The legislation that would allow leaders of Chattanooga Whiskey to make their product in Hamilton County is one step away from approval. Meanwhile, a group-whose origins and motives are vague-continues to push for a public vote on the issue of local liquor manufacture and have released a poll in support of their goals.
On Wednesday, the state Senate passed a bill that would allow Chattanooga Whiskey to make its product here. Now, the measure needs to be approved by members of the House. Then, Gov. Bill Haslam has to sign the bill.
“That was the harder group to go through,” co-founder of Chattanooga Whiskey Joe Ledbetter said of the Senate.
In the middle of the legislative action, a group called Let Hamilton Distillemerged with the goal of getting a public vote on the issue of local liquor manufacture.
Spokesman for the coalition Chris Smithsaid the group supports making it legal to manufacture liquor, but members of the group don’t want to rely on the Legislature. They want the public to have a vote.
On Thursday, Smith’s group released a poll that they say shows that the majority of people in Hamilton County want voters to decide.
Via telephone survey during a two-day period, 607 people answered two questions on the topic.There are more than 300,000 Hamilton County residents.
According to a news release from Let Hamilton Distill leaders, 81 percent of the 607 respondents said voters should decide about local liquor production.
The emergence of the Let Hamilton Distill group has created questions and speculation among some community members.
Smith is half of Little Smith Strategies, which is based in Nashville, although Smith recently told Nooga.com that he lives in Chattanooga but travels a lot for work.
No matter his place of residence, Smith is a political strategist, according to the Little Smith Facebook page.
Smith worked for Mayor-elect Andy Berke when he was in the state Legislature. Smith resignedafter a charge of patronizingprostitution.
According to a 2008 Times Free Press article, Smith was one of18 people cited as part of a police sting.
Smith said that he and his associates support a referendum because the public deserves the right to make the decision, and the call shouldn’t be left up to legislators.
But Ledbetter has been working on his project and researching the best way to “let Hamilton distill” for months.
Ledbetter considered the possibility of a public referendum. He has worked with county commissioners and now the state Legislature.
Some people have noted that it’s odd that Smith’s group has emerged now, and its establishment has created confusion.
But Smith maintains that this effort is about the people and the voters.
The organization has taken out full-page ads in the newspaper, which is costly. And they have conducted this poll in connection withInFocus Research, and it’s not clear if that rings true to the tune of a real grassroots effort or an astroturfing attempt.
Astroturfing is a political strategy in which the image of a grassroots citizen effort is manufactured and masks an ulterior motive.
Smith said he isn’t working for any client and thathis group has more than 1,500 signatures on the petition. He also said it is a citizen effort and that he is “working for the people of Hamilton County.”
But Ledbetter questions the motives of Let Hamilton Distill’s organizers.
“Who are these people?” Ledbetter said. “Who are they working for? Where is their funding coming from?”