To the extent that rank-and-file members of the Legislature are remembered at all after they leave office, it’s usually because they are lucky or unlucky enough to become associated with that rare, occasional issue that rises above the lawmaking grind and swirls up public opinion.
For Sen. Roger Reinert, stepping down at the end of 2016 after eight years representing Duluth, his likely legacy whether he wants it or not is the still-unsuccessful effort to repeal the state law that prohibits the sale of liquor on Sundays.
“I don’t even really drink,” Reinert said last week with a laugh. “I don’t abstain, but it’s not something I do very much. It was never like, ‘Oh, I can’t buy it whenever I want!’ It was more about, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
A political science instructor at Lake Superior College, and a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, the 45-year-old DFLer said he got interested in a legislative career after a couple of years as Duluth City Council president. It was at a time when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature were regularly cutting state aid to cities.
Reinert was elected to the House in 2008, served one term and was elected to the Senate in 2010. About two months after he was sworn in, he introduced a bill to allow liquor sales on Sunday. It went nowhere.
Since then, Reinert has led or joined with a small coterie of like-minded lawmakers from both parties in multiple efforts to kill the long-standing prohibition. It dates to a time when most states enforced religiously-based “blue laws” that restricted certain kinds of commerce on Sunday.
The public seems to broadly support scrapping the ban, but powerful special interests stand in the way.
“You have in the Teamsters and the liquor store owners very vested interests that have spent a lot of money lobbying against the issue,” Reinert said. “They pay people to be at the Capitol every day representing their viewpoint. On the other side you have widespread public interest — but not that much interest in doing anything to make it happen.”
Last April, the full Senate defeated an amendment to allow Sunday liquor sales by a vote of 35-28. Despite yet another defeat, supporters of lifting the ban gained a few votes from their previous try a year earlier.
“We’re making progress,” said Reinert, mentioning also how recent legislative sessions have seen some liquor laws loosened. Craft beer taprooms can now open Sundays, and sell take-home growlers of beer on that day.
Reinert doesn’t want a liquor legacy. He said it was easier to decide not to run again because the Legislature restored stability to local government funding. He’s also newly married, and just finished his first year of law school.
In the legislative session that starts March 8, Reinert said he’s unlikely to spend much more time fighting the ban. “Maybe someone else comes forward and is the person who gets it done and that’s fine by me,” he said.
What’s his prediction for it finally dies? “I would be astounded if within five years, we haven’t made the change,” Reinert said.