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A Famous Portland Bartender Is Running for Congress

Blair Reynolds, co-owner of Hale Pele, is challenging Representative Kurt Schrader for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives

Bartender Blair Reynolds
Blair Reynolds, Democratic Primary Candidate for Oregon District 5
Blair Reynolds/Official

Bartender and business owner Blair Reynolds has been known for a number of things in the Portland area — his famously successful bar Hale Pele; his famously less-than-successful bar Americano; and BG Reynolds, his brand of cocktail syrups that are used in bars across the country and beyond. His next project is something different, though — Reynolds has entered the Democratic primaries for U.S. Representative of District 5.

District Five runs across a chunk of the northwest part of the state and includes Milwaukie, where Reynolds lives, and Salem. Currently, the district is represented by Kurt Schrader (D), who has held the position since 2009. Reynolds announced his campaign last week, joining Mark Gamba, the mayor of Milwaukie, in challenging Schrader for the seat. Reynolds spoke with Eater Portland about his campaign, Americano, and what bartending has to do with politics in the first place.

Eater: Tell us a bit about yourself and your history.

Blair Reynolds: I’m originally from Northern California, which may be a big point against me. I’m a veteran — I was a medic in the military, came back and got a liberal arts degree. From there I bounced between software development and bartending, eventually going into the world of entrepreneurship [with his line of cocktail syrups].

What made you decide to run for Congress?

It’s been something I’ve been contemplating for a long time; I like to be in service and to help people, and I have not found that satisfaction in the past few years other than in raising my kids. As I’m watching the news cycle, I feel like our government is becoming less and less about the people. In the last few years we’ve seen some improvement, with the midterms in 2018 and a fresh new Congress. But at the higher powers there have been people failing the basic civics that I learned in high school. We’ve forgotten that there’s supposed to be a system of checks and balances, and co-equal branches of government.

Being a bartender and being a business owner, I’ve always been afraid to let my politics show. But I’ve been thinking these thoughts and listening to people, and talking on political forums, and I need to be strong. In order to enact change we need strength, we need more civic engagement. I want to be the shy guy that empowered more people to speak out.

What is your central platform?

I have priorities in everyday people, rebalancing who makes money and how taxes work. You hear Warren Buffett talking about tax rates, asking to be taxed higher than his employees — when I look at what I make on my capital gains investment versus my labor, I see this imbalance, and so few [people] are able to be in that investment class. People have less money to put into the system. I know as a business owner, if customers have more money, it creates more demand, which means I get to hire people. That’s how economies grow; the people’s economy.

I have priorities in climate change. Climate change is an emergency, but we need to be able to activate everyone. I can’t worry about climate change when I have to focus on getting my kids into preschool, when I’m one accident away from being bankrupt, or if you’re worried about getting a job because of your sexuality or gender.

How does being a bar owner, bartender, and syrup-producer translate to government work?

When I talk about entrepreneurship, I talk about going from nothing, digging in, studying, gathering people with experience who can help guide, help create, and help get done what needs to get done. There’s an analogue between entrepreneurship and running for congress. No one asked me why I was going into business. I didn’t need to study for four years. And here we are years later and I have had success, it supports my family.

As a bartender and bar owner, I’ve been on both sides of the paycheck. I understand how minimum wage affects employees and how minimum wage affects employers.

At the end of it, we need to see more people [in politics]... I would love to see someone from a union. A construction worker. A teacher, can we get a teacher? When I do make it to congress, I want to hire a diverse staff, it would be a priority. Not for any other reason but to get as much representation and experience as possible.

And I’ll definitely have the best-stocked office bar, that will help with reaching across the aisle.

What do you plan to bring to Congress that your opponents do not?

Schrader, the incumbent, is loaded with cash.

He’s a member of the blue dog caucus, a “bipartisan” caucus, which is supposed to have solutions, but they just don’t. When you are acting in bad faith, there’s no reaching across the aisle. If you look at GovTrack, he’s smack dab in the middle [of the political spectrum], and I believe his form of bipartisanship contributes to deadlock.

You had a rather public debacle with the closing of Americano and its subsequent media coverage. Do you have any concerns that it would be brought up in a campaign and if so, how would you handle it?

It can’t be a weak spot if the story has been out there. I have faced the slings and arrows of that, and we have all been there. The only people with massive success without failure have been handed that success on a silver platter. It’s out there in the public, I’ve been dealing with it for five years. Even when it flopped, it made the fucking papers.

Note: This interview has been condensed.