About that small rumble you heard on Wednesday. Possibly it was the earthquake that had its epicenter up in Dalton.
But allow yourself only a dash of imagination, and it could just as easily been the thunder of horses’ hooves cutting a circle of turf for a grandstand of bettors.
The overwhelming success of 127 measures in 127 communities to permit the Sunday retail sale of alcohol on Tuesday was the punctuation mark on a major cultural – and political – shift in Georgia. People already wonder what might come next.
According to a list compiled by the Georgia Food Industry Association, 105 of the referendums passed – an 82 percent success rate. Two-thirds of more than 266,000 Georgians who cast ballots approved of the concept of a Sunday purchase of a six-pack from a grocery store.
Houston County is home to a teetotaling Sonny Perdue, who blocked Sunday sales legislation during his two terms. On Tuesday, his neighbors in the cities of Perry and Warner Robins contradicted the former governor.
The city of Decatur registered the highest level of approval – 91 percent of voters approved.
As a rule, politicians are fascinated by the possibilities that lie within such large, overwhelming margins. These margins in particular.
“What is interesting is that there was essentially no organized opposition to it,” said Tom Perdue, a Republican strategist. “And that would lead me to think that some members of the General Assembly, looking for new revenue, might now look at the lottery in a new light.”
Only last month, the board that governs the Georgia Lottery Corporation released a study that broached the forbidden topic of casino gambling. Gov. Nathan Deal and other Capitol leaders quickly shot it down.
But the fight over Sunday sales was a drawn-out, multiyear campaign. Backers patiently funded lobbyists year after year. Possibly, they have blazed a trail for gaming and horse-track enthusiasts.
“Since the lottery board seems to have the authority to do video poker, casino-type operations – maybe the Legislature will look at the revenue source now in light of a local-option vote on this,” Perdue said.
The decision by the General Assembly to address Sunday sales as a community-choice issue was a fateful one for supporters of the state’s last major blue law.
The Rev. Ray Newman works on public policy issues for the Georgia Baptist Convention and is a registered lobbyist at the state Capitol. Newman says Tuesday’s vote is no evidence of waning clout by conservative Christians in Georgia – simply because religious conservatives chose not to contest the measures.
But one reason that Christian forces found themselves befuddled was the fact of 127 disparate contests across the state. Opposition couldn’t be coordinated. “Me just being one person, I couldn’t run into 127 different places and do that kind of thing,” Newman said. “Had this been a statewide referendum, we would have had a better chance of making a statement or saying something about it.”
Newman has already begun work on blocking a pari-mutuel bill now in the Legislature – which would permit horse-racing in Georgia. The measure has been the subject of recent hearings.
The Georgia Baptist representative doesn’t foresee any immediate success for gambling legislation, though he concedes that religious conservatives have found themselves in disarray recently. Sadie Fields of the Georgia Christian Alliance is in retirement – and no group or individual has risen to take her place.
Newman has done his part, but since he represents a religious denomination, he doesn’t take part in the hardball games at the state Capitol, which can include sharp elbows and somewhat personal attacks.
But the Baptist lobbyist also concedes that the state is changing. The fight over gay marriage in 2004 was the high-water mark for religious conservatives in Georgia. Pulpits were engaged across the state.
“Unfortunately, this issue just didn’t generate that same kind of passion,” he said.
Days before the Sunday sales vote, the Rev. Barry McCarty, pastor of Peachtree Christian Church in Midtown, explained to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter why he wasn’t rallying his congregation against the measure in Atlanta.
Drunkenness is a sin, he said. Drinking isn’t. That’s a point of view that didn’t have much of a place in Georgia pulpits 30 years ago.
“I do believe that Georgia is beginning to see the cultural change that occurs when you get so many people coming from so many parts of the world,” Newman said.
Here’s one small measure to noodle over: North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, all have relatively small numbers of Catholics. Georgia’s population – because of decades of migration from the north – now stands at 12 percent, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Abortion and gay marriage mean as much to Catholics as to Baptists or Methodists. But drinking and gambling do not. Never mind the growing ranks of the unchurched.
Tom Perdue, the Republican strategist, once served as chief of staff for Gov. Joe Frank Harris, a Methodist famous for banning alcohol from the Governor’s Mansion in the 1980s. But Perdue, an active church-goer, can see changing times, too.
“If you and I took our spouses to dinner, and if I were buying dinner, I would ask you if you’d like a glass of wine,” Tom Perdue said. Again, that’s something that, socially, probably wouldn’t have happened in the 1980s.
When it comes to sin and politics, Perdue said, people don’t quite grasp what a major political and cultural watershed the establishment of a lottery for the HOPE scholarship turned out to be.
“In some sense, it’s hypocritical to say you oppose gambling, but you support the lottery. The lottery is gambling, and the lottery is advertised by the state, and it sends thousands upon thousands of young people to college,” he said.
Tuesday’s vote means there will be no repercussion for state lawmakers who supported the extension of Sunday sales of alcohol to retail establishments. Which, Perdue underlined, means it may also remove “the fear factor” when it comes to pushing the limits on the lottery in Georgia.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider