Joe Ledbetter has worked for months to build a Chattanooga Whiskey Co. distillery in the city's Southside. But the local whiskey maker is afraid that a new group seeking to circumvent legislators ultimately could dash his dreams.
"Let me be clear about this: We don't know who the hell these people are," Ledbetter said Wednesday of the upstart group, which calls itself Let Hamilton Distill.
The group emerged last week with a well-funded effort to collect 14,000 signatures on a petition to force a countywide vote whether to allow distilleries in Hamilton County.
No one seems to have heard of the group, whose spokesman is a political operative from a Nashville firm who won't disclose his backers.
But it's not the group's message that worries Ledbetter. It's the methods.
While Ledbetter and partner Tim Piersant have worked to raise support and jump through legislative hoops to get their distillery built in Chattanooga, Let Hamilton Distill is pushing for an end run around lawmakers.
Chattanooga Whiskey's hopes hinge on an act of the Tennessee Legislature, since Hamilton County was excluded from a 2009 law that repealed the last vestiges of Prohibition in 41 other Tennessee counties.
Let Hamilton Distill is leaning on a small army of signature-getters, whom spokesman Chris Smith refers to as volunteers.
Local political consultants say hiring canvassers costs about $10 per hour per person. If Let Hamilton Distill is paying its 30 canvassers, it could cost more than $2,100 per day, not including food and lodging.
The signature campaign is curiously timed, since the bill that could decide the future of whiskey in Chattanooga is already sitting in the state Senate -- and has been for the last three weeks.
If passed, the bill would allow distilleries to operate in any county or municipality in the state that also allows package stores and liquor by the drink. Locally, that means Chattanooga, Lakesite, Lookout Mountain, Red Bank and Signal Mountain could become homes for hooch producers.
Petition or legislation
Ledbetter has followed the path advised by Hamilton County commissioners by asking the state delegation for support. He's just waiting for the system to work, he said Wednesday.
Though his goals and those of Let Hamilton Distill ostensibly are the same, he said no one from the group contacted him or his supporters before kicking off the petition campaign.
Let Hamilton Distill also failed to present its petition to the Hamilton County Election Commission for validation, said Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, election commission administrator. That could invalidate the thousands of signatures already gained.
But if Let Hamilton Distill validates its petitions and gets a little more than 14,000 qualified voter signatures -- 10 percent of county voters who cast ballots in the 2012 presidential election -- the County Commission would be obligated by law to set an election on the proposed referendum, Mullis-Morgan said.
There would only be something to vote for if the bill now before the Senate becomes law. But if it does, and voters turn thumbs down in a referendum, it could end hope for making whiskey in Chattanooga.
Ledbetter worries the new group's efforts send a mixed message to lawmakers, aggravating some who are on the fence and bringing them over to the dry side.
Astroturf or grass-roots
Let Hamilton Distill appeared out of the blue this month, armed with thousands of dollars and a mysterious history.
Its website, which was registered on March 18, lists an anonymous owner through GoDaddy.com. Hiding the identify of a website's registrant costs more than simply registering a domain outright, according to GoDaddy.
The group is not listed as a nonprofit or political agency with the Tennessee secretary of state.
Chris Smith, the spokesman for Let Hamilton Distill, is a managing partner at Little-Smith Strategies, a Nashville-based political consulting firm. Little-Smith's Facebook page shows the firm working to advocate for charter schools, to defeat mayoral recall efforts and to get candidates elected.
Smith earlier told a reporter that Let Hamilton Distill is "just a group of folks who are starting to realize they can make changes in their community," but he would not name others in the group. They are not listed on the group's website or in promotional materials.
Little-Smith Strategies' Facebook page lists a Christopher L. Smith as a managing partner. Christopher L. Smith lists his location as Washington, D.C. -- not Hamilton County.
Photos of that Christopher L. Smith on Facebook appear to match those of a former aide to now-Mayor-elect Andy Berke. That Christopher L. Smith resigned in 2008 after he was cited to court on a charge of patronizing prostitutes in Nashville.
At the time, then-Sen. Berke said of the arrest that "prostitution is an offense that demeans women and cannot be tolerated in our state."
Facebook photos of Christopher L. Smith show him in Chattanooga at a June 2012 meeting with Berke. Smith did not respond Wednesday to a question about whether he previously worked for Berke.
Despite his day job as a lobbyist, Smith said Wednesday that Let Hamilton Distill is not working for any politician or liquor industry agent. Smith said he is "just representing a group of like-minded people."
He said the group supports distilleries coming to the county and wants to let Hamilton County residents decide whether they want the business.