"I want real beer on Sunday," says Blake Harrison.
Newly graduated from the University of Colorado Law School, Harrison is putting his money where his mouth wants to be, by working to end the state's ban on the Sunday retail sale of full-strength beer and spirits. If he's successful, Coloradans will no longer have to settle for 3.2 beer from the supermarket or shots in bars on the Sabbath. "This is my civic duty," he says.
In order to do his duty, however, Harrison faces a sobering task. Between now and August 5, he must collect the signatures of over 80,000 registered voters in Colorado who share his opinion -- or would at least like to see the matter on the November ballot. So far, he says, the consumers he's contacted are on his side. "The most common response I get when I ask people to sign the petition is, 'Hell, yes!' People don't think the government should be getting into their business," he explains.
Not about a Restaurant
Unfortunately for Harrison, he also has a very real opponent: Colorado's beer-and-spirits retailers. "Many of the people in the industry are almost violently opposed to it," Harrison says of his proposal. "They seem to think the law is there for them, not all of us."
Lynn Hopwood heads the Colorado Licensed Beverage Retailers Association, a 500-member collective of largely off-premise retailers. If Harrison's proposal passes, CLBRA members would gain an extra day of business -- and that's a gift they don't want. "It's a ma-and-pa industry," Hopwood explains, "and they're working a lot of hours already. Blake Harrison wants to infringe on that, as far as they're concerned."
"The beverage retailers are fighting to protect the status quo," Harrison responds. "They have a day off that's legislatively protected. Nobody else in retail has that legislative protection."
Across the country, the sale of alcohol was banned on Sundays as a nod to temperance-minded politicians and church groups. But over the years, many states relaxed those laws. Lisa Hawkins, of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade-and-lobbying outfit for the nation's spirits makers, says 23 states now permit the Sunday sale of liquor in some form; about half of the states allow retail sales of real beer on Sunday.
This spring, Oregon became the latest state to end its Sunday ban. According to Hawkins, there are benefits to doing so. "We see it as a very innovative way for states to raise revenue without raising taxes," she says. Her group researched sales in Oregon and concluded that lifting the ban there "could generate between $3.5 and $5 million for the state."
But opponents of Sunday sales in Colorado dispute those findings, insisting that lifting the ban here would simply spread existing sales over seven days rather than six. And while Harrison suggests that liquor retailers could still remain closed on Sundays if they chose to, the retailers themselves say that might not be possible.
"If your competitors are open," says Argonaut Liquors' Ron Vaughn, "you have to be open. If your customers go someplace else and they're happy, they go back."
Jim Shpall, vice president of Applejack Liquors in Wheat Ridge, agrees: "It creates an environment where you'd have to add an extra business day." Both Vaughn and Shpall say they'd prefer to remain closed on Sunday and let their staffs enjoy a day off. But both also speculate that if the ban ended, they'd consider opening on Sundays in order to keep their customers happy.
Many of this state's visitors would no doubt appreciate the added hours. "Tourism is Colorado's second-largest industry," says Hawkins. "Our research shows that most of the tourists coming into Colorado are coming from states with Sunday sales. They're very accustomed to buying their spirits on Sunday."
Harrison developed a taste for policy issues while working in Washington, D.C., as an intern for Republican representative Scott McInnis. He started his anti-blue-law campaign as a CU class project, a way to test the waters of public policy -- his intended field -- while tackling an injustice for Colorado's tipplers. But even so, some tipplers don't appreciate his efforts. While gathering signatures at a recent sporting event, he recalls, "Somebody asked me, 'Don't you have better things to be doing with your time?' I told them, 'It looks like you're here just drinking, and I'm trying to make a difference.' I don't think it's time wasted."
Harrison has assembled a growing cadre of over fifty volunteers who are helping to secure John Hancocks from Coloradans through- out the state; he's launched a Web site (www.liquorlaws.org) that's spreading the news about his Coloradans for Alcohol Choice campaign and helping to recruit more signature-collectors. He's also holding fundraisers, since he's discovered that the initiative process is typically carried out by paid name gatherers, not grassroots idealists. "It's a sad commentary on the public-initiated change of laws," Harrison says. "It's one of the most disheartening things about all of this."
Right now, Harrison is shopping a number of petition companies for the lowest signature-collecting rate. "It takes a lot of money, but that's politics for you," he says. "If I had the support of the liquor stores, they'd write me a check for $50,000 tomorrow, and this would be on the ballot.
"I'm actually crazy for spending my time on such a small inconvenience," he adds. "But somebody has to do it. And it's something that the general public seems to want. The reason it's this way is because the liquor stores want it that way, and they're the ones with lobbyists at the State Capitol."
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Both Governor Bill Owens's office and the state's liquor-enforcement division declined to comment on Harrison's initiative, because it's a pending legal matter. Some representatives of Colorado's brewing interests also declined to comment: "Our position is that we have no position," says Steve Findley, speaking for the Colorado Beer Distributors Association. But a few craft brewers recognize that lifting the ban would have some benefits: Not only would retailers be able to sell their beers on Sunday, but brewpubs might regain their ability to fill growlers on Sundays.
And at least a few retailers see Sunday sales as a good thing. "It's another weekend day," says Duey Kratzer, owner of Mondo Vino, a wine store in northwest Denver. "It definitely would help, and I'd like to at least have the option." In fact, if he had a choice, Kratzer says he'd rather close his store on Monday and work on the Sabbath.
A Sunday ban makes sense "if your preacher or mother tells you that," Harrison says. "But it doesn't make sense if your government tells you that. Because we are the government."
Still, some retailers have taken the high-and-mighty road. "How much sense does that make if the liquor industry says they're trying to be moral by not selling it on Sunday?" Harrison wonders. "The rest of the week they don't care?" And the same question could be asked of Colorado's elected officials, he adds. "They trust us the other six days," he notes. "I don't see why they don't trust us the seventh day."