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These debates may be dry, but the settings aren't

Politicians in Long Beach are shunning the standard news conference or face-to-face interview in favor of get-togethers at area pubs. For the most part, the events are courteous.

April 12, 2010|By Tony Barboza

President Obama had his beer summit. The Founding Fathers nurtured the ideas behind the American Revolution in Colonial taverns.

And in modern-day Long Beach, politicians and public officials are also swapping the podium for the pub during their campaigns.

When City Hall lobbyist Mike Murchison chose to break his silence about taking junkets with the city's top development official, he shunned the standard news conference or face-to-face interview. Instead, he submitted to public questioning at a "Beer & Politics" get-together at a noisy Irish pub.

Mike Clements, a scruffy, avuncular business banker who moderates the sudsy gathering every month or two, held a pint in one hand and a microphone in the other as he addressed the drink-sipping young professionals, gray-haired retirees and handful of city officials who had packed Gallagher's Pub & Grill for the occasion.

"We have a very simple motto," he announced. "One: to drink beer. Two: to talk politics. And three: to drink beer."

Murchison, 45, a bald, burly man in a sport coat, took 45 minutes' worth of questions from bar patrons. The discourse was punctuated by boisterous outbursts from those watching the Lakers game on the other side of the pub and occasional jeers from customers, including one man who shouted from the back that Murchison didn't care what they thought.

Along with ribbon-cuttings, fundraisers and parades, the barroom is being embraced as part of the political circuit in Long Beach.

In the last few months, City Council candidates have debated under the thatched roof of a Tiki bar, and city attorney contenders have sparred at a tavern popular with college students and bikers. In late March, the city's new police chief answered questions from the glass-clanking patrons of Gallagher's pub.

In advance of Tuesday's municipal election, the local press club held a series called "Debates at Da' Beach" at watering holes throughout the city.

Regulars see the forums as following in the footsteps of a tradition that dates to Colonial America and earlier.

Benjamin Franklin and other forefathers weighed the most pressing political, philosophical and scientific ideas of the late 18th century in the taverns, or "public houses," of such burgs as Boston and Philadelphia.

For the most part, the debates and Q&A's in Long Beach are courteous. Even amid the hooting, hollering and beer-swilling, sober discussion prevails.

"We're trying to encourage rational and reasonable discussion," Clements said. "I've had guests concerned that guests were going to get rowdy or out of hand, and they're always surprised when everything goes smoothly."

In Long Beach, a city with working-class roots and a deep devotion to neighborhood bars, the practice lends an air of informality and comfort to discussions that are by nature contentious.

Especially when the mayor is sipping a whiskey on the rocks or trying to snag a French fry from someone's plate.

"Having a debate over a beer takes some of the bristle out of it," said Andrew Anson, 36, who has been a regular at the "Beer & Politics" gatherings since their inception a few years ago. "It really kind of deflates people's apprehensions and anxieties. Maybe the alcohol has something to do with it, but we've found we can have a serious discussion but not be too serious about ourselves."

Not to say it doesn't get tense from time to time.

Tempers occasionally flare, especially when it comes to hot-button topics such as immigration or crime.

On a recent Monday night at Smooth's Sports Grille, candidates for city prosecutor sat at a table and exchanged harsh words about sex offenders, pot dispensaries and the environment while spectators sipped wine and cocktails on the rooftop patio.

At one point, Assistant City Prosecutor Timothy O'Reilly slammed down the microphone after City Prosecutor hopeful Doug Haubert attacked him for his career as a criminal-defense lawyer -- a tense moment in an otherwise civil affair.

So why not have dry debates?

Haubert, nursing a glass of water, pondered the question.

"If you want to get people there," he answered, "you need beer and bourbon."

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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