Liquor Board blues
January 14, 1984 — the work stress piles up, blamed by the doctors for my high blood pressure. Certainly, it steals the pleasure from hunting. I sure miss Leroy Hittle, recently retired, replaced as chairman by Robert Hannah, a former clothing store executive. We got along fine at first. With Hannah’s consent, I organized a meeting between the Board and the Muckleshoot Tribe, the first tribe from which we seized a semi-load of untaxed liquor in 1978. The federal courts made us give it back, and the court battle was on. I let it be known through intermediaries that the new board chairman was not averse to a negotiated settlement of the federal suit. A Muckleshoot tribal official (a hired-gun Nez Perce; go figure) called to ask if we were serious. I assured him we were. So he and I arranged for the entire tribal council to come to Olympia to sit down with the board.
The board and the tribe agreed they would like to negotiate a settlement. After the meeting Hannah came to my office, very happy. He said it would please him a lot if his chairmanship could be remembered for making peace with the Indian tribes over liquor sales. We chatted comfortably; it was a good day. He asked me who I thought the board should send to negotiate. I gave him two names, and also told him the ones I thought he should not send — based on how they raised tribal hackles in the meeting. Hannah had spotted that too — he was not an insensitive man.
Okay, he told me, getting up to leave — you’ve named your team, take those two guys with you and bring the board an agreement we can live with. To say I was nonplussed would be to put it mildly. I had a combative history with the tribes, going back to my F&H News days; I had written a lot about wildlife disputes between the state and the tribes.
One of the most controversial stories, that I never got to write, involved a Congressman’s violation of state game laws on a reservation. A federal judge intervened personally with my publisher to quash that one. Federal judges kept on exempting Indians from state wildlife laws, to the impotent fury of Northwest outdoorsmen. One case I was able to get into print was particularly egregious, not to mention stomach-turning — night-shooting pregnant cow elk in the spring, unborn calves left to rot with the gut piles while the carcasses were loaded in a van purchased by the federal government for the tribal game warden. The night-shooters belonged to the Muckleshoot tribe I was now supposed to negotiate with.
Far more famous was tribal acquisition of fifty percent of all migratory fish runs via federal-court fiat, anointed as law of the land by the Supreme Court. This famous victory emboldened tribes to go into tax-free liquor sales. It was as if they were deliberately thumbing their noses at B-Westerns where evil white men sold firewater to redskins. Less than a hundred years since the close of the frontier, redskins turned the tables to sell firewater to white eyes — at a very nice discount, since they ignored high state liquor taxes. The Indian liquor war with the Liquor Board was entering its fifth year when we began negotiations. Their lawyers, flush with success from wildlife victories, miscalculated the tribes’ supposed immunity to state liquor laws. The Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution, repeal of Prohibition, returned control of liquor to each state; no exceptions for Indian country. We couldn’t — yet — raid the reservations like Eliot Ness going after a Capone warehouse. But we could and did arrest customers bringing untaxed liquor off the res. I orchestrated publicity for those arrests, confiscation, and fines. It was always fun when we nailed a celebrity, like a Seahawks running back.
The tribes advertised tax-free liquor in daily newspapers. I did not wield the heavy hand of liquor-advertising control reposed in my office by statute. Newspapers would have complied or lost advertising from liquor companies selling to the Board. One call from the Board, and offending newspapers would lose lucrative accounts; the Board was a formidable enemy. But the Board — led then by Leroy Hittle, ex-AP man, preferred my recommendation: buy competing newspaper space every time the tribes ran an ad. Ad salesmen knew they had a double-commission when tribes advertised; they couldn’t wait to call me. Newspapers asserted selling the Board space for warning ads proved their neutrality; I usually got same-page placement with tribal ads. And calls from their ad salesmen alerted us when to mount enforcement operations against customers.
Board newspaper warnings when the tribes advertised, and sporadic customer arrests, comprised a guerrilla campaign that left tribes feeling surrounded, according to documents later obtained in discovery. Step by step, federal courts moved closer to the inevitable conclusion that the Twenty First Amendment controlled, and the Board was going to win the firewater battle. Then we would be faced with making raids. We already knew tribes wouldn’t just stop selling; some shipments had guards with AK-47s. Our enforcement division objected to spilling blood — the tribes’ or theirs — over tax on a bottle of liquor. Hence Hannah’s willingness to negotiate and my back-channel contact. As a frontier-history buff, I read a lot about broken treaties and bad-faith promises. Despite my wildlife battles with them, I admired them for still fighting back. Now I was supposed to stop fighting; it was my turn in the barrel to conduct ethical negotiations.
We did it. John Hennen was the board’s senior assistant attorney general and my pistol-shooting buddy; Bob Harvey, the board purchasing agent, was my occasional hunting buddy; all three of us played on the board softball team. I recommended them to Hannah with no clue he expected me to be involved. We met with the tribal staff and hammered out an agreement to protect state liquor taxes while preserving the tribe’s competitive pricing. All it really required was good faith and intelligent numbers massage; Bob could crunch numbers in his sleep and John kept us legal. The entire tribal leadership returned to Olympia to formally sign the five-year contract we negotiated; it permitted their store to sell at a discount if they collected state taxes, plus a generous tax-free bottle allowance for every enrolled adult.
That extinguished the federal court case. They had authority to retail every product stocked in our five-acre Seattle warehouse; and stopped pouring money down the billable-hours rat hole. Tribal staff parlayed their five-year contract into financing for a new five-thousand-square-foot reservation liquor store — employing tribe members for much of the construction. Board members and the negotiating team were guests of honor at the ribbon cutting.
Meanwhile John and Bob and I closed another deal with a much smaller rural tribe, and began negotiations with lawyers for the well-organized Tulalip tribe near Everett. My oft-stated guiding principle was that each tribe was unique and we would broker a deal to fit each circumstance. The Tulalips waggishly suggested we close our nearby state store and give them that market. Their reservation store, just off Interstate Five, was killing sales in our store despite warnings and arrests. Our counter was they’d have to sell at our full price if we agreed; no pricing advantages like the Muckleshoots.
We did not say the Legislature had curtailed expansion of state stores; if we closed our competing store we could move it to an underserved area, with no net increase. We wrote the proposed contract; the Board agreed to close our store and the tribe agreed to sell at full price. Another expensive federal law suit was extinguished; the Board and team once more were guests of honor at formal rededication of the tribal store. The Tulalip chairman took all three Board members to tour the Tulalip salmon hatchery, asking them to bear witness in Olympia his people were serious about repairing diminished migratory fisheries to everyone’s benefit. Local non-Indians — still furious at tribal court victories for salmon and steelhead — raised hell. Newspapers editorialized against us for caving in to the Indians. Politicians came after us. Internally, some of the staff pandered to the politicians and turned against us. But the contract held.
Then I discovered a worm in the heart of our plans. Our comptroller in the first Muckleshoot meeting had compared them sarcastically to bootleggers selling liquor out of car trunks; his remark damn-near scotched negotiations before they began. Now, he had fiddled percentages in liquor purchase price for the small tribe second to sign. It wasn’t a huge amount per bottle, but they weren’t getting the fair shake Bob calculated for them; I guess numbers-crunchers just can’t resist such crap.
He reported his skullduggery reluctantly because, he said, the large Tulalip tribe employed savvier accountants who would spot the change. But he didn’t ask the Board to correct his calculation; he asked them to retroactively and unilaterally modify the Tulalip contract to reflect the percentage he foisted on the small tribe. If Tulalip CPAs complained, he would then trot out the post-facto wording. Here, in miniature, was the kind of crap Indians faced since Europeans purchased Manhattan. I had staked my personal word on fair dealing, and my agency was cheating. I lost my temper. I literally pounded on the board-room table so hard people jumped and said flatly the comptroller’s proposal was unacceptable.
Hannah got really angry, accusing me of usurping the Board’s decision-making. I said think very carefully how headlines will read if you approve this. Since I was the media relations guy, he took it as an ultimatum. Well — it was. So the Board admitted an “error” in our accounting and fixed it; they didn’t fiddle with the Tulalip contract. I thought we let ourselves off easily by calling it an accounting error instead of cheating, but didn’t object, since I had won the battle.
But I lost the war. As from that confrontation, my goose was cooked. Hannah was no longer my advocate; I was now a loose cannon. Every day going to work my nerves were strung tight, wondering what new crisis I would face; every weekend the migraines came. Hunting season passed without much notice. One of the most militant tribes — that refused to negotiate — set up an “ambush interview” for me on a Seattle TV station. They sprung a tribal elder — also a professor at Evergreen State College — to debate me. Under hot studio lights he asserted blandly my whole negotiating strategy was a ploy to marginalize tribes. I turned the tables — on the air — by offering to negotiate a deal with him right then and there. The TV commentator thought this good theater and said he couldn’t see anything wrong with my offer; not with the public listening to hold the state to my word. The professor surprised me. He invited me — on the air — to a tribal potlatch; he said only in such surroundings does a man show his true heart. Black-and-white TV Western: Cochise invites Tom Jeffords to the Stronghold. I accepted. The TV host was thrilled: even better theater. Fade to black.
Next day was chaos in Olympia. Hannah wanted to take negotiations away from me. Pete Peterson, the old union hand, got Kaz Watanabe, the other Democrat, to outvote him; said he recognized my old AFSCME training in negotiating with my back to the wall. Whether Pete was just slapping down Hannah, the Republican, I have no idea. Pete and I had our own differences. But I went to the potlatch, with Bob.
When the professor dispensed gifts to guests, which I was told is hoary tradition, I almost created a scene by declining an envelope of cash for gas money for the long drive to the reservation; the state paid for my gas. In the confusion his gift hit the floor; happy tribal chatter faded to strained silence. The professor scooped up the envelope, pressed it into my hands with both of his and whispered you have to; it’s our tradition. Then out loud he joked about a Liquor Board man not being able to hold his liquor at a potlatch; everybody laughed. I left that envelope in a locked desk-drawer, waiting some kind of internal audit that never came.
That tribe and others sued us in federal court anyway; eastern law firms that won the fish cases showed up. I was a named defendant and sweated through days of depositions. But John, Mensa lawyer and I, ex-reporter, anticipated this from day one; our paper trail in discovery was immaculate. The black liberal federal district judge — definitely not a fan of state government, and a personal friend of a notorious Puyallup leader — told litigating tribes he didn’t see what the hell they were on about. He pronounced my team’s efforts ethical across the board and dismissed their case. The board then disbanded the negotiating team with faint praise.
I started writing this all down before today, trying to understand where my whole damn hunting season went. Re-reading it in my camper on the Palix River, I was desperately hung over. I headed south to sneak in one last duck hunt. Dan and Craig wanted a few drinks in the South Bend Bowling Alley. “A few;” my head was cracking open from too many rounds of bourbon and beer. The furnace worked, or we would have been damn cold. Craig was in a snit when I said before I snored off that I would not hunt until the sun melted ice in the puddles. Midday temperature was expected to barely reach twenty; the puddles aren’t going to melt, Craig bitched. My point exactly, I said.
The day dawned bitter-cold and clear; all birds except a few stragglers were bunched in a farmer’s posted field, feeding like crazy. The sound of shooting woke me; Craig and Dan pass-shooting stragglers by the launch. I lay there and thought about the curvaceous young woman in the bowling alley who came on to Craig — he has those blond good looks that draw women — and him acting like she had a dread disease. Not the first time I wondered if Craig is queer. She switched seats and snuggled up to me and started kissing me, moaning deep in her throat; as horny a female as I ever encountered. An older, jaded woman leaned in and said be kind to her, her boyfriend just dumped her.
Next thing I knew the bar was closed and we were all at a house party. The hostess was one of those ice queens, pale and lovely, far too urban-chic for a remote logging town on the Washington coast. Her guests were drunk and hectic and merry, like something out of a Lost Generation novel by Fitzgerald. Dan the opportunist took the curvy, horny kisser to my camper for a quickie. Craig tried his version of charm on the ice queen and almost got thrown off her high porch by her furious boyfriend. Bad timing to assert heterosexuality. But she wanted me, Craig said; couldn’t you tell? I wound up in the truck front seat with the jaded older woman, upset because she was expected home and wished she wasn’t. She took off her shoes and snuggled her cold feet in Summer’s fur. Summer licked her toes and she thought that was a riot. I carefully maneuvered camper and boat in low gear down steep icy night streets, dropped the jaded lady at home, and got the hunting party intact to the launch. I went to sleep wondering drunkenly about crazy impulses that surface when work problems are insurmountable.
I finally joined the two younger men with my ten-gauge to see what was what with those few ducks overhead. I learned — at age 40 — a home truth. Never fire a ten-gauge shotgun in the throes of a boilermaker hangover. Craig was reluctantly impressed how I held my liquor, but unflatteringly shocked I was “only” forty. I was a little unflattered myself, sitting on a stump in below-20 temperatures, indulging (almost) dry heaves. Luckily I found aspirin in the cupboard. Five, a cold Coke and orange juice took the edge off. I felt a long-lost freshening, spurred by the almost-erotic South Bend adventure, and almost accepted Dan’s invitation to party in Olympia. Common sense prevailed and I came home to doze in front of the TV showing Gregory Peck’s Ahab, and pen this with my third coffee and first pipe of the day.