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State voters say no to Question One

Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly decided more was not better, rejecting a supermarket-inspired ballot question that would have allowed more food stores to sell wine.

In a stunning come-from-behind victory, the state's package stores, backed financially by big liquor wholesalers and beer distributors, fended off an attempt by supermarket chains to move in on their turf.

With 91 percent of the state's precincts reporting, Question 1 was going down to defeat by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent.

The most expensive ballot question campaign in state history turned around in the last week, with polls indicating the race swung from a 57-38 percentage split in favor of Question 1 to 51-42 against on Monday.

Christopher Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents the state's supermarket chains, said the "negative scare campaign" of the liquor sellers succeeded in derailing the question.

"The consumer's the loser," Flynn said, adding that his members are not giving up the fight. "This is something our consumers want. We're going to have to regroup and see where we go from here."

Joseph Baerlein, president of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, which ran the Vote No campaign for the state's liquor industry, said the key to the turnaround was advertising that moved the campaign's focus away from convenience and to public safety issues.

Baerlein also said the willingness of public officials, especially Somerville Police Chief Robert Bradley, to speak out made a huge difference.

"That put a face on the public safety issue and caused people to take a second look," he said.

Richard Glantz of Lexington voted against Question 1, but not for public safety reasons. He said he voted no because he knows the owners of the package stores in his town but doesn't know the owner of the Stop & Shop, which is Royal Ahold NV of the Netherlands.

"Why should I allow Stop & Shop to compete with them?" he said. asked. "The whole thing to me smacked of the Wal-Martization of the business."

There was never any public groundswell for more places to buy wine, but voters nevertheless were drawn to Question 1 because it had the potential to affect their daily lives.

Question 1 would have allowed cities and towns to issue wine-at-food-store licenses in addition to existing liquor licenses. The ballot question would have allowed supermarkets to hold an unlimited number of the new wine licenses.

Under the proposed law, each community could have issued five of the new wine licenses, and communities with more than 5,000 residents could issue one more license for each additional 5,000 residents.

From start to finish, Question 1 was a struggle for market share between supermarkets hungry for a bigger chunk of the state's alcohol sales and the liquor industry's eagerness to maintain the status quo.

The $11.5 million spent by both sides by last Wednesday all came from corporate interests; no voters donated. The previous record tab for a ballot question was the $9.1 million spent in 1988, when voters rejected a bid to close shut down the state's nuclear power plants.

Stop & Shop, Shaw's, and Hannaford Bros. accounted for 72 percent of the $6.9 million the supermarkets spent. The Vote No campaign's $4.6 million came from big beer distributors and liquor wholesalers, especially United Liquors of Braintree and Horizon Beverages of Avon.

David Gordon, vice president of Gordon's Fine Wine & Liquors of Waltham, said supermarkets won't just go away. "They'll find another way to do it," he said.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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