Monday Night Brewing was thrust into a fraught political debate after it agreed to be the setting of an event for Republican Brian Kemp. File photo.

Business backlash: Why some Georgia firms face political fallout

The founders of Monday Night Brewing sat in a boisterous beer hall to issue a mea culpa: Yes, they had allowed the brewery to hold an event for Republican Brian Kemp’s campaign. And no, they didn’t fully think that decision through.

The apology session came after a social media outburst from the brewery’s devoted fans who mistakenly thought it amounted to an endorsement, which it did not. And it was a reminder of how polarizing this year’s nationally-watched race for governor has become.

It also quickly raised another question: Should small businesses be punished for getting involved — directly or otherwise – in political races?

After all, the brewery backlash was not the only fallout experienced by some Atlanta businesses for getting involved in GOP campaigns.

The co-owner of a Flying Biscuit Café in the heart of one of Atlanta’s most vibrant gay neighborhoods had to walk back his support for Kemp. And the Atlanta Braves faced calls for boycotts after the team co-hosted a fundraiser for Kemp — which prompted the franchise to offer to raise cash for Abrams, too.

Poll conducted by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For some, any business that openly supports a Republican candidate touches a deeply personal nerve. Serene Varghese, an Atlanta real estate agent, brought up Kemp’s provocative campaign ads and his healthcare policy to explain her frustration with Flying Biscuit.

“I can’t in good conscience support someone – and as an extension, their business – who thinks it’s OK to support a candidate that wants to round up illegals in a pickup or who would actively deny life-saving medical care to Georgians by refusing to expand Medicaid,” she said. “This is literally a life or death issue.”

For others it’s a dispiriting sign of how politics has infiltrated even the simple act of buying a brew.

“I am sick to death of companies getting punished for their views. This is the evil twin of forcing the baker to make a cake for a gay wedding,” said Sarah Ingman, a Lithia Springs resident. “Companies are in business to do business. I don’t care about — and really don’t want to hear about — their views.”

‘Stop the madness’

The Flying Biscuit Café fallout started on social media when an image of Joseph Hsiao, a co-owner of two restaurants, eating lunch with Kemp started circulating online. That, coupled with records showing $2,000 in campaign contributions to Kemp from Hsiao and the restaurant, sparked calls for a boycott.

Much of the umbrage focused on Kemp’s vow to sign a “religious liberty” measure that many in the LGBT community see as thinly-veiled discrimination. The measure, vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2016, was designed partly to strengthen legal protections for opponents of gay marriage. And Kemp’s opponent, Democrat Stacey Abrams, has vowed to oppose what she calls “horrible legislation.”

“I won’t be eating there again,” said Robbie Medwed, an Atlanta educator who said he can’t support a business that back Kemp. “If he’s elected, he will do real harm to the LGBTQ community and other minority communities. I don’t want one dollar of my own money to help him do that.”

Hsiao didn’t respond to a request for comment, but he earlier told Project Q Atlanta that his views were “misconstrued” and that he backed Kemp’s fiscal policies and not his stance on social issues. On Facebook, he wrote that his decision was “focused solely on small businesses instead of the community.”

“In doing so, I did not think through the implications of the decision and the effects that it would have,” wrote Hsiao.

Kemp’s allies, meanwhile, took the offensive. Jamie Ensley of the Georgia Log Cabin Republicans, an LGBT group that endorsed Kemp, bemoaned the “intolerant liberal left’s attempts to attack a small business owner who has been nothing but kind and supportive of the LGBTQ community.”

The fallout seemed to also take the Atlanta Braves by surprise. One of the better politically-connected businesses in Georgia, the team has showered a group of mostly Republican politicians with tens of thousands of dollars over the last decade.

But it only drew widespread attention for its political contributions this year when it co-hosted a fundraiser a Kemp. Lashed with criticism from Kemp’s critics, the team said it wasn’t “taking a political stance” and that it would do the same for Abrams.

The public outcry over political forays that once went largely unnoticed reminded some Republicans of the snubbing of Donald Trump’s aides, such as the Virginia restaurant that triggered national headlines when it turned away his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Buzz Brockway, a Republican state legislator, lamented that “we’re becoming a country where there are Republican restaurants and Democratic restaurants, Republican sports teams and Democratic sports teams.”

“It’s ridiculous,” added Brockway. “We’ve got to stop the madness and stop treating each other with contempt.”

‘Off the rails’

The back-and-forth over these decisions largely ignored recent history: Many of Georgia’s biggest corporate powers have long showered influential Georgia lawmakers — largely Republicans — with gobs of campaign contributions.

So much so, in fact, that even the defection of a handful of corporate executives to Democratic candidates this year was considered a significant development.

And other small businesses that waded into politics earlier in the election cycle faced no great outrage. After all, Georgia Republicans held campaign events a year ago at a series of breweries and it caused no major stir.

It left Nathan Humphrey, who unknowingly triggered the brewery brouhaha, to wonder if smaller businesses were getting singled out for playing host to political events this close to a tense election.

“It’s gone way off the rails. I’ve never seen the discourse like this before,” he said. “Monday Night Brewing is a success story and they care about their community and giving back. And now they’re being punished for it.”

Humphrey leads the Georgia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, and he asked the brewery’s owners if they would allow the Midtown location to hold a press conference announcing the group’s endorsement of Kemp.

News stories that mentioned the setting of the endorsement quickly echoed among Abrams’ supporters on social media. Within days, the brewery decided to hold an open house in its new expansion on the Beltline in southwest Atlanta to explain its decision.

A handful of the brewery’s disappointed supporters peppered the three founders with questions. They worried the event amounted to a betrayal and questioned whether the owners have been transparent.

And they raised concerns about the signal that holding the Kemp event would send to the historically-black West End community near where the brewery recently opened the new facility on the Beltline.

It was a fraught conversation. Carlen Funk, an executive with the brewery, broke down in tears as she described how the company has struggled to respond. And each of the three co-founders described how they’ve been personally tormented by the fallout from the event.

“We didn’t endorse him. We haven’t supported his campaign for governor. But we didn’t think through how this affected other people,” said Jonathan Baker, one of the co-founders.

“We thought we were being transparent, but knowing what we know now, we would have done it differently.”

Will the fallout continue? Baker and his colleagues aren’t sure. But in a month, the brewery will play host to another sort of political event: A gathering of Red Clay Democrats.

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