State law limits political donations to $200 a year for a lobbyist and $500 for a citizen. Larry DiCara, a former Boston City Council member and a longtime liquor-license lawyer, says, “Anybody who thinks some $500 check will get you anything doesn’t understand politics.” Maybe. But keep in mind that what got Chuck Turner in trouble with the feds was accepting a bribe of just $1,000.
IF NOTHING ELSE, Ron Wilburn sure understood the role of politics in getting liquor licenses. And yet it was only when he first presented his floor plan for Dejavu in January 2007 that he appreciated the true influence of the Boston Licensing Board. That three-member body ultimately decides who gets a liquor license in town. And because restaurants make their money off of booze, the BLB also decides, in theory if not in practice, which restaurant opens where, which in turn establishes the makeup of a neighborhood.
When he went before the BLB, Wilburn listened as the BLB board members and their normally acerbic chairman, Dan Pokaski, spoke jovially with lawyers from McDermott, Quilty & Miller. But when it was Wilburn’s turn, there was a shift in tone. Wilburn would later say that he felt the board was racist — merry with the white lawyers but chastising the black entrepreneur. And it is worth noting that of the 20 new liquor licenses granted weeks before Wilburn’s hearings with the BLB, none of them ultimately went to establishments in minority neighborhoods.
But a recording of those hearings offers a different take. Yes, Dan Pokaski was terse in his conversations with Wilburn, but he also told Wilburn he wanted to see a place in that Roxbury neighborhood succeed. The problem was Wilburn’s floor plan, which seemed to outline a nightclub — fewer tables, more open space — and not the “supper club” he had proposed. At the end of one hearing Pokaski said, “We love development of this area…. [But] it’s going to be my recommendation to the board that we postpone this until we get a further clarification of the business plan and a more detailed picture of what the floor plan is going to be.”
Today even James Dilday, the lawyer who assisted Wilburn with Dejavu, says racism wasn’t a factor in the BLB hearings. “That’s a fair assessment,” he told me.