COLUMBUS, Ohio — After spending their days serving the public, Ohio lawmakers soon might be able to head to the basement and get served at the pub.
State officials are debating a proposal to establish what would apparently be the nation’s first statehouse bar — a venue where lawmakers and even members of the public could tip a few back after hours if they reserve the space.
Opponents say it would be inappropriate to open a bar in a government building frequented by schoolchildren, while others note that alcohol already flows freely at Statehouse events.
“My point of view is Prohibition ended in the 1930s, so what’s the big deal?” said Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican. “We’re not talking about putting George Jones and Willie Nelson on the jukebox and having people spending all their waking hours in the Capitol Cafe, drowning their sorrows. But the idea that there’s alcohol in the Statehouse should be completely unsurprising to anyone.”
Republican Rep. Rex Damschroder, an advocate of tough anti-drinking laws, said the Statehouse is a place where adults and children go to learn history and see government in action — not lawmakers bellying up to the bar.
“At this point, I am aware of no valid reason for a bar to be located in the center of Ohio’s government operations,” he wrote in a recent letter to a Statehouse operations committee. “There are plenty of bars in downtown Columbus, and the Statehouse is the last place that should be added to the list.”
The caterer who conceived the idea for a wooden counter that would serve beer, wine and liquor for reserved events like wedding rehearsal dinners says he was simply trying to attract new customers to an underused basement cafeteria. The Capitol Cafe opened this month, without alcohol.
The panel that oversees Statehouse operations has slowed the project’s pace, assigning it to a study committee that will sort out what the business should offer.
The venue was never intended to be a traditional bar, Louie Pappas says — and he acknowledges that a PR blitz last month, touting a full-service bar for after-hours “private happy hours” with specialty bistro menus and flat-screen televisions, went overboard.
“This has been twisted so many ways,” said Pappas, who owns Milo’s Catering and has been fielding angry calls and nosy visitors for weeks. “We’re just trying to think outside the box and create a little more revenue for that space. If we succeed in renting it out more often, of course the state gets more money from us because we pay more rent. But the investment and the risk are ours.”
Milo’s pays rent totaling 10 percent of its gross sales, with half going to the 150-year-old Statehouse — which is still paying off a $165 million restoration completed in 1996 — and half going to the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission, a vocational training program for the disabled.
Pappas said that he never intended to put alcohol on open display, and that the bar would not have been open to the public or during hours when gangs of children might be roaming the Statehouse on a field trip.
Milo’s saw adding the bar counter as a natural extension of existing Statehouse offerings. Catered events such as weddings, conferences and legislative receptions already allow alcohol.
Politics and booze have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship.
Lawmakers in many states keep beer refrigerators in their common areas or bottles in their bottom drawers. In Missouri, beer companies deliver to lawmakers’ offices. Legislators in some states even imbibe on legislative floors or fill up in members’ lounges.
West Virginia’s Senate has one such lounge dubbed “Senate Junior Rules” where legislators pour alcohol. During late evening sessions, they emerge holding plastic keg cups; several years ago, one senator knocked over the desk of another member during a spirited presentation. The errant lawmaker apologized to the body not only for knocking over the colleague’s desk, but also his glass of wine with it.
There are also the inevitable drinking spots just steps from statehouse doors, like the Officer’s Club in Hartford, Conn.; Jack’s Oyster House in Albany, N.Y.; Mitchell’s in Columbus; and the Cloak Room in Austin, Texas, which runs a live feed of chamber proceedings on session days.
A recent report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics found the alcoholic beverage industry contributed more than $35 million to state political campaigns nationwide in 2010. Some 35 percent went to ballot measures, with the remaining dollars just about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
Countering that influence is a strong political leaning against alcohol consumption, particularly in conservative states.
Still, legislatures of the modern era have often resisted the temptation to bring public displays of drinking onto the grounds of their Capitols, out of both respect for their institutions and fear of political fallout. The National Conference of State Legislature said it didn’t know of any other statehouse with a venue like the one proposed in Ohio.
In Utah, where the majority of legislators are Mormons, a religion that frowns on alcohol intake, the statehouse explicitly prohibits alcohol. Lawmakers there had to get a waiver during the 2002 Olympics to host a couple of receptions in the building.
It’s the second time in recent years that Ohio’s exploits with controlled substances have drawn attention. Last year, then-Gov. Ted Strickland’s public safety director lost her job after calling off a planned sting involving inmates suspected of using their jobs at the governor’s residence to funnel tobacco into prison.