Alcohol and politics do mix for new Democratic group


By Ronda Kaysen

“I have to be careful who I hit on here!” said Blandon Belushin, a boisterous 48-year-old photographer with spiky silver hair, clutching a mixed drink in one hand. “That guy, for instance, he’s definitely not gay.” He nodded in the general direction of a young, panicky man cowering in the corner of the crowded Chelsea gay bar XES. “I didn’t realize at first — everyone under 30 looks gay to me — I think I scared him off. Usually, I come here at 2 a.m. and —” he trailed off. “But it’s not the same crowd tonight. Not the same at all.”

On his breast pocket, Belushin sported a little white button with a red and blue bottle and black lettering that read, “Drinking Liberally.” He was not the only one. Nearly everyone crowded into the narrow space last Tuesday night was buttoned, too.

The crowd was not your typical Chelsea happy-hour clientele of gay, single men out to flirt and mingle. June 14 marked the third monthly meeting of Drinking Liberally Steps Out, the first gay chapter of the two-year-old Democratic drinking club, Drinking Liberally.

Dirk McCall, president of Stonewall Democrats, a political club, formed the chapter with hopes of lightening up the gay political networking scene — and adding a few new faces to the mix.

“We wanted to get people who weren’t involved with politics to talk politics,” he explained, his arm slung over the shoulder of 25-year-old Eduardo Laquias, a human resources worker. McCall had been standing at the door most of the night, pinning each unsuspecting soul who entered the bar with a Drinking Liberally button.

Drinking Liberally has a fairly straightforward mission: get liberals together to drink, and maybe talk politics, too. Its events — now spread over 84 chapters in 34 states and the District of Columbia — draw a mix of Drinking Liberally diehards, innocent bystanders and political operatives out to pluck future canvassers from the masses. The organization has no political platform per se and its Web site, www.drinkingliberally.org, supports no candidate or issue. It does, however, support liberal liquor consumption.

“We don’t really take strong stances. We provide an arena where different candidates’ staff can come and recruit,” said co-founder Justin Krebs in a telephone interview. “A lot of people want to be in an environment with people who share their deep-seated political views — and talk about work…. What we’re doing is building community more than articulating a specific platform.”

The community that is being built varies from chapter to chapter. At the Steps Out chapter, most of the drinkers this reporter met were young, professional gay men. But McCall has designs on the lesbian crowd. Next month’s event (the group meets on the second Tuesday of every month) will be at a lesbian bar. “It needs to be more ethnically diverse, it would be nice if it was,” McCall mused in a telephone interview.

June 2 was a balmy spring night and the garden at Rudy’s, an infamous Hell’s Kitchen dive, was packed shoulder to shoulder with young, white professionals toasting Drinking Liberally’s second birthday.

Krebs, a tall, affable 27-year-old with curly brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, stood at the back doorway greeting each guest who descended the rickety stairs to the garden. Krebs clapped this reporter on the back, handed her a Drinking Liberally button and sent her off to mingle.

Among those on the crowded patio was Manhattan borough president hopeful Brian Ellner, standing awkwardly in a suit and tie, his campaign manager grinning beside him.

What would happen to Drinking Liberally if Ellner reigned as president of the borough? “The borough president would be sponsoring these events!” he cheered.

Sharif Corinaldi, a lanky African-American man who is national coordinator for SwingtheState.org, “Your Anti-Bush Travel Agency,” was most concerned with recruiting warm bodies for a Prospect Park event the following weekend. He pondered how he might get the word out.

City Council candidate Darren Bloch, overheated in a suit and tie, handed this reporter his card. “This is the center of where it all comes together!”

Beyond the wall of political wannabes was a sea of drinkers, eating free Rudy’s hot dogs and seemingly oblivious to the political machine operating a few feet away. “I just come here to socialize,” said Kariuki Crosby, a 30-year-old African-American artist. “Alcohol and politics don’t really mix.” Crosby, a Hell’s Kitchen resident, regularly attends the weekly Rudy’s Drinking Liberally soirees, but avoids political discussions with fellow drinkers and is suspicious of using the term “liberal” too, well, liberally. “What do they mean by ‘liberal’ anyway?” he asked, clutching a beer. “I don’t know what that word means.”

Drinking Liberally events are very much an attempt to blend two different worlds — politically inactive people who do not recoil from the term “liberal” and politicians on the lookout for hired help. But whether those two groups fuse or eternally sit at opposite ends of the bar remains to be seen.

“I know people who have read about [Drinking Liberally] in the singles section of Time Out and became campaign staffers,” said Krebs. “People may come to a Drinking Liberally event with expectations or they may come with no expectations. But the nice thing about a bar is as soon as you’re sharing pitchers, you can’t really control where it leads.”

The group’s organizers come with strong political ties. Krebs worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign (as the volunteer director) and later in her office. He now manages the Parks1 Campaign, an advocacy group in the city.

McCall, in addition to being president of the Stonewall Democrats, is City Councilmember Alan Gerson’s chief of staff. Drinking Liberally Steps Out, he hopes, will bring new members — who “aren’t as cynical” as the old political hands — into the fold.

Alcohol, in fact, brought McCall and Krebs together. They met while out drinking one night, and thus Steps Out was born. “Justin said, ‘Dirk, we want to get more gay people involved,’ and I said, ‘Bring Drinking Liberally to a gay bar.’ And he said, ‘That’s great!’” McCall remembered. “It’s our way to pull more people at the Drinking Liberally family.”

The home page on Drinking Liberally’s Web site bears a striking resemblance to your average political action committee Web site. With a map of the United States peppered with dots marking the various chapters across the country, the reddest of red states, Texas, has a respectable four chapters, with two in Dallas. The site is not a mere event bulletin board and Web blog; it’s also a store. Visitors can buy Drinking Liberally T-shirts (modeled by liberal drinkers) and Drinking Liberally buttons (individually or in packs of 10). Or, if they’re feeling generous, they can donate cash.

There’s an e-mail list, too, with 7,000 addresses nationwide — 1,000 of them are New Yorkers. At Rudy’s, Krebs jotted down e-mail addresses at the door. “We don’t share the list with other groups,” he insisted.

At XES, the same contingent of campaign staffers and candidates hovered awkwardly by the bar’s entrance. B.P. candidate Ellner, one of the two gay candidates running for the office, made a repeat appearance. “I think I’m drinking too liberally,” he joked. He wasn’t the only one. Alcohol was certainly flowing at the Steps Out event.

“The gay community is very much a bar culture,” said Harlan Pruden, 38, Bloch’s campaign manager. Pruden, a Native American, has been sober for more than 18 years. “That’s the reality of our community — so let’s tap into it.”

Drinking Liberally is tapping into more than the gay bar scene. It already launched Laughing Liberally, a comedy night at the Tank, a club founded and led by Krebs, and Swinging Liberally, a softball team with its first match on July 2 as part of a liberal softball league. There has even been discussion of creating a Praying Liberally.

Some, however, aren’t embarrassed to admit they are more interested in the social aspects of these shindigs than the political ones.

Ellen, a 26-year-old Drinking Liberally regular who declined to give her last name squeezed into a seat between two friends at Rudy’s, a fresh pint of beer in her hand. “I don’t know anything about politics; I just come here for the booze and the good-looking guys,” she said with a wave of her hand and took a long drink of beer.