Illuminated by electric lanterns and Christmas lights, Alaska gubernatorial candidate Bob Poe stood in the back room of the Bergmann Hotel's bar last Wednesday to address a handful of people sitting on mismatched chairs. The group was Drinking Liberally - not because they were at a bar, but because they were young Democrats interested in re-starting Juneau's chapter of the Alaska Young Democrats.
University of Alaska Southeast student James Shewmake, who has organized meetings of the group since August, has been acting as the group's unofficial president. Shewmake, a Mississippi transplant, said he'd like to see the group attain the critical mass necessary to sustain itself regardless of who's there to organize it. Right now, according to its Facebook page, the Young Democrats have six members. Several more attended its first meeting of the year, at which Juneau Democrats Chair Kim Metcalfe spoke.
Juneau’s "Drinking Liberally” group is not affiliated with Living Liberally, a non-partisan organization in which self-identified progressives gather in bars to socialize and talk politics.
In Juneau, organizing a group such as this is a balancing act between University of Alaska Southeast students and young professionals, Shewmake said.
Members of the Young Democrats are generally between 18 and 35, though members of Drinking Liberally must be 21 or older.
Member Melissa Griffiths, who worked on Sen. Mark Begich's campaign, said candidates are generally interested in speaking to young people.
"They're very aware our age group is the group they need to appeal to," she said. "We're the feet on the ground to win an election."
Attendees asked Poe about environmentalism versus development (the dichotomy, Poe said, is a false construct), Pebble Mine, predator management, alternative energy, the Juneau Access Road, and the push and pull between science and politics in state agencies.
Poe is the first gubernatorial candidate to speak to the group, but members said Ethan Berkowitz and Hollis French, also Democrats in the running for the governor's seat, are interested. So are several candidates for other offices.
Alaska Young Democrats President Heather Aronno said the biggest challenge to involving young people in politics is keeping them engaged.
"Everyone likes to have a goal to work toward, but it can be hard to put all of your energy into a project and if it doesn't work out, you can get discouraged," she said. "People who have been in politics for many years know that this is part of the process, but for a young person without that experience, it can be very frustrating."
Aronno said the biggest challenge in Alaska, however, is transportation cost, which she hopes tools such as Facebook and Skype will help circumvent.
• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.