Big Booze Reforms

Last week, the state Senate’s commerce committee passed its version of House Bill 890, the ABC Omnibus, moving it one step closer to the Senate floor and, in all likelihood, Governor Cooper’s desk. The bill makes a number of significant reforms to the state’s booze laws. Among them:

  • It allows ABC stores to accept online orders.

  • It establishes a Spiritous Liquor Advisory Council “to identify and implement methods for improving North Carolina’s rank as a spirituous liquor-producing State” and “increase public awareness of the quality of North Carolina spirituous liquor.”

  • It allows distilleries to sell bottles on Sundays and holidays.

  • It allows out-of-state distilleries to receive spiritous liquor special event permits (provided they become permitted nonresident spiritous liquor holders).

  • Distilleries can sell mixed drinks (containing only the distilleries’ booze) at special events in conjunction with tastings, but only one per consumer per day. They may also give away 50mL mini-bottles.

  • It allows ABC stores to sell “alcoholic beverages authorized for sale under this section in a refrigerated unit. For purposes of this subsection, the term ‘refrigerated unit’ means a refrigerated merchandiser or other appliance that is artificially kept cool and suitable to be used to store food and drink.’” (I love unnecessary legalese.)

  • It allows cities and counties to establish “social districts”—“a defined outdoor area in which a person may consume alcoholic beverages sold by a permittee.”

  • It allows cities and counties to permanently expand outdoor seating areas for bars and restaurants.

  • It allows you to “trade or exchange” bottles of legally purchased liquor with a friend, an act that was heretofore illegal.

HB 890 also addresses the labyrinthine enforcement bureaucracy that has frustrated distilleries for years, which I wrote about for The Assembly in March.

Eighty-four years after the General Assembly established the ABC Commission, North Carolina remains one of 17 states where the government controls the supply of liquor, and the only one where local boards operate retail sales. The New Deal-era artifact has persevered, despite polls showing that voters want to privatize the system and campaigns seeking to do just that.

For lawmakers, the twin allures of revenue and rectitude have proven too strong to ignore.

In the 2019 fiscal year, ABC retail stores raked in more than $1.2 billion, of which almost $350 million went to the state’s general fund and $85 million went to city and county governments. North Carolina also has one of the lowest rates of excess drinking, and the fewest liquor stores per capita, in the U.S.

The ABC was born in the aftermath of Prohibition and bathed in the state’s long history of teetotalism. North Carolina was the first state to outlaw “intoxicating spirits,” and one of two that refused to ratify the 21st Amendment. It banned liquor by the drink until 1978. It banned beer stronger than Budweiser until 2005. It still forbids happy hours.

And unlike agencies that are accused of being too close to the industries they regulate, the ABC has a certain hostility toward alcohol producers encoded in its DNA.

So as the state’s distilleries grew from a dozen eight years ago to 80 today, according to Distillers Association of North Carolina president Pete Barger, it was inevitable that some elements within the ABC would fiercely resist. …

That relationship began to change in 2017, Barger says, when Governor Cooper appointed Zander Guy chairman of the ABC Commission. The ABC and the Distillers Association started cooperating, which laid the groundwork for Senate Bill 290, the 2019 law that allowed distilleries to sell mixed drinks and obtain beer and wine permits, and lifted the five-per-person annual cap on onsite bottle sales. …

Not everyone is as sanguine about the industry’s relationship with the ABC.

“These are people who are anti-alcohol,” says Scott Maitland, who opened TOPO Distillery in Chapel Hill in 1995. “They think if you are drinking alcohol, you are doing the devil’s business. And anyone in the industry is a craven son of a bitch who’s willing to sell out their soul.”

Specific to the concerns raised in that story, the bill:

  • Distillers are allowed to have other producers’ products in their distilleries—the issue over which Mystic owner Jonathan Blitz went to war with Alcohol Law Enforcement after ALE agents fined several distilleries, his included, in recent years.

    • “The authorization to possess ingredients set forth in this subdivision includes the possession of spirituous liquor not distilled or produced at the distillery that is used for the production, research and development, or sample comparison of spirituous liquor.”

  • The bill allows booze to be “sold, possessed, or consumed on any part of the licensed premises of the distillery,” so long as it doesn’t conflict with federal law, another point of contention.

  • It also (more or less) eliminates the requirement that distillers provide a tour before selling you a bottle.

    • “The length, content, and other parameters of the tour shall be at the discretion of the distillery, and the distillery shall not be required to maintain records related to tours.” (You can read between those lines.)

There are a few other things worth noting.

  • The bill exempts the Town of Cary from having to issue alcoholic beverage licenses or collect a tax. Apparently, the effort wasn’t worth the revenue.

  • It exempts the equipment, machinery, and parts used for brewing, winemaking, and distilling from sales taxes.

  • Finally, there’s a piece toward the end that feels like it has a backstory that I can’t quite recall and deserves more digging than I’ve done: “The Commission shall make a good-faith effort, without discrimination, to make all spirituous liquor distributed by the Commission available to all local boards. … A contractor that has entered into a contract pursuant to this section shall not directly or indirectly provide information to a local board which gives any advantage to one board over another board concerning product selection, availability, or otherwise obtaining spirituous liquor distributed by the Commission.”

    • I’m guessing some local boards think they’ve been getting hosed?

The deal: Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville had pushed hard to privatize the ABC system before he retired last year. His Republican colleagues never fully joined him—privatization is complex even for those in the distilling industry—but they gradually loosened the state’s grip on the devil’s drink.

  • HB 890 takes a big step in a pro-industry direction. That it hasn’t engendered much opposition—it received just 10 no votes (nine Republicans, one Democrat) during its first round in the House—suggests the morality hangups have subsided.

  • Blitz told me: “We worked on a lot of it with [lawmakers] to try to eliminate the gray areas that were leading ABC to try to fill in perceived gaps.”

2. Raleigh Might Pay Council More for Longer Terms. (This Is Good!)

Yesterday, the Raleigh City Council heard a presentation from Eric Braun, the chairman of a study group convened last year to make recommendations for improving the city’s elections process.

  • Palace-intrigue-as-context: Braun and city council member David Cox do not like each other. At all. In October, Cox cast the only vote against confirming the study group’s first seven members, Braun included.

  • Without holding a public hearing, the council convinced the legislature to move its elections—originally scheduled for October—to November 2022, guaranteeing all eight members an extra 13 months in office.

  • That has prompted an attempt by allies of Cox to recall Baldwin.

The group’s reportslides are here—makes some smart recommendations, but it also dodges a few things. It proposes:

  • Adding another district council seat, giving the council nine members in total. (No more tie votes.)

  • Transitioning council terms from two to four years.

  • Staggering elections, with the mayor and at-large council members elected every two years and the district council members elected two years after that.

  • Paying the council more money.

  • Trying to get people to vote.

What’s good: Most of it!

  • Four-year terms are low-hanging fruit: How can you possibly assess a politician’s effectiveness when they start campaigning right after they settle into the job?

  • The extra seat makes sense, too—at the rate Raleigh is growing, I might have suggested three)—as do the staggered elections.

  • Emphasizing turnout! Raleigh has had terrible electoral participation, almost entirely due to holding elections in October of odd years. Sharing a ballot with presidential and senatorial elections will put butts in seats, as they say.

    • However: People who showed up to vote in Raleigh two years ago were, almost by definition, engaged voters. People who show up to vote for president and stick around to vote for city council might be picking names at random. (They won’t have heuristics such as party affiliation to help them.)

    • The study program recommends that the city create a “comprehensive voter engagement program,” complete with a voter resource guide and nonpartisan voter information.

What’s bad: Nothing, exactly. But …

  • The study group recommends raising the mayor’s and council members’ pay from $27,550 and $19,725, respectively—they are, in theory, part-time jobs—to $45,911 and $37,248, respectively. The idea is good, IMHO, but I’m not sure the amounts are sufficient to achieve the stated goals.

    • One of the biggest criticisms Baldwin faces is her day job in the development business. MAB will tell you that she can’t live on $27,550 a year, and I’m not sure $46,000 quite fixes that. At least a few people declined to run in 2019—when the independently wealthy Nancy McFarlane retired—because they couldn’t afford to be mayor.

    • Even at $37,000, the city council might not be accessible to the “diverse, non-traditional candidates” the study group wants to attract.

    • It’s politically difficult for elected officials to give themselves a raise. But the fundamental problem is this: The pay structures were created for part-time officials leading podunk towns. But they aren’t part-time roles. More importantly, they shouldn’t be part-time roles.

  • David Cox also raised an important question: Did the study group consider using a primary model instead of a plurality-wins system?

    • When the new city elections start next year, whoever gets the most votes wins, even if that person wins just 20% of the vote. Under the old system, the top two would have a runoff, so as to guarantee the winner had a majority.

    • Braun said the group hadn’t gotten into it.

    • I recall asking Braun about that on Twitter a while ago. I couldn’t find the exchange, but I believe he pointed out that there were very few recent elections in which it would have mattered.

The council agreed to hold a worksession/public hearing on the changes soon.

3. Vimala Rajendran Runs for Office, We Learn Her Husband Is Accused Child Rapist

Billman’s 23rd Rule of Politics: If you run for office—even a small town council—while married to someone on the sex offender registry, your partner’s secret probably won’t remain a secret long.

And that brings us to …

Had you asked me last week, I would have said Vimala Rajendran—owner of the iconic Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, advocate for living wages and domestic violence survivors, and a candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council—was a shoo-in.

But there are some stories from which you might not bounce back.

Vimala Rajendran is seeking one of four council seats on the Nov. 2 ballot. She and her husband, Rush Greenslade, acknowledged his sex-offender status in an interview with The News & Observer, but both deny that he raped his then 12-year-old daughter in 2001.

His daughter, now 32 years old, told The N&O that her father did rape her. Chapel Hill police initially charged Greenslade with rape and kidnapping. He took a plea bargain on lesser charges in 2002. …

“My husband being on the sex offender registry, while it has hurt the family greatly in that it is something that we are conscious of every day, he hasn’t done anything to remain on the registry except for that accusation that was brought up 20 years ago,” she said.

“I don’t look at him as a sex offender. I just don’t,” Rajendran continued. “He is my soulmate, my helper, my partner in business, my partner in life. We are each other’s best friends.” (N&O)

So, OK. Greenslade being an alleged child rapist doesn’t tell you whether Rajendran would be a good council member, except, I suppose, for questions about her judgment. For what it’s worth, Greenslade denies the 20-year-old charge, saying his daughter isn’t lying, but her memory is wrong.

Tammy Grubbs’s (excellent) reporting suggests … well, decide for yourself.

Her mother, Diane Greenslade, also spoke with The N&O, saying she shared joint custody with Greenslade after deciding to leave their marriage in 1994. In 2000, before the alleged rape, she emailed her ex-husband about “inappropriate touching” involving his daughter, according to a 2015 court transcript obtained by The N&O.

Sarah Greenslade recalled her father as “always handsy,” doling out heavy-handed spankings that began to embarrass her. He raped her one night after she fell asleep in his bed during a story, she said.

A short time later, Sarah Greenslade told her mother about “a very weird dream” she had in which her father had sex with her, the court transcript stated. Diane Greenslade said she didn’t start to have suspicions until another conversation a few months later.

To recap:

  • Rush was alleged to be “handsy” and “inappropriate” before the rape charge.

  • Sarah had a “very weird dream” in which her father raped her after she fell asleep in his bed, and an investigation months later showed vaginal injuries—an indication that she had, in fact, been assaulted—but couldn’t prove who did it.

  • Rush says it was someone else, but he says he took an Alford plea on indecent liberties charges to spare his daughter the court case.

  • Sarah is convinced it was her father, and the DA says the trial would have traumatized the child.

  • Both Sarah and her mother say his actions shouldn’t preclude Rajendran from running.

Everything about this is horrible. I’m not sure what else to say, except that—because I saw some discussion about this last night—I do think it was a perfectly legitimate story to pursue, and I think the N&O pursued it judiciously.

  • This story was coming out, either in rumors and innuendo or with context and vetting.

  • It’s an old charge, but it tells us something about a community leader and candidate for public office we didn’t know: She evidently knew the man she married had been accused of basically the worst thing imaginable and chose to believe that he didn’t do it.

  • What you make of that, and whether that matters, is not for me to say. But it’s information most of us didn’t know before.

4. On the Death of Roe

In my last newsletter, I promised thoughts on the Supreme Court’s Texas abortion decision, and thoughts you shall have. (Relatedly: Yesterday, Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalized abortion.)

In May, when the Supreme Court agreed to hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, it was clear Roe v. Wade’s days were numbered

Mississippi had banned most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation. Its law was obviously unconstitutional, at least insofar as the court has interpreted the Constitution since 1973. But the state asked the court to ignore stare decisis based on its purported concern for “the health of the maternal patient, the dignity of the unborn child, and the integrity of the medical profession.” 

At least four justices thought this argument was worth considering, a portentous sign for reproductive freedom. At minimum, the court’s ultraconservatives appeared likely to allow abortion restrictions before Roe’s fetal-viability threshold, about 24 weeks. 

Before the court got to Dobbes, however, Texas offered Roe’s head on a silver platter. In a one-paragraph ruling issued around midnight on Sept. 2, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brent Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett accepted. 

The majority’s unsigned opinion sidestepped its “serious questions” about SB 8’s constitutionality and lazily avoided the real-world implications of letting the law take effect, framing the decision as narrow and technical. It was neither. Faced with a frontal assault on a long-established precedent, the ultraconservatives hid behind a technicality transparently designed to flout the Constitution and created a roadmap for states to circumvent civil rights protections. 

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