It all started with a sticky note and a vague call to action.
“It was just a small handwritten piece of paper posted in the bookstore,” says Gail Hoelzle, owner of The Bookmine in Cottage Grove. “It was 2003, a little before the presidential election was to start, and it said, ‘If you don’t want to see another four years of Bush, meet here.’”
Hoelzle went with her sister, expecting to see maybe five or 10 people on someone’s front lawn. Nothing usually came of small, handwritten notes in those days. Not with America at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and public opinion falling effortlessly to blind patriotic support.
What she found was somewhere between 80 and 100 people gathered in a single backyard. This impromptu gathering of progressives would become known as the Blackberry Pie Society, a nonprofit political action committee serving Cottage Grove and the greater Lane County area.
As a PAC with six current board members, including Hoelzle, the Blackberry Pie Society can endorse candidates on the local and federal levels, while supplying voters with informed information regarding upcoming elections. Over the years, volunteers have hosted candidate forums and meet-and-greet events; they’ve organized canvassing parties and sponsored civic presentations and election night parties.
But since its inception, the Blackberry Pie Society has acted as much more than a PAC for election seasons. It’s become a bastion of hope for progressives who feel isolated in a rural Oregon town known for its political divide. The PAC’s main goal isn’t fundraising — currently only $240.61 sits in its account, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office.
“This is a mechanism for people to come together politically and realize they’re not alone,” says Cathy Bellavita, who’s been a board member for more than five years. “Part of our role is to help people feel less isolated. To have a format to do some action.”
After that first meeting, a group of participants wanted to start officially campaigning for 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry — but they needed an organization. Cottage Grove’s former state senator, and occasional Eugene Weekly columnist, Tony Corcoran, helped to quickly organize the PAC, writing bylaws filled with sardonic wit and humor, much to the amusement of the Oregon Secretary of State office staff.
“He basically took evangelical church bylaws, very patriarchal, and just adapted them,” says board member Leslie Rubenstein. “It was hilarious.”
Since then, one of their biggest successes has been the THINK AGAIN speaker series. That’s a monthly event that invites city and state officials to speak with community members about what’s important to them. Past speakers include County Commissioner Pete Sorenson and Lane County Sheriff Byron Trapp.
“But it’s not always political per se,” Rubenstein says. “We had an Oregon Humanities presentation called ‘Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?’ which other communities have, but we were the appropriate group to bring that here.”
Having been born out of a community’s desire to prevent a Republican from being re-elected president, the Blackberry Pie Society seems to have come full circle as members prepare to do their part in this year’s election. After four years of a Trump presidency, the Blackberry Pie Society finds a nation more polarized than ever before in 2020.
“You want to maintain a connection with your neighbors, even if you don’t agree,” Rubenstein says. “The forums we run make that more possible.”
In the past, the Blackberry Pie Society has sponsored election forums on everything from local school district elections to the Cottage Grove mayoral race. Over the years members have learned how to run a forum without getting off topic.
“We’re more effective now,” says board member Julie Parker. “We had to learn how to put on a good public forum. You have to figure out how to make it fair to the candidates, collect questions, go through them. There’s a process. But the first step is getting people into the room.”
Everything the Blackberry Pie Society has accomplished came from this need to bring people together; to feel less alone in the sprawling countryside on the outskirts of nearly every Oregon city, where it’s assumed folks lean to the right and are less than friendly. It came from this desire for discourse, regardless of political beliefs and class value, because part of what the Blackberry Pie Society does is create a space where everyone feels comfortable speaking.
“In Cottage Grove, you know how to talk to people that you fundamentally disagree with and still respect each other as human beings,” Hoelzle says. “And I think it’s the only hope for this country.”
The Blackberry Pie Society is hosting a Political Party 3-5 pm Saturday, Feb. 22, at The Cottage Events Venue, 2915 Row River Road, Cottage Grove. Described as 50 percent fun and 51 percent politics, the party will be a call to action and will offer an opportunity for networking and mobilizing for the 2020 election season with beer, wine and food.
Impeachment whistles in honor of whistleblowers everywhere are available to donors at The Bookmine or online at BlackberryPieSociety.org.