Drinking Liberally pairs progressive politics and a social hour

Margaret Anderson Kelliher stumps at the 331 Club

Margaret Anderson Kelliher stumps at the 331 Club

Hunched on a bench to the side of the bar, a man in a knit cap and black-framed glasses studiously scribbles on a bar napkin. On the table next to him, his laptop is open to the blog that professes his love for actress Eliza Dushku and advocates to keep Fox's Dollhouse on the air. His name is Tore Simonsen and he is writing down the questions he wants to ask Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Kelliher will stop by tonight at the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis for what promises to be one of her more unusual campaign events: Drinking Liberally. Founded in New York's Hell's Kitchen in 2002, Drinking Liberally combines progressive politics with a welcoming social hour. That mix has proven so popular it has spread to 346 chapters across all 50 states.

The Minnesota Drinking Liberally was founded in 2004 by a guy named Cowboy Cody, who later left the state after a complicated series of events revolving around a sky-diving fatality. Stepping in to fill the vacuum was Robin Marty, a progressive activist, journalist, and blogger.

Marty, a 32-year-old with short brown hair and cherubic cheeks, is a dynamo of progressive blogging. She's coordinated statewide lefty blogs in Minneapolis and elsewhere for the Center for Independent Media and now blogs and tweets about reproductive issues and electing more women to office.

When Marty had a baby, she kept attending Drinking Liberally, but handed the leadership reigns over to Steven Timmer, a cheerful and professorial lawyer whose Cucking Stool blog has won awards in the local liberal blogosphere.

During the Republican National Convention, the Minneapolis chapter helped coordinate many of the progressives who poured in from around the country to protest. The local group's longstanding relationship with the 331 Club paid off when the bar's manager offered to provide housing for visitors from other Drinking Liberally chapters nationwide.

The RNC marked a high-water mark for Minneapolis Drinking Liberally, but the group still meets every week to discuss state politics. DFL gubernatorial candidates Tom Rukavina and John Marty are among the politicians the chapter has hosted in 2010.

Kelliher's a bigger fish, though. Already the second most powerful official in Minnesota as speaker of the House, she's also one of the leading DFL candidates for governor. She's running late tonight, coming straight from a fundraising event in St. Paul. There are more than 30 people jostling for space now, passionately talking local politics.

At the front of the room, Simonsen is showing his napkin full of questions about homelessness policy to fellow Drinking Liberally regulars, asking which of them he ought to put to the speaker. Toward the back, Ahmed Mohammed, a tall, Somali-born 70-year-old with a broad, owlish face, says he wants to ask Kelliher what she would do to help immigrants.

Suddenly, the door swings open and Kelliher strides in with an entourage of campaign staff trailing her. "Here she is," announces D.J. Davidson, a young state legislative aide. Kelliher shakes hands and makes small talk as she wades against the tide, down the impromptu receiving line strung along the bar, toward the stage. She's taller than most of the people in the bar, and in her pressed black pantsuit and crisp white blouse, she stands out in a room where virtually everyone else wears blue jeans.

Stepping up to the tiny stage, Kelliher apologizes for being tardy. "I suspect being late is not a good thing in my category because you've already been able to have maybe a drink or two, right?" she asks the crowd. The line wins some chuckles. When she mentions that her son's high school hockey team is playing against top-seeded Minnetonka tonight, the audiences obliges with a resounding boo for Minnetonka.

Then Kelliher's off into her stump speech, which dwells on her childhood on a dairy farm in Blue Earth County before it shifts to the planks of her platform: better early childhood education, a new school-funding formula, universal Minnesota health care, and her budget expertise. When she's done, Timmer opens the floor to questions.

Harvey Hyatt, a goofy 58-year-old with thick glasses and broad black suspenders, asks Kelliher what E85 is. It's a question that could only earn a laugh in a room full of Minnesota political wonks. Candidates for lieutenant governor—most recently Republican gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert's running mate Rhonda Sivarajah—have flubbed the question. Kelliher laughs along with the crowd, then answers quickly. "It is the blend of ethanol and gasoline, 85 percent ethanol."

The questions aren't all softballs, though. "I wanted to support you. I'm a Democrat," says Bob Thurston, a Drinking Liberally regular with a bald head, trim white beard, and the delivery of a gruff sea captain. "One of the problems I had was the financial problems where you were accused of breaking the law."

Last December, Kelliher admitted that her campaign had directed several donors to give to the DFL to help pay for her use of the party's voter database. The donations were later ruled illegal, and Kelliher apologized and pledged to cooperate with the Campaign Finance Board.

Kelliher holds Thurston's eye. "We took advice from the party. It was not good advice," she says. "I took responsibility for that mistake. I think leaders take responsibility for mistakes that were made, even if they were not their own mistakes."

After a few more questions, Timmer thanks Kelliher and calls an end to the evening. The Drinking Liberally crew begins to leave, and a bunch of kids in hipster beards start setting up their band gear for the show that's coming up next. Kelliher retreats to a booth off to the side. For the first time since she arrived, she sits down. Her campaign staffers fill in the benches around her and rehash the day. Someone brings a pizza over, and Kelliher eats hungrily.

"I liked this," she says, between bites. "It's different from the usual campaign event, more informal. I think Drinking Liberally is becoming a required appearance for people seeking office."