An hour before the first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney aired nationally on the evening of Oct. 3, two very different - yet very similar - parties on two very opposite ends of the Hub City began.
Near downtown, in a diverse neighborhood of gentrified older wooden homes, some 50 guests strolled in and out of the house of Aimee Boyd-Robinson, a 37-year-old Lafayette resident who opened her doors to both strangers and friends for a debate party she listed publicly through Dashboard, the online destination for Obama supporters.
Across the city, about a dozen classy cars lined the driveway of a prominent Lafayette businessman's spacious, modern Southside home as a crowd of about 20 people gathered inside to watch the presidential contenders in their first face-off. Among those on the guest list were a former Lafayette Civic Cup winner and a one-time chairman of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce. Unlike Boyd-Robinson's fête, the "safehouse" provided by the Lafayette business owner was a distinctly private affair.
Boyd-Robinson had originally planned her debate party as an event for members of Acadiana Closet Progressives, an invite-only Facebook group set up for left-leaning locals to discuss current issues. She later decided to list her debate party through Obama's online campaign, an open gesture for the often silent minority of Acadiana residents who find themselves seeking "like-minded" people around town.
Like Boyd-Robinson, many of the 106 Acadiana Closet Progressives who participate in the Facebook forum have no reservations in discussing their left-of-center beliefs. But for a number of UL professors, lawyers, doctors, business leaders, artists, retirees, oil field workers, teachers and more, the secrecy of their membership is essential for conducting daily business among their largely conservative and very vocal peers.
"I have to be very quiet because people make decisions by and large out of emotions rather than facts, at least when it comes to federal issues and the role of government in society," says one Lafayette businessman and former chairman of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce who, like several business people interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Without a doubt my business would be affected by my political views. If I were public about social equality, the lack of understanding and what Democrats in general talk about, then people would most likely shy away."
The same holds true for the business owner who founded Acadiana Closet Progressives, a page that for some members dually serves as a secret outlet as well as an escape from the Republican rants they routinely read from the majority of their friends on their own Facebook news feeds.
"The idea behind it is if you wanna share something about politics on Facebook, it seems futile sharing it publicly because you'll just run into a bunch of people that disagree with you and you'll just make them mad," says the group's creator, also a local business owner who asked that his name not be published. "Living in one of the reddest cities in America, you're definitely the minority, and a lot of people in the group don't care.
But they still appreciate the idea of being able to talk about politics and not get blasted. For business owners, and especially if you're doing stuff in Lafayette for the industries that keep us red, it's a way to keep things private."
It's an issue that progressives have been dealing with "even since Dukakis ran" in 1988, says the former chamber chair, and the few blue bloods here do understand that they choose to live in a Republican majority region supported by a conservative economy. Although politics and religion have long been listed as conversation faux pas and keeping private your beliefs is a common trait on both sides of the aisle, Hub City progressives often find themselves among people who rely on the concept of "safety in numbers."
"I think there's an assumption by conservatives that everyone else in town thinks the same way they do," says the prominent business owner who hosted the Oct. 3 debate party at his home and asked not to be identified for this story. "I don't necessarily think they're more open; they just assume that everyone thinks President Obama should be un-elected. I have concerns the older I get, because that filter is getting a little thinner. I am at the point in my life where I want to tell those people that not everyone in this town thinks the way they do. I had someone tell me one time that I made too much money to be liberal. I've always been this way. I don't think people change their basic philosophies as they go through life."
Lafayette lawyer Gary McGoffin, the former Lafayette Civic Cup winner who attended the "safehouse" debate party back in October, is one of the few businessmen and civic leaders in town willing to be identified as a guest of the progressive party. McGoffin says he's not afraid of the potential business repercussions, but his notion that "political clutter" is counter-productive to a community's agenda keeps him quiet on which candidate is getting his vote.
"It's like Joey Durel says ... the potholes in town are not Democrat or Republican, but when dealing with local issues the red and blue often come up," he says. "It's more productive to just talk about the issues at hand."
The rare breed of local political junkies who wear their party affiliations on their sleeve can be seen in people like Jeff Boggs, a New Iberia radio personality and host of the "Teche Matters" newscast on KANE 1240 AM. Boggs' show is a daily blend of local, state and national topics, and his liberal bias is abundantly clear through his radio commentary and his own Facebook profile. But for Boggs, a once-conservative Republican who campaigned for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, "correcting misinformation" is worth the losses he and his station have suffered from his public progressive persona.
"I've taken some hits, absolutely, but I think there's a certain responsibility in all of us to correct misinformation if we know it to be true ... and the majority of it is put out there by the right," says Boggs. "It's irresponsible to nod your head and move on. It's like watching a car crash and walking away from it. In this day and age it's so easy to let misinformation fly out of control. Financially the station has lost some advertisers because of it, though I'd like to think we've gained some as well. Memos have been written, and it's understood and it's recognized, I can't turn my head to what I believe is the truth. It's part of my job."
Whether trapped in a closet or out and proud, one thing Acadiana progressives have all pointed out is that over the past four years, the conservative political views so openly discussed on a daily basis during business and civic dealings have risen to a new level of "vitriol." It's an "anger," an urgency, a disturbing trend that every single person interviewed for this story attributes to one factor: Obama's race.
"I've never seen this level of hatred toward a president before, and I don't think it has as much to do with the economy as people like to say it is," Boyd-Robinson says. "Unfortunately, here in the South, I don't even think some people realize that his race has to do with their hatred toward him."
"It's always been a conservative place, but I think the words are harsher now with Obama," says one of the business executives who attended the private debate party. "I think there are plenty of flat out racists around here. Unfortunately, we're still talking about generations of racism."
For Lafayette's Stephen Handwerk, whose position as the executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party pits his political views in the crosshairs of his professional life, the political environment he's witnessed at the state and national levels has evolved into an unhealthy practice of "dehumanizing" the other side.
"So many people are afraid to voice their opinions in the public square," says Handwerk, who writes a left-leaning blog for The Daily Advertiser's website and used to be a frequent guest on KPEL 96.5 and KVOL 1330. "When I first started all of this, people would run in to me, like at Albertsons, and they would do the double take. They'd say, You're Stephen, right?' And then they'd look around and make sure no one was looking and say, I'm a Democrat, too.' Personally, I think we're all better off when we have a chorus of different opinions. I think it helps us all move anything forward. [Lafayette Republican activist] Warren Caudle and I used to appear on KPEL together. Warren and I often found things we agreed on, and we would chastise both of our parties for not finding things to agree on. That wasn't good enough radio, so they had to bring in Carol Ross. Then it was Warren and Carol against me. That's just not helpful. That's why you see a Congress with the largest disapproval rating ever. We've got to find ways to start working together. Especially here in the state. I think right now it has gotten so politically divided that it's almost impossible. I hope the party can help those closeted progressives come out into the sunshine. It's awful nice out here."