It began when an online discussion about the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento that devolved into what typically happens on these forums — personal blows, attacks and a palpable sense of us vs. them. No surprise there, but instead of engaging in the same behavior manifesting from behind the safety of screens, a local business owner offered another setting for such a conversation: At his brewery, over beer — and he’s buying.
7 p.m., usually every 1st Wednesday of the month
New Helvetia Brewing Co. 1730 Broadway, Sacramento
Future guests and topics include:
Joe Devlin, Sacramento’s commercial “cannabis czar” Michael Minnick, Sacramento City Unified School District trustee
That was three years ago, and that man is David Gull of New Helvetia Brewery on Broadway. He considers himself the host of the monthly Wonk Wednesday forum, while the other founders Maya Wallace and Devin Lavelle are the brains.
And unlike the internet — with Facebook discussions gone awry, Twitter storms and websites where a “delete” or “edit” button can avoid real-time interpersonal consequences — Wonk Wednesday has ground rules: keep it civil, avoid personal attacks, focus on the policy and enjoy a beer.
“If you were forced to have that same conversation face to face, you’d have a different level of decorum,” Gull says. “Nothing seems to ever get accomplished online, it has to happen in a human form, not a cyber form.”
Wonk Wednesday occurs roughly every first Wednesday of the month, when the weather’s accommodating, on the back patio of New Helvetia Brewery.
Since its inception in Sacramento, the group has hosted former mayoral candidates Darrell Steinberg and Angelique Ashby and has focused on contentious topics such as the statewide marijuana legalization campaign, the city’s bicycle master plan (or lack thereof, Gull says), transportation and the redevelopment of the Greater Broadway District Partnership. Just this June, City Manager Howard Chan spoke about his biggest project to date — the city’s $1 billion-dollar budget.
“How do we have a policy conversation with good context that people can wrap their minds around,” says Wallace, a self-described Sacramento enthusiast and performance manager for the California Department of Justice. She says she’s passionate about making government work as best as possible, for as many people as possible.
So what is a wonk, you may be wondering?
“I think it’s an endearing word that describes someone willing to get tuned into the mundane details of policy,” Gull says. “It’s not necessarily a sexy word, but a critical word, and it’s a good description of who we are.”
Ed Chandler of Loftgardens Landscape Architecture, and former member of the Sacramento Planning and Design Commission, says a wonk is someone who’s into the minutia of how policy is shaped — the step-by-step implementations — that have the potential to greatly impact lives.
Co-founder Lavelle is a senior researcher at the California Research Bureau and says wonk is short for “policy wonk.” In the world of governance, there are policy wonks and political hacks. “The wonks focus on getting into the details of the policy, the political hacks, in terms of elections and deal making, focus on getting things done,” he says. Google says it’s “a studious or hardworking person” and/or “a person who takes an excessive interest in minor details of political policy.”
Given Sacramento’s political makeup of state, county and city workers, it makes sense to hold meet-ups that focus on discussions already happening in those realms, organizers agree.
“There are a lot of local policy discussions either happening at the Council chambers or aren’t happening in public,” Gull says. “And even if they are, not everyone in a democracy is going to feel comfortable signing up to speak at the City Council chambers.”
The intentional informality of Wonk Wednesday creates an inviting environment that allows the free flow of ideas and concepts, and attracts audiences that range from large crowds to more intimate gatherings of six people, Gull says. It’s not just a platform for the guest speaker to lecture. “Hopefully they will educate the audience on their topic, and if people challenge them or disagree with them, they need to answer that challenge,” he says.