Liberal Libations

For Brandon Democrats, it's a beer and a shot — of political discussion.

click to enlarge WHETTING POLITICAL APPETITES: Drinking Liberally Brandon member Joe Litton wears a Mother Jones T-shirt during a recent meeting of the politics-and-beer club. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
WHETTING POLITICAL APPETITES: Drinking Liberally Brandon member Joe Litton wears a Mother Jones T-shirt during a recent meeting of the politics-and-beer club.

Dan Guibert lights his cigarette and takes another swig of the 16-oz. beer mug full of Budweiser.

"Are you telling me — look me in the eye and tell me — Osama bin Laden does not deserve to die," Dan says, his voice rising with each word.

"I think he should sit in a jail and rot," Mike Ruso says, explaining the terrorist's death would only make him a martyr.

A vein in Dan's head bulges.

"That's insulting!" he yells.

The two go back and forth until someone poses another question: "What about the death penalty for child molesters?"

"Until you find someone willing to go and molest convicts, I'm all for it," Guibert answers.

For some people, the idea of mixing politics and beer may seem like a dangerous cocktail, but for the folks at Brandon's Drinking Liberally chapter, it's just another Thursday.

ONE PART political science class and two parts Democratic support group, Drinking Liberally is an informal club for lefties starved for intelligent discourse and debate.

The idea was conceived by two frustrated New York City Democrats who began meeting in 2003 to strategize and talk shop over their other interest: beer.

Today, Drinking Liberally boasts 144 chapters across 40 states, ranging from the usual suspects of San Francisco and Boston to conservative strongholds such as Idaho, Iowa and, yes, even Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms' own Brandon base.

"This is more therapy than anything," says co-host Ben Whetstone, slugging down his beer between bites of pizza.

The Brandon chapter started much like the other groups scattered about the country. After U.S. Army vet Whetstone returned from a tour in Iraq, an experience that changed him politically, he came across the national Drinking Liberally website and decided to start a local chapter last year. A few months later, Brandon High School graduates Ruso and Guibert — unaware of Whetstone's intentions — attempted to start their own group.

"For eight years now, me, him and another friend who is conservative would get together on the back porch, drinking beers and" talking politics, says Guibert. "That's basically how it started: moving from my friend's back porch to Old Chicago [a restaurant near the Brandon Mall]."

Finally, Whetstone, Guibert and Ruso met and joined together. Using local blogs, the group expanded to 33 members, though only a fraction of those gather at Old Chicago on a regular basis.

On a recent Thursday evening, laughter from the eight core members of Drinking Liberally Brandon easily drowns out a competing electronic poker group at the table next to them.

It's an eclectic cast of characters.

Whetstone, a Bright House Networks technician, also writes a popular local blog — canofwormsblog.com. (Beer of choice: Fosters.)

Ruso (a Yeungling man) looks vaguely Republican in his baseball cap. A University of Florida graduate in political science, he's well-schooled in the art of debate, bringing up philosopher Hegel and big words like egalitarian.

Joe and Shirley Litton, recent transplants from Oregon, attend Drinking Liberally groups in both Brandon and Tampa. ("We're lushes, I guess," he jokes.) Joe is a self-described "tech geek" and drinks Michelob Amberbock. If the sun is in your eyes, his wife Shirley will offer you a pink visor. Their son, Ben Litton, comes with them to the weekly meetings.

Michelle and Howard Erlich met the Littons at a wine tasting recently and were invited to Drinking Liberally. Howard's dark humor contrasts nicely with Michelle's sweet demeanor. They both prefer exotic beers and will try anything once.

Dan Guibert is the black sheep among the group. A board operator for conservative 1040 AM, he likes to play devil's advocate and frequently takes outrageous positions to help the group sharpen its debate skills. He prefers to throw back a few Budweisers to lube up conversation.

Surprisingly, nobody's drunk. In fact, despite the name, the group drinks very conservatively. Some of the members follow every beer with a glass of water and a few confine themselves to diet sodas for the entire night.

Likewise, the conversation does not always stick to politics. There may be Bush-bashing and debate about illegal immigration, but topics may also include movies and Whetstone's obsession with elephants (quite odd, considering it's the symbol of the Republican Party).

"We're not so politically focused that we can't talk about beer or work or whatever," explains Guibert.

Still, every conversation seems to hark back to something political. After a particularly heated discussion debating whether Ann Coulter is mentally deranged or just a media whore (or both), Whetstone mentions he recently saw the new animated movie Over The Hedge. He adds that one of the characters, the animal-hating homeowners association woman, reminds him of Commissioner Storms: extreme makeup and a generally nasty personality.

"She is the bane of my existence," Whetstone says.

Storms, who lives in neighboring Valrico, is not representative of their city's politics, the members argue. All eight in the group, natives of Brandon, are quick to defend their suburb.

"Brandon is a much more liberal town than our elected officials represent," Guibert says.

Ruso agrees.

"There's a deep resentment here," the UF graduate says, adjusting his hat. "It's a nonpartisan hatred for Ronda Storms."

The topics change often throughout the night: the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; the removal of manatees from the endangered species list ("Let the hunting begin"); Hillary Clinton ("If Hillary Clinton is the hope of the Democratic party, I don't know if I can be a Democrat"); Whetstone's experiences in Iraq ("I wouldn't recommend it for any kind of vacation"); spreading democracy to the Middle East ("You said you're going to spread democracy — what is it, like cream cheese or something?").

Then the group gets an unexpected visitor: Hillsborough County Commission candidate Joe Redner.

"You're not nearly as evil as everyone says," Whetstone tells the Mons Venus owner.

Redner's visit provides another hour of discussion.

"He's very down to earth," Whetstone says, after Redner leaves.

"He makes sense," longtime liberal Joe Litton says. "There wasn't one thing he said that I disagree with."

"I don't like that he was so honest," jokes Howard Erlich, one of the newer members.

Redner is not the only politician to visit the weekly gatherings. Florida Senate candidate and military veteran Stephen Gorham stopped by last December. He ordered Pabst Blue Ribbon.

At 11:30 p.m. the group starts to split up. Whetstone looks satisfied. At the height of the night, Brandon's Drinking Liberally chapter had 14 people talking politics in an atmosphere free of constraints.

"That's why I like this group," Whetstone says. "I like elephants, she doesn't. I don't believe Bush had anything to do with 9/11, but he does.

"You don't have to worry about offending people," he continues. "You can be yourself."

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