AT A GLANCE
What: News conference kicking off a petition drive for a referendum to allow wine to be sold in grocery stores. Petition forms will be available to sign.
When: 10 a.m. Monday
Where: Publix Super Market at 5928 Hixson Pike
NASHVILLE — Attention registered voters in Chattanooga who would like to buy wine in local food stores.
Beginning next week, a coalition of grocery and convenience stores will start looking for at least 3,865 of you willing to slap your name on a petition putting the issue up for a referendum vote on the Nov. 4 ballot.
The group Red White and Food plans to kick off the wine-in-grocery voter petition drives in five Tennessee cities, including Chattanooga, on Monday.
State House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who backed this year's landmark change in state law opening the door to letting voters decide the issue locally, will join Brenda Reid, media relations manager for Publix, at a news conference.
Red White and Food, a word play on red and white wines paired with food sales, will host similar petition drive news conferences in Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis and Kingsport.
After years of effort, state lawmakers during this year's legislative session passed a bill legalizing wine sales provided local voters approve them in a referendum. Gov. Bill Haslam signed it into law.
Only cities and counties that have previously approved liquor by the drink or package store sales are eligible to have a wine-in-grocery store referendum. The deadline for filing the petitions is Aug. 21.
There are 10 such towns and cities in Hamilton County. But Red White and Food is focusing its efforts on the largest cities like Chattanooga.
"In Hamilton County, the city of Chattanooga obviously is going to be our priority, but petitions for the other communities eligible will be available for those interested in pursuing them," said Erin McDonough, a Nashville-based spokeswoman for Red White and Food.
In communities where the referendum passes, retail food stores won't be able to sell wine until July 1, 2016. That was part of a compromise food retailers struck with liquor store owners who argued they needed time to prepare to compete with grocery store chains.
At the same time, however, liquor stores can begin selling food and beer beginning next month. Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says that's not fair and hopes lawmakers next year will move the starting date for grocery stores to 2015.
Chattanooga voters approved mixed drinks for restaurants and bottle sales in liquor package stores decades ago. Liquor by the drink passed in the early 1970s even though it was fiercely opposed by church groups. It's unclear how much opposition there will be to the effort to allow wine sales by food retailers.
But Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, a teetotaler, adamantly opposed the referendum bill as it moved in the Legislature, saying it would lead to more alcohol problems and drunk driving. Proponents disagreed.
To get the wine referendum on the November ballot, eligible communities must submit petitions to their county election commissions with at least as many valid signatures from registered voters as 10 percent of residents who voted in the last governor's race.
In the 2010 governor's race, 38,650 Chattanooga voters cast ballots, according to Hamilton County Election Commission Administrator Kerry Steelman. Ten percent of that is 3,865. But referendum backers are expected to shoot for far more than that. They'll want to make sure they have a sufficient margin of safety against names getting bounced off the petition because someone isn't actually registered to vote in Chattanooga.
Other towns and cities in Hamilton County that have either liquor by the drink or package sales or both are: Collegedale, East Ridge, Lakesite, Lookout Mountain, Red Bank, Ridgeside, Signal Mountain, Soddy-Daisy and Walden.
Beth Henry-Robertson, Tennessee's assistant state coordinator of elections, said Friday the way the new law was drafted requires separate referendums for cities that have populations of so-called "autonomous" cities of 5,077 residents or more.
That takes in cities like Chattanooga, East Ridge, Collegedale, Red Bank, Signal Mountain and Soddy-Daisy, she said.
If a town has between 925 and 5,077 residents, they can choose to be part of a countywide referendum, if one develops, for unincorporated areas of Hamilton County. Henry-Robertson said that's because Hamilton County voters way back in 1957 voted yes on the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Or those towns can choose to hold their own separate election. Those with populations under 925 would have to be part of a countywide referendum, Henry-Robertson said.
Only the tiny town of Ridgeside, population 390, on the side of Missionary Ridge, falls into the third category, Henry-Robertson said.
She said the referendum has to be called through a petition of voters and can't be done by a city or town's governing body.
The following stores plan to have petitions available for customers to sign throughout the summer: Cash Saver, Food City, Food Lion, H.G. Hill, Kroger, Publix and Superlo Foods.
A schedule of signature collection opportunities will be posted to Red White and Food's website and Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree press.com or 615-424-0484.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...