What started as an effort by struggling small-business owners known as “51-percenters” to safely reopen under government-ordered coronavirus shutdowns has grown into a unified movement to take on the state agency that regulates the alcoholic beverage industry in Texas.
That movement was recharged Thursday by yet another shutdown that destroys their ability to make a living, feed their families, or support their employees—prompting their spokesman to announce a plan to “defund” the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
The 51-percenters—business owners who hold a permit from the TABC and receive more than 51 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales—have been among the hardest hit by Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders that declare which businesses are “essential” and can remain open.
They say TABC has abused its enforcement authority under Abbott’s orders, not only setting arbitrary rules and applying them unequally, but using their power to harass, intimidate, and extort certain sellers of alcoholic beverages, blatantly violating their constitutional rights in the process.
“Never has an industry received more persecution than now,” said Chris Polone, a former hazardous materials specialist who now owns The Rail Club Live, a live-music venue in Fort Worth that until a few months ago sold alcohol under a 51-percent permit from the TABC.
TABC suspended his permit at a July 4 protest held at his club to demonstrate how 51-percenters could operate with strict safety protocols, just like similar businesses that were allowed to reopen under the governor’s July 26 executive order. Polone says that event “created the spark” that started the movement.
Since then, Polone and others have been raided by armed TABC officers, received citations and fines, and had their bank accounts frozen by the Texas Comptroller. Polone also received death threats when TABC posted a video on its Facebook page of another protest held at The Rail Club.
“Prior to July, I thought the government had my best interest at heart,” Polone said. “I was naive enough to think it was all about public health.”
Polone is one of many who has faced financial ruin by not being allowed to operate his business or even use his own property to earn money.
“Not only did the government shut down our businesses, they took over our properties,” he said.
Polone has become the voice of the movement, speaking up for the rights of thousands of 51-percenters—primarily small businesses like neighborhood bars, some restaurants, live music venues, dance halls, craft breweries, winery and distillery tasting rooms, as well as VFW and American Legion posts.
He says persecution has made them louder.
“The entire goal of the movement is to amplify our reach through one voice,” he said. “The only way to get heard is to stand up and be loud.”
Polone also helped organize and unify thousands of diverse and independent-minded 51-percenters through an online group called Children of Liberty (after the revolutionary Sons of Liberty), where they can share experiences and collaborate on solutions.
And he’s brought people together at events like Freedom Fest, which united 797 bar owners across the state in a protest to again demonstrate that 51-percenters could open safely using strict protocols followed by similar businesses.
“The most effective thing we can do is organize.” Polone said. “We win together and we lose together. … Unification is key in winning this fight.”
Polone is quick to point out the movement is not just about bars or businesses; it’s about protecting essential liberties from government overreach.
“Everyone thinks we’re fighting for our right to party, for the bars,” Polone said. “This was never about bars. This is about freedom.”
“We’re fighting for our right to open, to feed our families,” added James Kopeck, co-owner of Chuters Dance Hall and Saloon in Pasadena and a co-founder of Children of Liberty.
“They didn’t close the bars; they closed the 51-percent bars,” Polone emphasizes again and again. Meanwhile, Abbott’s orders allow companies with similar business models to remain open, essentially “picking winners and losers.”
Polone says that’s more than unfair—it’s corrupt.
“People are profiting millions off the fact that 51-percenters are shut down,” Polone said. “I can’t help feeling like Abbott sold us out to big corporations.”
He points to cronyism within Abbott’s “Strike Force to Reopen Texas,” which includes a number of lobbyists, donors, and people who may benefit financially from 51-percent bars being closed.
“Mixed beverage tax receipts went up 10 percent while 51-percenters were shut down,” he said. “People didn’t stop drinking; they went someplace else.”
Polone believes TABC is part of the problem.
Polone talked with Texas Scorecard this week about his plan to “defund” the TABC, which he says is the state’s third-most-powerful law enforcement agency.
“Why do we regulate alcohol to the degree we do?” he asked.
At the very least, he says a small-business 51-percenter should serve on the TABC board, but his ultimate goal is to get rid of TABC completely by cutting the agency’s funding and shifting regulatory authority to the local level.
Polone estimates TABC takes in $100 million in license fees and $4 billion in mixed-beverage sales taxes each year, and that 51-percenters account for one-third of the industry.
“If we can get a majority of bars to go BYOB, TABC will no longer have funding to justify its existence,” he said. “If politicians shut down 51-percenters again, and everyone turns in their licenses … that’s an annual loss of $33 million plus $1.3 billion.”
Politicians have shut down 51-percenters again, and The Rail Club Live is going ahead with a scheduled BYOB event Friday night. Polone expects TABC to show up, but he is not backing down.
“If Globe Life Park can host 25,000 fans at the National Finals Rodeo tomorrow,” he said, “then we can open up safely to provide for our families.”
“People are fed up with the persecution,” he added. “Our goal is to further unify. This is much bigger than the bars. They’re using COVID to strip away our liberties. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Polone plans to speak on behalf of 51-percenters in the upcoming legislative session. In addition to scaling back TABC, he says he will be advocating for industry reforms, starting with regulations that are black-and-white, not open to interpretation by enforcers, as well as restitution for businesses.
He’ll also raise questions about possible conflicts of interest created by TABC Chairman Kevin Lilly, who runs the largest privately owned wealth management company in Texas, regulating companies in which he has financial interests. Abbott appointed Lilly to the TABC in 2017, following a spending scandal at the agency that led to the termination of several employees.
“This definitely opened my eyes and shifted my perspective,” he said. “After proving it’s not about public safety, you have to look at what else it might be.”
Polone is also part of a group suing to stop TABC from enforcing Abbott’s shutdown orders against 51-percenters. A hearing in the case is set for December 23.
“It’s so important to get the general public involved,” he added. “If TABC is willing to do this to outstanding citizens, they’re willing to do this to you, too.”
“As Americans, when any person’s rights are violated, it is up to the population to stand up for everyone’s unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Polone said. “It’s your duty.”
The 87th Texas Legislative Session starts on January 12, 2021. Concerned citizens can contact their elected state officials.