When Governor Corbett came into office with a Republican legislature in tow, the table seemed set for privatized liquor. Where Governors Thornburgh and Ridge failed, it seemed likely that Corbett would succeed with the help of Mike Turzai’s leadership in the House. Yet, here we are, near the end of the 2011 legislative session, with no real threat of privateers in sight until at least the spring. How did this happen, and how were proponents of state-run Wine and Spirit Shops so successful in killing the remainder of what was left in this year’s liquor privatization bottle?
Although the privateers began the debate with overwhelming public support, they have lost the battle of the narrative. The Local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has thus far run a consistent and convincing campaign throughout the debate. Firstly, the UFCW early on had compelling talking points capable of convincing even college students that it was a bad idea to have a privately owned liquor store on every street corner with shelves full of cheap Calico Jack and untrained clerks to check IDs. I have expounded upon those talking points previously and will not repeat myself here. Instead of recapitulating, I want to instead look at the media tactics the UFCW has utilized to halt privateers in their tottering tracks.
Back in July, the UFCW decided to hit the airwaves with ads that didn’t just go after Mike Turzai and his nefarious plot, but broadened the targets to include Representatives Justin Simmons (R-Lehigh), Jerry Knowles (R-Schuylkill), and Sue Helm (R-Dauphin). These strategic messaging ads portrayed each Representative as “heartless,” “want[ing] to throw another 5,000 people out of work,” and sitting comfortably in the pocket of “corporate cronies.”
Later, in September, when Mike Turzai used a Quinnipiac poll as evidence of the people’s will to fire the 5,000 Pennsylvanian employees of the PLCB, the UFCW again managed to turn the tide of the narrative in their favor. This time, UFCW President Wendell Young IV released a statement commenting on the other questions that were also asked in that very same Quinnipiac poll, noting:
The PLCB and the Legislature have roughly the same [approval] number. If Mr. Turzai wants to base his leadership on a poll, then we look forward to his all-out push to dismantle the General Assembly and essentially fire all of his colleagues. After all, that’s what he has proposed to do to our members based on polling results.
The poll also confirms overwhelming public support for passage of a tax on the Marcellus shale drillers, another finding that somehow has eluded the GOP House Majority Leader.
Furthermore, the UFCW has capitalized on various studies and endorsements from a wide array of sectors. For example, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) Task Force on Community Preventive Services found that privatization leads to increased consumption and increased excessive consumption, the UFCW made great efforts to publicize the CDC’s recommendation against any further privatization of alcohol sales. The UFCW has also been fast to announce when groups such as SADD, the PA DUI Association, the NAACP, and other organizations concerned with excessive and underage alcohol consumption have come out in opposition to privatization.
Most recently, the UFCW Wine and Spirits Council released two new radio ads this week. One targets State Senators Pat Browne and Bob Mensch in the Lehigh Valley, and another targets State Representative John Bear in the Harrisburg and Lancaster areas.
Slowly but surely, opponents of privatization lead by the UFCW have successfully delayed privateer ambitions through strategic messaging, effective counter-messaging, and mobilization of like minded organizations and their resources. Now that we are fast approaching another election cycle with all House Republicans and 25 out of 50 State Senators facing the electorate, GOP leadership will have to decide if this is a battle they are willing to continue waging in the face of a long string of UFCW victories. For now, at least, the UFCW has proven ready and willing to lead that fight.