Blog by Mason Johnson

I love Lagunitas. LOVE. Having recently visited their TapRoom, located in the very heart of their gigantic Little Village brewery so you can admire the immensity of their entire beer-making operation, I can say, with positivity, that I love Lagunitas.

Yet, despite my patronage, despite my praise, despite my insistence that everyone I know needs to immediately visit Lagunitas ASAP, I do not feel that Lagunitas should show me their gratitude in the form of cash, be it $25,000 or $25.

And I certainly don’t think they should have given Mayor Emanuel $25,000, no matter how gracious they are of the way he welcomed their business into Chicago.

So here I am, being forced to choose between my alcoholic gluttony (TapRoom has a great burger, too, btw) and political cynicism — two of my most cherished qualities.

Still, the question remains, was it right for Lagunitas to give a huge chunk of change to our holiness, Da Mayor?

Legally, it was obviously above the board. I went through the effort to read up on state contribution laws — falling asleep twice in the process — and there was nothing illegal about the contribution (I don’t mean to imply there may have been, I never thought there would be, but I double checked because that’s part of the job). Usually, a corporation like Lagunitas would have a contribution limit of $10,500, but conservative candidate William J. Kelly ruined that.

Thanks, Willie.

From the Illinois Campaign Financing Act (feel free to skip this extremely boring paragraph if you believe me): “… if an individual or an Independent Expenditure Committee makes independent expenditures supporting or opposing a particular candidate during an election cycle that total more than $250,000 (for statewide offices) or $100,000 (for all other elective offices), the individual or Independent Expenditure Committee must file a written disclosure of that fact with the State Board of Elections within 2 business days. The Board will then post the notification on its website and give official notice to each candidate for the office in question, removing the normal contribution limits for those candidates.”

With that cap lifted, the only substantive rule to abide by for Mayor Emanuel with a donation that large would be to disclose it to the public, which he did.

So the donation was very, very legal. But what about moral? Ethical?

I have no clue, moral and ethical are far from my expertise…

As expanded upon in the Guys Drinking Beers article, Lagunitas took no money from the city to build their brewing operations here.

Instead of using the en vogue tactic of taking TIF money from Chicago’s helpless school children (excuse me, public school children), Lagunitas refused offers for grants and tax breaks. This should be applauded (in fact, I’m clapping right now in between keystrokes).

Lagunitas wanted something else instead: time. Forget the cash, they wanted to open ASAP.

With that said, there have been no suspicious findings pertaining to Lagunitas’ opening in Chicago. In fact, though Lagunitas wanted to be operation fall 2012, that was soon pushed back to late 2013, with their first barrel eventually being mixed in April 2014. This certainly doesn’t make it sound like Lagunitas was able to fast-track their business past the ever-creaky Chicago Machine.

But regardless, a hefty political contribution after the opening of a large business — Lagunitas is now the largest craft beer brewery in Illinois and the 5th largest in the company — sets off some huge, blinking and ominously red warning signs in the heads of anyone familiar with Chicago’s long, infamous reputation. On one hand, you can try to excuse Lagunitas for not understanding the nuances of Chicago politics since they’re based in Petaluma, California. (Maybe politicians are more honest there?) Then again, Lagunitas CEO Tony Magee is a Chicago native, which kind of invalidates that excuse.

Magee is also a prolific tweeter. Though his tweets can come off as brash and random, he seems pretty likable. His response to the backlash against his donation?

He was just being gracious.

(Note: he is not a dog, he is a real, live man.)

Well, Tony, maybe you should have found a way to be gracious to Mayor Emanuel that didn’t resemble the shady gratuity associated with stereotypical Chicago politics and crime.

And this is most likely Magee’s biggest mistake: he failed to consider the baggage that comes with jumping into Chicago politics. When you go from having only donated $11,577.25 bucks to political candidates and causes to throwing down $25,000 grand on Chicago’s Mayor, people are going to become suspicious.

What should Lagunitas have done instead of donating $25,000 — more than half the salary of a pitiful reporter in his late twenties — to Mayor Emanuel?

Nothing.

Lagunitas’ continued success in our city — not to mention the business they bring to it and the jobs they create — should be the only payment Mayor Emanuel received and continues to receive from them. Because at the end of the day, any success enjoyed by businesses across the city will be snatched up by Mr. Mayor. He will display this success as if it were his own accomplishment, squeezing as many votes out of the success of others as possible (Emanuel is no exception, this is what politicians do).

So really, Lagunitas, seriously — you don’t owe him nothin’.

That is not to say Mayor Emanuel hasn’t done anything for local breweries. The man clearly loves beer, and has even pushed initiatives that support Chicago’s local breweries, like publicizing their existence on city websites. He definitely deserves credit for trying to grow cool industries that help Chicago tourism.

But the way he looks at these efforts always bugs the heck outta me. In a Tribune interview from October, for example, he makes it sound like he is the original inventor of microbrewing, as if breweries didn’t exist in Chicago before beer-love Rahm came to town: “I was getting ready for a quarterly tourism meeting, and I’m struck with the idea. You know what? Microbreweries.”

And yes, when asked about his favorite Chicago breweries, he slips Lagunitas in at the end of his list.

But Mayor Emanuel didn’t invent brewing and he certainly didn’t welcome Lagunitas to Chicago solely out of the goodness of his heart. There’s a benefit for him, one as large as he offers the breweries he’s helping.

What really irks me, I guess, is that a company I like had the audacity to go outside of my personal opinions about political donations. But! I like their beer! So they are me and I am them! Will their Imperial Red Ale ever taste the same?

While I rant about this beer company I like donating $25,000 to Mayor Emanuel, there are gigantic corporations hiding behind super PACs as they attempt to influence politics with billions of dollars with nothing but their own greedy interests in mind. I can wax philosophical about Lagunitas, Tony Magee and Mayor Emanuel all day, but they’re not the (main) problem in this conversation.

The very clear problem is our current system of political donations, both in federal and state elections. That’s where I’m going to place the rest of my anger. That’s what I’m going to try and change.

And not just because it might let me excuse Lagunitas, allowing me to continue drinking their beer.

How about you, who are you going to choose to be mad at?

Mason Johnson is a Web Content Producer for CBS Chicago. You can find him on Twitter.