Talking politics on the left

Politics, religion and money are usually off limits in polite conversation, but at the Baton Rouge Progressive Network’s quarterly socials, which aim to connect those with a left-of-center view, talking political issues is encouraged.

“It’s one of those three things you are not supposed to talk about when you’re drinking,” said Dylan Waguespack, peering through black-framed glasses favored by the hipster crowd and nursing a beer at the Mud and Water bar. “I disagree,” said the employee at Louisiana Progress, a public policy think tank. “I think politics is a great thing to talk about when you’re drinking.”

Best known for operating WHYR 96.9, the low-power Community Radio, the Baton Rouge Progressive Network has sponsored these “progressive socials” since 2009.

Members gather over drinks and talk about life in south Louisiana and issues facing the state.

“At early progressive socials, I would hear people say that ‘Whenever I talk about what I believe, I have to whisper,’” said Rebecca Marchiafava, chairwoman of the Progressive Network’s board. “There are people all around town who feel this way, so (we wanted to) create a safe place for them to get together.”

The progressives at the quarterly meet-ups range from college-age activists to middle-aged teachers.

Brian Breen, a part-time actor and musician and full-time stay-at-home dad with a brusque northeastern accent, and Steve Poss, a “recovering lawyer” and school teacher originally from north Louisiana, bonded over their love of micro-brewery beer and their ideas on global warming and the riskiness of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

They railed against the brand of journalism on Fox News, then shared their own stories about run-ins with very vocal, very conservative Baton Rouge residents.

“But I can’t imagine what this country would be like if Thurston Howell III would have won the election,” said Breen, comparing Mitt Romney to the richest resident of “Gilligan’s Island.”

“Thurston Howell?” asked Poss, who rode his bicycle to the bar for the social.

“That’s who he is!” Breen said.

Most people at the events identify as independents or espouse a populist political viewpoint, Marchiafava said. Progressives often unite against specific issues, like racism and sexism.

“‘Progressive’ evokes a sense that we value the public good,” said Marchiafava. “So, in general, it is a set of values that brings people together.”

Many of the two dozen who met at Mud and Water are homegrown Louisianians. A few have moved here from other states and were looking for kindred political spirits.

“In D.C. or in Dallas, it’s easier to find things,” said Lauren Ryan, an audiologist who moved with her husband to Baton Rouge — the smallest city in which she’s ever lived — from Washington, D.C. “Whatever you want, it’s there. (Here) you have to find it out.”

While roadies set up for an Athens, Ga., band to play on the stage behind her, Ryan discussed the differences in bike lanes in Baton Rouge and D.C. Her husband, Nathan Howard, was holding another conversation on theology. A minister at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, Howard said he was “always looking for people who want to help.”

“We’re never going to build the city Louisiana deserves if we don’t get together,” he said.