Under the Dome

Former lobbyist recalls NC legislature’s ‘clandestine speakeasy’

Bipartisan duo sing "Long Black Veil" on the Senate floor

Senators Mike Woodard (D) and Jerry Tillman (R) sing a rendition of "Long Back Veil" as the clock approaches midnight on the senate floor during the final hours of the long legislative session Tuesday, September 29, 2015 at the State Legislative B
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Senators Mike Woodard (D) and Jerry Tillman (R) sing a rendition of "Long Back Veil" as the clock approaches midnight on the senate floor during the final hours of the long legislative session Tuesday, September 29, 2015 at the State Legislative B

By the time the N.C. General Assembly adjourned its grueling eight-month session last week, plenty of lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters were eager for a stiff drink.

A few decades ago, that alcoholic sustenance was available just a few steps from the House and Senate chambers. Former lobbyist Gene Upchurch recalled the legislature’s “clandestine speakeasy” in a recent blog post on the “Talking About Politics” website.

Upchurch, who’s also a retired Progress Energy executive, says he was responsible for “a well-oiled hooch-smuggling scheme that was perfected during a handful of legislative final nights” during his years of lobbying in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“I would mix Aristocrat and orange juice in a dozen one-gallon milk jugs at home and slip the forbidden concoction to the legislative telephone center, which was then on the second floor just a few convenient feet from the door to the House chamber,” he wrote.

“For one night only, the telephone center was transformed into a clandestine speakeasy. Legislators, staffers and lobbyists who knew what was going on could get their telephone messages and a paper cup brimming with joy juice.”

Dome’s late-night wanderings through the Legislative Building last week turned up only lawmakers asleep on benches, football-throwing senators and a pair of dancing Democrats on the Senate floor.

Most legislators kept themselves going by eating a late-night cookie or sipping the General Assembly’s notoriously weak coffee. The exception was Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican whose legislative assistant tweeted that he was listening to Carly Rae Jepson’s pop hit “Call Me Maybe” while drinking numerous cans of Diet Sun Drop.

Upchurch notes that keeping a Jones Street speakeasy secret from the public would be difficult in the social media age. But two decades ago, he wrote, “the only cameras belonged to newspaper photogs who were in line to get their own paper cup of happiness.”

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