Sometimes in Wisconsin, it can be tough to spot the more vicious fight: battles against health hazards or battles against the tools designed to combat them.
On Oct. 6, Gov. Tony Evers’ Department of Health Services issued an order limiting public gatherings in most buildings to 25% occupancy, the state’s second such order during the 2020 pandemic. At that point, the statewide COVID-19 death toll was 1,399. Roughly six weeks later, the COVID-19 body count had doubled, and the capacity order was a thing of the past, overturned in a legal fight initiated by the Tavern League of Wisconsin.
Though the powerful bar lobby would not carry the crusade across the finish line – that would be a single bar, Miki Jo’s Mix Up in Amery, and Pro-Life Wisconsin, which claimed the order limited seats at fundraisers – the Tavern League happily handed off the work and took the lion’s share of credit. “[Pro-Life Wisconsin] were using the same arguments we used, so we allowed them to carry the water on it,” says Pete Madland, Tavern League executive director.
Madland’s time as a member in the Tavern League stretches back to the 1980s, and his tenure as director began in the mid-2000s. Every Monday, he drives from his home in northwest Wisconsin, site of his own long-sold-off bar in Chetek, downstate to Madison to work where Wisconsin law gets made. Together with chief lobbyist Scott Stenger, Madland has engineered an impressive run of victories intended to keep bars packed, prosperous and self-policed. Beating back Evers’ order in court represented a new manner of win for the Tavern League, but in essence was business as usual.
Long before COVID-19 dominated daily life, the league could be counted on to mount fierce opposition to any public measure it deemed bad for business for its some 4,700 members. Its influence is perhaps most apparent in its long-running, successful opposition to the criminalization of first-offense drunk driving charges.
Beneath each high-profile win are quieter ones. In the last legislative session alone, records show the Tavern League opposed failed bills that would require ignition interlocks in work vehicles operated by convicted drunk drivers; consolidate intoxicated boating, snowmobile and ATV laws; allow beer delivery and curbside alcohol pickup; and ban wild animal killing contests. The Tavern League’s own recruitment videos tout its success at keeping sobriety checkpoints prohibited in the state and liquor liability out of the courts.
Even its defeats are hard fought. In the 1980s, and again in the early 2000s, the Tavern League went to the mat to resist federal efforts to curtail alcohol consumption first by raising the drinking age from 18 to 21, and then by lowering the legal threshold for drunk driving from 0.10% to 0.08% blood alcohol content. Wisconsin was among the final holdouts in both fights, capitulating only under threat of losing millions in federal funding. In 2009, the Tavern League again bowed to change, this time on an indoor smoking ban, but only after negotiating a year of delayed implementation. Madland still knocks the smoking ban as a death knell for some bars.
At times, the Tavern League doesn’t even need to lobby; it is invited to bring its views inside government buildings. When Wisconsin considered creating a new office to enforce liquor laws and appoint a state alcohol “czar,” Madland was on the legislative study group that looked at the question. The idea was rejected by the state Senate in 2018. Years earlier, when the federal government required some states to put forward a plan to deal with impaired driving in 2013, Madland joined the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s new task force on the issue. The Tavern League was the only nongovernmental body given that access, and its inclusion prompted the resignation of four other members.
“I thought it was a strange reaction,” Madland says of the resignations. “It is what it is. I’m still on the safety board, and they’re not.”
The Tavern League spent just over $185,000 on lobbying between January 2019 and June 2020 – a figure that was surpassed by 46 other interest groups, according to state’s Ethics Commission. “We’re a great grassroots organization. Our people are mobilized when they need to be. Our legislative affairs director does a great job with relationships,” Madland says. “Every politician, they have a Tavern League member in their district. … I think that really helps.”
Yet plenty of groups can match the organizational muscle of the Tavern League and walk away with half its results. A presumed part of the Tavern League’s success is its ability offer both carrot and stick. Wisconsin’s well-established fondness for drinking at community watering holes fills a reservoir of goodwill toward the league from both sides of the political aisle. Those politicians who dare to cross the league stand to be denounced in every barroom in their district with few allies to turn to.
“Lobbying is definitely a PR game, but it’s also a behind-the-scenes game, and that’s what the Tavern League has in Wisconsin,” says Frank Harris, the chief lobbyist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). “I think lawmakers have foolishly bought into it that the Tavern League has more power than they actually have.”
Harris oversees legislative affairs for MADD in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. The Milwaukee native says no similar lobby outside Wisconsin comes close to holding the sway of the Tavern League. “They’re an effective organization. MADD’s still been able to advance some drunk driving reforms, but at the end of the day, [the Tavern League] determines what goes forward as relates to OWI legislation. That’s typically not the way government runs, but it is in Wisconsin,” Harris says.
In one respect, none of this is surprising. Lobbyists gonna lobby. The positions advanced by the Tavern League, while sometimes contrary to public health recommendations, are in step with similar industry groups. “Their position is no different than pretty much any other alcohol industry’s position throughout the country. It’s just that they’re more vocal about it, and lawmakers seem to listen to them more,” Harris says.
Still, if a consortium of barkeeps holds so much sway over the lives of Wisconsinites, including an informal veto on many rules aimed at improving public safety, is that good for everyone? At least one person doesn’t care: Pete Madland.
“The public doesn’t pay our wages,” he says. “We take care of our members. We do what they want us to. That’s what drives us.”
The Tavern League’s positions are officially decided by its board of directors, which itself is chosen at group conventions. Local chapters are run out of every county in Wisconsin.
Robert Boehnen is a 30-year Tavern League member, and president of the Waukesha County chapter. He owns two bars, Wonderland Tap in Waukesha and Boehnen’s on the Rocks in Neosho. He believes the league brass excels at advancing his business interests.
“The Wisconsin Tavern League is the envy of every state in the nation,” he says. “Most of the senators and representatives respect the Tavern League. They know we are well represented, and so our voice carries pretty good with them.”
He not only supported the court challenge to Evers’ occupancy order, he wanted it sooner. “When they finally did it, I said, ‘It’s about time,’” he says.
Boehnen’s support for the occupancy order lawsuit is shared by most members, Madland says, though he acknowledges that some members were adamantly opposed.
“We have several members [who] disagree with our position. We have to go with what the majority of our people want, just like in any organization. I think dissention is good, to have those discussions,” he says.
In a fight this charged, however, dissention meant defection. Shortly after the league challenged the occupancy order, Madison craft brewery Ale Asylum released a statement saying it would not renew its membership.
“It’s a funny thing about the Ale Asylum, that they [rely on] our members, selling their product, yet they don’t want to support our association. But that’s their decision,” Madland says.
Other members fall somewhere between full-throated support or refute. People like Tyler Vogt, co-owner of Malarkey’s Pub & Townies Grill in Wausau. Vogt forks over the $125 annual fee, he says, because of the deals membership provides, such as lower credit card processing rates, discounted music licensing fees and worker’s compensation insurance rebates.
Yet Vogt describes himself as a passive member. “I’ve chosen not to be an active member. I don’t go to meetings because I don’t align with a lot of the politics there,” he says.
At Malarkey’s, he emphasizes mask-wearing and distancing, even creating an “archway of understanding” that sets expectations for anyone coming inside. He labels his approach as strictly a business decision. He suspects there is demand for restaurants closely following health protocols.
“When I was looking at my community, it looked as though [many] people didn’t want any guidelines at all,” Vogt says. “A large percentage of the market decided not to go out at all anymore, which hurt us even more than losing a couple of tables for safety.”
Instead of suing to get back to full capacity, Vogt wishes the Tavern League would have pushed for a big state relief package tailored to the needs of bars and restaurants – something Madland says is currently his top priority.
The terms of the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal government’s lifeline to small businesses and their employees, required at its start that 75% of loan money be used on wages and benefits. The percentage was later lowered to 60%. Such terms were more helpful to offices staffed with newly remote workers than they were to service industry businesses. “The problem was that it came out while we were mandated to be closed. People had to invent ways to keep their employees busy so they could access the [remaining] funds to try to pay off their mounting debts.”
Even since the Tavern League’s legal challenge, Vogt says business has been terrible; it seems occupancy limits were not the problem. Still, he knows the pressure many individual bars faced to reopen, and how, collectively, that could have forced the league to act.
“I think I understand what they’re doing, and I can’t necessarily say it’s bad,” he says. “I would have liked to see even more focus on finding some aid to help the businesses get through this rather than changing the language of the mandates.”
Madland describes the decision to bring suit as a “no-brainer,” but it’s also obvious the move came with a cost. It threw some members on the defensive and provoked harsh criticism. But the league’s mission to eliminate perceived threats to Wisconsin’s bars always carries the day over potential PR hits.
That’s not to say the league fails to recognize the importance of public sentiment, which it has come to perceive keenly over decades of debates about drunken driving. League officials lobby hard to mold drunken-driving bills into laws they can support. Typically, these go after the most extreme offenders.
“Everybody thinks we are against getting tougher on drunk drivers and we block all of these bills,” Madland says. “That’s simply not true. We have never opposed any legislation that has targeted the problem – that is repeat offenders and high-BAC offenders.”
The league also champions its own transportation solution, SafeRide. Not every Tavern League member participates in the SafeRide program, but those who do can offer free rides home to intoxicated patrons. Program costs are split between the Tavern League, individual bars and a surcharge on OWI fines. Begun in 1999, SafeRide now logs more than 90,000 rides a year.
These concessions preserve a larger prize. Wisconsin remains the only U.S. state that labels first-offense drunk driving as a municipal violation, akin to speeding, rather than a crime.
It’s not for lawmakers’ lack of trying. Measures criminalizing first offenses were proposed several times in the last decade alone, most recently in 2019 by Rep. Jim Ott and Sen. Alberta Darling, both Republicans. While the pair were able to pass stiffer sentences for fifth and sixth OWI convictions and a mandatory minimum of five years imprisonment for most OWI homicides, first-offense OWI criminalization failed once again.
“I just want to see safer roads for everybody,” Ott says.
Ott says league lobbyists have never strongarmed him, though he can’t speak for his colleagues. “As far as their opposition, it’s not like they come to me and say, ‘Look, we’re against all these laws that you’re trying to pass.’ How much influence they have on other people, that’s something that would be hard to gauge,” he says.
Madland and the league also advocate for a considerable distinction between very intoxicated drivers and those whose BAC is slightly higher than 0.08%. In fact, he says drunk drivers barely above 0.08% get a bad rap.
“We have graduated penalties for speeding. You don’t treat somebody who is 5 miles [per hour] over the speed limit the same as someone who is 25 over the speed limit. We feel the same way about the OWIs,” he says. “The difference between 0.07999 and 0.08 is one more sip. We don’t think those people should be treated the same as people that are twice or three times the BAC [limit for drivers].”
Madland’s position is in a way progressive and also a reactionary throwback to last BAC debate. The higher the legal BAC, the more alcohol patrons can consume. He has long memories of the economic hit bars took when the legal definition of intoxication was lowered and believes the safety benefits were not worth the tradeoff. “When we went with a nationwide reduction of 0.10 to 0.08, we saw a dramatic decrease in business, and it wasn’t impacting the problem. We still had repeat offenders, high-BAC offenders,” Madland says.
Madland does say he is satisfied with Wisconsin’s OWI laws as they currently stand. But Ott believes the fight to criminalize first-offense OWIs isn’t over, and that support is growing for a compromise position that will criminalize first-offense OWIs, provided convictions can be expunged years later with no other offenses. But he won’t be there to shepherd the proposal through the Legislature, having lost his re-election campaign in November.
Ott left a Legislature with new leadership that shares his goals but not his deference, and some lawmakers are more vocally opposed to the Tavern League than ever before. Democratic Rep. Francesca Hong began her first term representing a liberal Madison district in January. She’s run the restaurant Morris Ramen with her husband since 2016. Though her restaurant is licensed to serve alcohol, Hong has never joined the Tavern League. Shortly after the league challenged Evers’ occupancy order – and three weeks before the general election she easily won – she made headlines when she tweeted out a statement that left no doubt about her position. “Please note that the corrupt, crooked, [c—s] at The Tavern League do not represent the interests of all bars and restaurants. Since March I have pleaded that we need united messaging, a plan and policy in place to protect public health and local economy. We still have neither.”
Hong says she stands by those words and has no regrets. “I felt like I needed to speak out to make sure that people knew that they did not represent my restaurant, and they don’t represent safety, and they certainly do not represent my interests,” she says. “I felt like that allowed me to convey the message that they were actively harming people.”
Hong expects bad blood created by the court challenge, the tweet and her strong support for first-offense OWI criminalization to be among many sticking points when she interacts with Tavern League representatives.
Still, Madland has hope that they can find a way to work together. “We’ll leave that up to Scott [Stenger],” Madland says. “Scott knows legislators. He tries to create relationships with everyone. I’m sure there will be a point where that happens with her.”
There is no doubt Wisconsin benefits from a thriving bar and restaurant service sector. But how should that economic good be balanced with the public’s interest in safe roads and COVID-free lungs? Where is the point where the benefits for even thousands of business owners are offset by the costs to the public at large?
A 2019 report from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health tags the estimated annual cost of binge drinking in the state at $3.9 billion. Project coordinator Julia Sherman was one of the four members who resigned from the DOT’s 2014 drunken driving task force in protest over the Tavern League’s inclusion. Sherman declined to be interviewed for this article, saying only in an email that, “the public health concerns created by an overconcentration of alcohol outlets are serious and well documented.”
Another resigning member, Dr. Stephen Hargarten, is professor of emergency medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Then and now he believes the Tavern League is too conflicted to act as a good steward of public health. “They’re not public health leaders,” he says. “And I think the Tavern League has never genuinely approached their business models with balancing that kind of responsibility with their business interests.”
The Tavern League can talk a good game on social responsibility. It encourages all members to follow Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. safety guidelines for businesses during the pandemic. It supports laws aimed at removing egregious drunk drivers from the roads. It donated more than $16 million to 12,000 charities in 2019, and its SafeRide program has no doubt saved lives.
Whatever compels these positive actions disappears in the face of initiatives that could change customers’ behavior. “If they want to attack the social drinker, that gets the hair on our backs up,” Madland says.
The Tavern League has no issues treating low-BAC drivers differently than high-BAC offenders, or waxing philosophically about the thin line between legal and illegal intoxication. It will happily invoke Wisconsin heritage to defend the drinker’s right to enjoy a few adult beverages without obsessing over his or her precise BAC. “We think people can go out and have an old fashioned with their Friday night fish fry or stop for a couple of beers after work without being criminalized,” Madland says.
But ask if any of this amounts to nurturing the problematic aspects of Wisconsin’s collective alcohol tolerance, and the social mission is abandoned altogether. “The drinking culture is one animal. Protecting the rights of our members to do business is another animal,” Madland says.
This despite Madland’s inclusion on an OWI task force with a stated goal of changing the “cultural acceptance of drinking.” Madland now serves on its successor committee, the DOT’s Impaired Driving Work Group. Among that group’s stated goals is researching a lower allowable BAC and the impact of alcohol outlet density. There can be little doubt about the policy outcomes of these inquiries as long as the league has a say. But don’t let that fool you into thinking the Tavern League has anything to do with Wisconsin’s longstanding proclivity for alcohol.
“As far as the culture goes, we’re just a small player, and that’s a huge pond,” Madland says.
And so it would seem there are times the Tavern League is powerless after all.
Zach Brooke wrote “Chasing Big Dollars” in last September’s issue.