Cash-Strapped Communities Weaken Opposition to Alcohol Sales

Cash-strapped communities weaken opposition to alcohol sales.

July 1, 2010, 10:12 AM

July 1, 2010 -- This little town was dry when Marian Steich was born here in 1925, and like most of East Texas it stayed dry — in law, if not always in fact — after Prohibition was repealed nationally eight years later.

Steich thought that would never change. For generations, it didn't.

But in a referendum last November, the 84-year-old, teetotaling, church-going great-grandmother helped make her community the first in Smith County to legalize the retail sale of alcoholic beverages.

Steich says people should have the right to decide what to drink and where to buy it. She also hopes alcohol can help Winona fill its storefronts and fix its roads. "I watched this town die," she says. "Now I'd like to see it grow."

Those ideas are dooming what's left of the prohibition movement and shrinking Dry America, a region from the Carolinas to the Plains where many places still ban sales of some or all types of alcohol.

At a time when many states are debating marijuana policies — 13 have decriminalized possession and 15 have medical marijuana programs — the fight in Dry America is over alcohol.

To Winona Mayor Rusty Smith, "it almost seems like we're behind the times." To Jim Mosher, a national alcohol policy analyst, it shows how deeply the issue of intoxicants divides America's cultures, faiths and regions.

Prohibition, created by a constitutional amendment that took effect in 1920, banned the sale, production and importation of alcoholic drink in the USA. After its repeal in 1933, states were free to regulate alcohol.

What emerged was a patchwork of state, county and local laws, with wets and drys fighting for each patch.

Today, one in nine counties is still dry. But drys are losing ground on all levels, from the state — since 2002, 14 states have ended bans on Sunday alcohol sales — to the very local. In April, a 19-block section of western Louisville (the M-107 precinct) voted 89 to 41 to go wet.

The number of Tennessee communities that allow sales of liquor by the drink (in bars and restaurants) has increased 56 percent since 2003. In the same period, 22 of Texas' 254 counties and more than 235 of its municipalities have gone wet (or "moist," a nebulous category in which beer and wine might be legal, but not liquor).

Even in Kansas — the state that produced the ax-wielding saloon-wrecker Carry Nation; that passed the first state prohibition law in 1881; and that did not repeal it until 1948 — 16 counties have gone wet since 2002.

Is this the end of the prohibition movement?

"It's moving in that direction," says Joe Godfrey of the pro-dry Alabama Council on Alcohol Problems. "Our numbers are growing fewer and fewer."

Weakening Opposition

The fall of Dry America has many causes. The recession has made governments desperate for tax revenue; national restaurant and supermarket chains are leery of opening where they can't sell alcohol; referendum law changes in states such as Texas and Alabama have made it easier for wet advocates to force local alcohol law elections.

Alabama already this year has had 16 municipal wet-dry referenda, most of them hard-fought. Winfield in May elected to stay dry by a margin of five votes out of 1,653 cast.

The religious opposition to alcohol is weakening, especially among young people, and even among evangelicals.

"Lots of churches aren't addressing the issue," Godfrey says. "They want to avoid controversy." Many preachers, he complains, have accepted the concept of moderate drinking.

There are health and social costs to going wet.

National Prohibition, a failure in many ways, was "a success from a public health perspective," according to George Hacker, a critic of alcohol marketing, who says that less drinking translates into everything from less liver disease to less spouse abuse.

Alcohol laws, however, change in only one direction: Dry places go wet — in Texas, wets have won 80 percent of alcohol elections over the past seven years — but not vice versa: One wet town has gone dry. Wets "keep coming until they get what they want, and they only need to win once," Godfrey says. After a tough election, "church people often say, 'We fought that battle. We're tired. We're gonna move on.'"

There are places in Dry America, however, that won't go wet without a fight.

Mount Pleasant Stays Dry

Waylon Moore arrived at the supermarket in Mount Pleasant, Texas, one day last year to find people collecting signatures on a petition. Their goal: Force an election on whether to allow retail sales of wine and beer and loosen restrictions on alcohol in restaurants.

Moore, 68, a storage business owner and leader of Highland Park Baptist Church, takes seriously the biblical injunction, "Be ye not drunk with wine."

"My grandfather was a bad drinker," he recalls. "Growing up, I saw what it did to him. Every Saturday he'd go into town."

Moore doesn't drink and wanted to keep it out of his town. But how? There were two different approaches.

The Highland Park Baptist youth group decided to make a video about the dangers of alcohol for teenagers. They staged a scene that had three kids in a car drinking, followed by shots of a wreck and a cemetery plot. There were allusions to the local election, including shots of yard signs and a group of wet proponents, and the warning, "People want to change our town for the worse."

The group showed the video at church, where it was praised, and posted it on YouTube, where it was not. Jessica Armstrong, 15, was shocked by comments posted — almost all negative, most rude, some profane. Worse, she says, was the trash talk at school, where the youth group members feel outnumbered by kids who think it's cool to drink.

The reaction to the video showed that even in East Texas, buckle of the Bible Belt, temperance has become countercultural. Why, the wets asked, should Mount Pleasanters have to drive 15 minutes to neighboring towns? Why should Mount Pleasant forgo the tax revenue?

And Mount Pleasant wasn't really dry. Several restaurants serve alcohol and have bars. They must organize as a "club" and serve only "members," but anyone can join on the spot.

Concluding that a frontal assault on alcohol would backfire, the dry campaign that Waylon Moore headed — "Mount Pleasant Cares" — stuck to a carefully tailored message.

"We never mentioned beer or wine," says Vatra Solomon, a local resident and political consultant who advised the drys. "We talked about children and safety and a healthy environment — those buzzwords. A lot of people like a glass of wine at dinner or a beer watching the Cowboys. We couldn't afford to offend them."

Although the wets had the financial edge, with support from Wal-Mart and several supermarkets, the result was a rout: 70 percent against beer and wine sales, 65 percent against easier restaurant sales.

Moore hopes the margin means the wets won't try again soon. If they do, Mount Pleasant is ready to be the dry Alamo: "We've saved our 'Vote No' signs," he says.

Winona Goes Wet

When Marian Steich was growing up, bootleggers hung out at the gas stations, selling moonshine in flasks that fit into the side of a boot. On Saturday night, you'd have to drive an hour for a legal drink. On Sunday morning, you had to listen to the preacher condemn Demon Rum.

It was a prosperous town: three grocery stores, two general stores, two physicians, a cobbler and a rail station. Then Interstate 20 siphoned off the traffic, the train stopped running and Winona's prosperity blew away.

Last year, some business people proposed to bring it back by making the town of 600 wet. They hired Texas Petition Strategies, a consulting firm that has worked the wet side of hundreds of alcohol elections.

Leadership of Winona's drys fell to a reluctant warrior. Although Tony Watson, the local Baptist preacher, is an abstainer, temperance was not his burning passion. He was afraid the election would split his congregation.

The mayor worried it would split the town. Smith (who is married to Steich's granddaughter and who says he's not embarrassed to admit enjoying a beer or a whiskey) had heard stories of previous elections when wets' cars had their tires slashed and windows shot out — possibly because bootleggers wanted the town to stay dry as much as the Baptists.

When she said she supported the wet initiative, Steich says a friend told her, "We're shocked to think you would do such a thing!"

In the end, Smith joined the wets: "I've never understood why you have to leave the county to buy beer to enjoy in the privacy of your own home."

The vote in May ended in a tie — 94 to 94. In a revote six months later, the wets won by 18 votes. Four liquor stores have since opened in town, and several more are planned.

Smith says the city used to get $1,800 to $2,200 monthly in sales tax revenue; in May, it collected $11,000. The city is putting the money into a road repair fund.

Smith says none of the drys' warnings — about crime and littering — have come true.

Even the roads are safer, he says: "We've seen a reduction in speeding on the highway. Cars are stopping in Winona now."

Watson says the liquor stores, with their muddy parking lots and beer signs, make the town look "trashy."

"Right now, everyone wants to come to Winona," he admits. But what if other Smith County towns go wet, depriving Winona of its monopoly?

Regardless, he doesn't plan to refight the issue; reverting dry, he says, "would mean putting people out of business. That would get ugly."

"In 20 years, there won't be a dry county in Texas," he predicts. "There's not the stigma to alcohol anymore."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events