Bipartisanship through beer

Bipartisanship through beer
© Greg Nash

"You have to be patient,” Craig Purser, the chief executive of the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) says, admiring the thick layer of foam on top of the beer in his glass and noting the sensory benefits that come along with it.

People don’t realize that, Purser adds as he leans against his in-office bar, watching the froth slowly recede.

He’s led the NBWA, which represents 3,300 different beer distribution companies, for 13 years, and in that time he’s learned to care deeply about the best way to consume a beer. 

Originally from Oklahoma, Purser, whose voice still has a slight twang, first came to Washington in 1988 to work for former Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) as a college intern. 

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In 1996, he landed at NBWA after helping elect Oklahoma GOP Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE to the Senate for the first time and working at a public relations firm — with clients including Anheuser-Busch. In 2005, he took the helm.

“If I had to describe, back in the day, my two loves, it would have been politics and beer,” he said. “If you want to be in the movies, you go to Hollywood, and if you want to go be on Broadway, you go to New York.”

But D.C. has gone through several political changes in the three decades he’s been here, with Capitol Hill becoming more polarized than ever. 

“One of the things that concerns me, and I think a lot of us that have been in town for awhile … is the decreasing level of civility,” he said. “The politics of destruction, and the whole notion of subtraction and division, [are] easy, and people forget that the much stronger forces are those of addition and multiplication.”

He hasn’t lost hope, though. Despite his work for Republicans, he believes that the two parties can work together. Booze, in particular, does its part in bonding both sides.

Despite the publicly prickly relationship that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers skeptical of progress on spending deal as wall battle looms Impeachment battle looms over must-pass defense bill 'Saturday Night Live' presents Trump impeachment hearings with 'pizzazz' of soap opera MORE (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action MORE (D-N.Y.) have with one another in the political realm, the two were chummy at an event in Kentucky earlier this month.

“We really do get along, despite what you read in the press,” Schumer said during the event, held at McConnell’s alma mater.

Schumer then presented McConnell — who represents a state that fills nearly 2 million barrels of whiskey every year — with a bottle of the spirit from New York. “There’s no such thing as Brooklyn bourbon,” McConnell joked at the time.

“It was great to see Senator McConnell and the Democratic leader in Kentucky having a great exchange, because he and Schumer are friends. They do have a relationship that transcends the role they play as the [leaders] of the party,” Purser said.

“We don’t get a full view of the give and the take that makes the whole system work,” he said.

In line with that thinking, the NBWA’s political action committee has a history of donating to politicians of both sides, with money split almost equally between Democrats and Republicans.

The organization also holds political fundraisers for candidates of both parties at the same time, a practice virtually unheard of in Washington. Called Beers with Friends, members of Congress from both sides get together to talk about the top issues of the day — including immigration and infrastructure — and often don’t involve beer at all.

“To me, it is a demonstration of exactly what we need more of … which is more civility, more conversation, more opportunity of people together — maybe they wear a blue shirt or a red shirt — but for that hour, sit down, have a beer, there is conversations about a wide variety of political issues,” Purser says. “If we’re serious about changing this dynamic, that’s the kind of thing we need to have more of.”

He is even diplomatic in his drinking habits, joking that if a glass of red wine or brown liquor is in his hand, it’s all just “opposition research.” 

“I’m a bourbon guy,” he admits of his whiskey preference. But he says that, when at a bar, he’ll rarely order the same drink twice in a row. Both he and his members “check their brand hats at the door.”

The industry group has long been the top giver to federal candidates in the beer, wine and liquor sector, according to disclosure data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, but has also been able to increase fundraising each election cycle. So far this cycle, it’s already made $1.2 million in contributions. In the entire 2016 cycle, it doled out $3.4 million. 

Though its advocacy spending has decreased from all-time highs, the group’s lobbying has increased under Purser’s leadership. The NBWA spent more than $1 million on lobbying last year, putting it ninth in overall lobbying expenditures in the industry.

“I think any time you have a product that brings people together, and any time you have a product that really drives a conversation, that’s going to be a winner,” he says.

And Purser’s life isn’t all beer and politics. In a discussion about his part-time pie-making skills — he says his apple pie “can hang” with the best of them — and the talent he would most like to have (he wants to be musically talented like his wife and kids), perhaps the most revealing confession from Purser is his most-desired superpower: invisibility, he offered quickly. 

“The classic [debate] is invisibility versus flying,” he said. “Probability invisibility for me just because usually when I’m around people know it, so it would be nice to have that not be the case.”