Jack Shuler/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
The Utica Coffee Club meets at the Pioneer Restaurant in Utica, Ohio. Facing viewer, from left, Jim Belt (black cap and glasses), Charlie Veach, Bill Belt, Gene Branstool, Bill Stout, Phil Shipley. Backs to viewer, from left, Forey Davis (black and red cap, face hidden), Terry Martin, Jack Raines.

What an Ohio diner can teach Washington about politics

The members of the Utica Coffee Club are Democrats, Republicans, and independents. But they like each other. And that makes all the difference. 

It’s a cold and gray Friday at the Pioneer Restaurant, and the Utica Coffee Club is in session. 

Every weekday morning – for so long no one can remember – a group of friends has been meeting in the back of the Pioneer here in rural Utica, Ohio, a town described by one member of the group as having one doctor, no dentist, and a Ben Franklin store that is closing.

Around the table, there’s a veterinarian, a farmer with 450 cows, a guy selling cheese and raffle tickets, and even a former member of the Clinton administration.

They’re mostly retired and in their 70s, but perhaps their most remarkable characteristic is their ability to talk about any political topic – from Hillary Clinton’s e-mails to Donald Trump’s immigration plans – and still be willing to buy breakfast for the rest of the table on their birthday.

“Sometimes there are disagreements, but they’re never serious ones,” says Jack Raines, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and later worked for the Ohio Department of Transportation. “It’s a small town. We can argue and disagree and then move on. After two hours of talking, we go home.”

The Utica Coffee Club is at once a Norman Rockwell portrait of small-town America and a picture of how politics-as-it-once-was is disappearing. As Ohio voters go to the polls to vote in the state’s primary Tuesday, it is a poignant reminder that the polarization that currently seems to divide America can sometimes be defused by a plate of eggs and bacon and an affection for the person sitting on the other side of the table, no matter what his politics. 

In the past, these connections were often made in diners, Elks Clubs, or even within more ideologically diverse political parties themselves. But today, voters are withdrawing into partisan bubbles, “to the point of actively avoiding those who disagree,” according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study.

Probably the last people to think of the Utica Coffee Club as revolutionary are the members themselves. But in the simplicity of their fellowship is a political truth, says Kathy Cramer, a political scientist and director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

“The people in this coffee club have not only figured out how to get along, but they enjoy being with people of diverse opinions,” she says. “We don’t get great guidance from leadership on how to do that. We’re taught that people who think differently than us are morally wrong.”

“Face to face conversation is delightful,” she adds. “You can read about something in a blog post and learn a lot, but there’s something about looking a human in the eye that makes that experience more real” – and others’ viewpoints harder to dismiss.

Otto is watching 

The men of the club look each other in the eye across the sycamore-wood table that they paid a local Amish carpenter to build for them. A Tiffany-style lamp hangs overhead. A photo of Otto Teele, one of the original members, hangs on one wall, his baseball cap and gray cardigan meticulously clean, a perpetual grin on his face as though still listening in on the conversation.

This morning, it’s about Hillary.

Phil Shipley, the farmer with all the cows, likes her.

“She’s the most stable and experienced. I like Bernie [Sanders], but his rhetoric and age might work against him. It might be hard for him work with Congress,” he says.

Mr. Shipley served as county commissioner for 16 years. His mother was a Republican, his father a Democrat. The first time he ran for office, he faced his uncle, a Republican.  

Around the table, some claim to be Democrats, others Republicans. Others, like Terry Martin, say they’re swing voters. “I vote for the candidate,” Mr. Martin says.

In some ways, it’s a classic Midwestern scene, Professor Cramer says. She researches the role informal discussion groups play in a vibrant democracy, and while she says groups like this are on the decline, the Midwestern versions are remarkably free from strident party ideology.

“Of the groups I’ve researched in the Midwest, in general, they’re not partisan. I haven’t come across people who are devout partisans. Who live and die for their party. They pride themselves on voting for the person and not the party,” she says. “People expect their office holders to be serious about their jobs, to have integrity, and to be honest. There’s a lot of interest in people who are real.”

Which is why Martin likes a lot of what Donald Trump is saying, though he’s not sure Mr. Trump would make good decisions on foreign affairs. Ohio Gov. John Kasich might be the best qualified, he says, but he hasn’t been good for Ohio schools.

“I really just don’t know yet.”

Raffle tickets and club rules

Tellingly, the election is not the most important discussion at the table. There are more pressing things, like the club rules. If it’s your birthday, you buy breakfast for everyone. If you have a financial windfall, you buy a round of coffee. You must support one another’s causes by purchasing raffle tickets and attending events. And you better enjoy conversation and debate, but not take yourself, or the debate, too seriously.

Even if the topics are serious.

Mr. Raines, the Vietnam veteran is worried about the economy and about what his grandchildren will face. “In my dad’s day, if you had a job, you had it for life. We’ve lost a lot of jobs for our own citizens. At one time we had five gas stations and a barbershop. Now we have two gas stations and no barbershops.” 

“I’m concerned about drugs,” adds Jim Belt, who worked in an Owens Corning factory. “That affects everyone.”

There’s lots of nodding in agreement. Someone broke into Mr. Belt’s car recently. Others know of friends or family members who have been affected by the opioid epidemic. One man has a family member in rehab. 

“I think we worry about the economy here,” Belt adds. “And so Trump is hitting a nerve – not because he understands everything – but because people are dissatisfied with Washington.”

“Trump’s just a big spoon, stirring stuff up,” says Bill Stout, a local tree farmer. 

“Trump says things that make you cringe, but you want to look anyway,” says Charlie Veach, who works in health care. “People want to hear what he has to say because they want something different. They’re tired of the establishment wasting things.”

Fifty laughs per minute

Mr. Veach worries about illegal immigration, education, but most especially, he’s concerned about medical care for veterans. He points out that there are three disabled vets in the coffee club.

“Vets should be able to get free care wherever they go. You serve your country – that’s what you’re owed. But I don’t know where I’m at right now. I’m so frustrated with the Republican Party.” 

A general anxiety about the future might lead some to vote for Trump, says Cramer, the professor. “I see him tapping into the long-burning feeling of ‘I’m not getting my fair share.’ ”

That works particularly well in the Midwest because of changes in global economy that have led to the loss of manufacturing jobs and viable small farms, she adds.

Across the table, Raines shouts to Gene Branstool, the former assistant secretary of agriculture under Bill Clinton and a Licking County Democratic stalwart: “Hey, Gene, you ready to run again?”

“Stick a fork in me,” Mr. Branstool answers. “I’m done. Heck I couldn’t even get in now – costs too much.”

A waitress comes by and Branstool asks her, “I ordered two eggs, didn’t I?”

“Oh, didn’t I take your plate?” she asks.

“Don’t think I ever got one.”

They all laugh.

When the laughter recedes and people start going on about their day, Branstool adds, “It’s an interesting group, isn’t it? A minimum of 50 laughs per minute.”

“Look,” adds Belt, “we gotta stay friends, because sooner or later they’re going to buy you breakfast.”

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