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Washing away the blue-state blues

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"I'll never believe that Kerry didn't take Ohio."

That's Mary Ellen Blanchard speaking and tonight's a Thursday, the night she and a half dozen to a dozen local self-described liberals congregate at Monty's Korner to talk politics and down a few drinks while they're at it.

Today Democrat Wade Norwood has announced his candidacy for mayor, and fellow Dem Tim Mains is hosting a housewarming party for his campaign's new digs.

"They're all good candidates," a few opined when asked, but these folks have topics beside local politics on their minds. There'll be time for that later. The conversational fare du jour is war stories from the recent presidential campaign. Several at the table participated in get-out-the-vote drives in Ohio, and they've all got sobering tales of Republican perfidy to tell.

That's not entirely inapt, since this informal group owes its existence to a quest for catharsis in the wake of November's election.

"The first night was just my friend Ted and I," says Jason Sherron, the weekly event's co-founder and Rochester city leader. Bummed about conservative ascendancy in the last election, the two hit the bars determined to find a creative outlet for their sorrows, rather than moping.

"I'm not just gonna sit around and be mad about this," Sherron remembers thinking.

Luckily for the two, a national organization for liberal drinkers was already in place, and what began as two friends drowning their sorrows quickly morphed into the Rochester chapter of Drinking Liberally.

Sporting the slogan "Promoting democracy one pint at a time," the New York City-based national network of liberal happy hours now boasts a presence in more than 50 cities. Drinking Liberally's national liaison (and Bloomfield native) Katrina Baker says that like the one in Rochester, many groups formed after the election as a more or less direct result of Bush's victory. That and a desire on the part of campaign volunteers to maintain ties forged while registering voters and canvassing in the run-up to November. Unsurprisingly, that's particularly true of the political action committee that spun off from Howard Dean's aborted primary campaign.

"We have a lot of Democracy for America people, and that's because they're so well organized and [are] keeping in touch with each other," Baker says. About half the contingent at Monty's Korner claimed a connection to DFA --- including DFA Rochester co-founder Thomas Janowski. But for now at least, plenty of Democratic political activists with ties to other campaigns show up, too --- especially in conservative areas.

"They sort of need it," says Baker. "It's become a progressive support group."

The use of the term "progressive" is intentional, says Baker, since it doesn't box the events into a Democratic Party-only pigeonhole. Sherron agrees. Asked if everyone around the table was a Democrat he responds, "I don't know; I haven't polled."

"We'd probably find some old-time Republicans," adds Blanchard. "They're pretty similar to today's liberals." But no one steps forward to claim that mantle.

The talk drifts back to politics. Software consultant Rich Eckel is contending that his hometown of Pittsford is actually full of closet liberals registered as blanks. If that's true, another points out, it could bode well for a challenge by Ted Nixon for the County Legislature seat now held by Republican Majority Leader Bill Smith. Around the booth there are nods of agreement. This is the germ of the "progressive sounding board" Sherron hopes the event will become.

"I kind of think of it almost as a funnel," he says. By the time next election season rolls around, he hopes Rochester's Drinking Liberally will fulfill a twofold mission. His first goal is for it to serve as an informal forum for the exchange of liberal ideas. The second is that the web of connections formed at the weekly gatherings will turn it into a place where political neophytes can meet up with causes and campaigns.

That jibes with the vision of Drinking Liberally expressed by Baker: "I guess we see this as creating social progressive networks." The eventual goal is to have groups in all 50 states. There are still nearly 20 states to go to reach that target, but new cities are still coming on board at a brisk pace (especially considering that the event moved beyond Manhattan only in August). In fact, the concept's popularity has outstripped the volunteer leadership's ability to plan Drinking Liberally's future. Requests to start groups have started pouring in from American expat communities around the globe. And Baker balked after hearing from a group of Germans who want to start the Munich Chapter.

"I don't know," she says, musing about the prospect of expanding into foreign nations. "We haven't really figured it out." In the meantime, local chapters have taken the initiative to explore their own ideas of what the groups should be.

"Some are action-oriented," Baker says, citing the DC chapter, which invites a guest speaker each week. "Some are happy hours, and some try to mix the two."

Rochester's group lands decidedly on the side of the casual happy hour: "This is as informal as you can possibly get," says Sherron, before hinting that he wouldn't mind changing that, or at least shaking things up.

"We've never had a Republican walk through the door and challenge us, but this group is up to that." After all, he quips, they're prepared for anything: they're drinking liberally.

The bartender at Monty's Korner was a little foggy on who the group was, but quizzed on whether the group actually drinks liberally she had an answer: "Some of them make up for others."

Rochester's Chapter of Drinking Liberally gathers at Monty's Korner (355 East Avenue, corner of Alexander Street) at around 7 p.m. every Thursday. ("We usually reach critical mass around 7:30 p.m., but early and late stragglers are common too," Sherron wrote in an email.) Find more information on the web at drinkingliberally.org.

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