It’s a strange time to be a New York Republican—a strange enough thing to begin with. Republicans have got their man in the White House, in the statehouse, and in Gracie Mansion, but here in the city, they’re still outnumbered five to one. What’s more, the city is more stridently politicized than at any time since Reagan. Anger—over Iraq, over Ashcroft, over everything—is suddenly in vogue. New York Democrats simply can’t stop themselves from telling anyone who will listen just how much they hate the president.
And local Republicans trying to defend the Bush administration aren’t helped by how little their party seems to care or know about the city. (Tom DeLay’s cruise ship, anyone?) The inescapable message is that Bush clearly doesn’t need New York.
Yet far from feeling besieged (remember the Alamo?), the city’s Republicans are fighting back aggressively with a fierce barrage of checks. After D.C., New York is now the most important fund-raising stop for the GOP. For young Republicans—whose New York was shaped by Giuliani—the city represents an enticing possibility. It may still be a city-state of liberalism, but to local Republican opportunists already dancing at the thought of hosting the convention this year, that also makes it the country’s next conservative frontier.
I’m cool,” says Lolita Jackson, a bit defensively. “i sing in a jazz-funk band. I’ve sung at CBGB Gallery! I wear leather pants. It’s all good.”
Like she says, she’s black, she’s female, she’s a Republican. Get over it.
Jackson, 36, will be the first to tell you that she’s made it her life’s mission to puncture the stereotypes. Since college, she’s worked in investment banking and lives on the Upper East Side. This year, she was named president of the Metropolitan Republican Club, an organization headquartered on East 83rd Street.
As a child growing up outside New Brunswick, New Jersey, she found herself a guinea pig of expensive and, as she says, painful liberal efforts to integrate public schools. “Education is a big reason I’m a Republican. I was a victim of tracking, busing, you name it,” she says. “I went to school with all these white kids from the farm. We were all black kids in the bus. It was horrific. I escaped in spite of the education system.”
By the time she entered the University of Pennsylvania to study engineering, she had firmly turned against her family’s strong Democratic leanings. Now, once again, she’s a symbol, but a willing one—like Condoleezza Rice, she says. “A black woman with her finger on the button? You gotta love that,” she says, laughing.
But Jackson’s real value to the party is more than demographic. She’s a “Maverick,” a spinoff of the high-flying Rangers and Pioneers fund-raising programs, launched during the 2000 campaign. A Maverick is anyone under 40 who commits to raising $50,000 ($2,000 at a time, the individual campaign-contribution limit). The New York chapter of the Maverick program launched just this past spring. Jackson, a charter member, expects to meet her commitment by June.
“I’ve been out on the street, getting signatures on petitions in front of the Food Emporium on 83rd Street, and have had white people scream at me, ‘You’re not a self-respecting black person,’ ” she says. The cries of protest—traitor!—are even stronger in the black community. “A lot of very educated African-Americans, unfortunately, have a herd mentality,” she says. “They are probably Republicans in their heart, if you ask them what they believe, but they just can’t vote Republican. They want to believe that Jesse Jackson is going to lead them to the promised land.
“In New York City, people think that if you’re to the right of Bill Clinton, you’re a loony,” Jackson adds. “We don’t have horns. My motto is, ‘I’ll stay out of your bedroom if you stay out of my wallet.’ You start making some money, you’ll come over to the other side.”
Andrew Sreniawski has been arguing with everyone for as long as he can remember. If that seems unusual for a bookish young Columbia law student, one must consider how adept he’s always been at putting himself at odds with his surroundings. A staunch family-values Republican and a devout Catholic, Sreniawski grew up in a liberal family in a liberal town outside Buffalo. He’s also gay.
“The Republican Party just fits my views pretty well,” he explains. “I’m pro-life. I also agree with the party’s fiscal policies. The tax cuts are already starting to pull us out of the Clinton recession.” Sreniawski, who wears a BUSH-CHENEY ’04 button on his backpack, brightens considerably at the thought of the president.
“I’m a huge Bush supporter. I think he’s done a great job in the war on terrorism— such a strong president, standing up to the terrorists and the dictators of the world. Freeing the Iraqi people is such an accomplishment, I think he’s going to win in a landslide.
“People are slowly realizing that the Democrats haven’t had a new idea in 40 years,” adds Sreniawski, 24. “The inner city is still impoverished. Kids still aren’t learning. My main focus is on social issues—prayer in school, sex ed. I’m conservative on the full range of social issues—except, of course, my being gay.
“Everyone always says, ‘Isn’t “gay Republican” an oxymoron?’ I don’t think it is,” Sreniawski says. “In order to achieve equality, we need to have gays in both parties. I find the gay community is less receptive to Republicans than Republicans are to gay people.”
Last year, Sreniawski joined the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP organization with 10,000 members nationwide. “I was reluctant to join because I thought they were more about gay issues. I’m a Republican first, gay second. Luckily, I didn’t find that to be the case.”
At Columbia Law School, which Sreniawski thinks “surprisingly liberal,” he has found himself the butt of nearly every debate, and was particularly so in the run-up to the war in Iraq. “The topic of the war really impassions my opponents. To me, it was so clearly the right thing to do.” His gay friends outside school were even more dogmatic. “I just can’t understand that at all,” Sreniawski marvels. “The repressive regime in Iraq was so heinous towards gay rights.”
‘I really admire people who are devoted as artists but nonetheless serve as political players,” says Carrie Thomas, an associate editor at McGraw-Hill. “Winston Churchill was a painter. Benjamin Disraeli was a poet. In art there is communication, and in communication there are solutions.” Heartfelt thoughts for the 26-year-old managing editor of The Record, the newsletter of the New York Young Republicans Club. Though she came to New York to work in publishing, Thomas was under no illusion that she was going to fit in politically. In school at Penn State, she was the only Republican art major she knew. She didn’t meet a single fellow Republican during her first year in New York. Thomas grew up among the coalfields of Somerset County, Pennsylvania, idolizing W. H. Auden and Margaret Atwood. If her Republican views seemed an odd fit in lunch-pail country, it’s perhaps because she arrived at them through an obscure back alley, British Enlightenment philosophy. “The classical ‘liberal’ philosophies—the Lockes, the John Stuart Mills—those are what I would like us to get back to,” she explains. “When I say liberal, I mean individual rights. I mean pro-choice, individual rights for homosexuals. But that’s true for a lot of Republicans in the city. We’re not extreme like the people you see on TV, in the same way that not all Democrats are Al Sharpton.”
But she has yet to convince friends. “I find people want to hold me responsible for everything, like Bush’s DUIs,” she says. “Like that’s my personal responsibility?”
Back in college, she acted in a local theater troupe, but her fellow actors didn’t share her glowing admiration for Ronald Reagan. “People can make fun of his background, the acting thing, but he really did know how to communicate, and I believe that’s why we achieved the reform that we did with the Soviet Union.
“I’m a hawk. I’m very pro-military. I’m not saying I’m in total support of the execution of the Iraq war. I’m just saying there are far worse things than war. September 11 was one of them.” Of course, as a Lockean, Thomas has plenty of quibbles. “I was up at the Young Republicans’ national convention in Boston, and one of the candidates was handing out fliers that said they were anti–gay rights,” she says in horror. “I want our generation to turn this around and say, ‘No, this isn’t how we started out.’ I feel like we’ve kind of gotten away from the focus of the Republican Party, including individual rights. That’s why I’m a Republican in the first place.”
The Student of History
Matt Baer predicts that in fifteen years, tops, there will be as many Republicans on the Upper West Side as liberals. If this seems an improbable fate, Baer understands the irony. He grew up among red-diaper babies on West 93rd Street. Few know Upper West Side liberals like he does.
“The Democrats are old,” explains Baer. Naturally, everyone seems old when you’re 20 and a senior in college. “When I stand out in front of Barnes & Noble on 83rd Street and try to get petitions signed for Republican candidates, the people who come up to me and say ‘I would never vote Republican’—those are the old people. You see these Democratic clubs on the Upper West Side, you go in there, it’s like a senior home.”
“It was while I was in high school at Stuyvesant that I really got interested in Republican politics,” he explains. While this new passion stood out dramatically in the People’s Republic of Riverside Drive, the original source of his political awakening was, in fact, his parents. Both his father, who owns a small tour-bus company, and his mother, who teaches third grade in a local public school, were registered Republicans. “Neither one of my parents was really political,” he explains. Still, his mother was skeptical about liberal policies that she thought were gumming up the education system. “My mom has never been a fan of the teachers’ union.
“I think that the whole system needed to be changed,” says Baer, who is effusive about Mayor Bloomberg’s education initiatives. “I think each school needs to be run by its own principal who can fire teachers when they need to.”
His interest in education policy led to an overall political flowering. By the time he was a junior at Stuyvesant, Baer was working long hours for GOP candidates in various races throughout the city. Now studying history at George Washington University, he’s backed the Republicans against two sacrosanct Upper West Side liberals—Congressman Jerry Nadler in 2002 and Councilwoman Gale Brewer in 2001 and 2003. In each case, his candidate got pounded. But more than anything else, he says, Republican candidates in Manhattan need to be stronger. “Candidates still send out literature and it doesn’t say Republican anywhere on the thing.”
Baer is certain the future is on his side. “The West Side has had such an influx of young people looking to start a family, but they’re not able to find apartments because a lot of old people are still paying $500 a month for rent-controlled, four-bedroom luxury apartments.”
Of course, right now, the “old” people who are feeling the sting of Baer’s political agitating are his parents. “They’ve been yelling at me about the phone bills,” he says. “But it’s a small price to pay.”
I’m from Hobart, Indiana,” says Dan Butler proudly, offering a crushing handshake that hints at the fact that he wrestled Division One in college.
“It’s a pretty small town. It’s all white, all blue-collar, working-class guys,” he says. “A lot of people there work in the steel mills in Gary, Indiana. It’s a very heavily Democratic county.”
Political passions, however, were a bit more nuanced inside the Butler home. “My father was an auto mechanic who always took a Republican line on being friendly to the small-business owner. My mother, a housewife, is a Democrat.” Eventually, Butler found himself drawn more to his father’s beliefs, and the Republican mantra of raising yourself up by the bootstraps.
So that’s what Butler, now 27, decided to do. He went away to the University of Pennsylvania, and upon graduation in 1999 moved to New York to work at a small trading company with a seat on the American Stock Exchange. Once he left Wall Street for the day, he would find himself on the defensive at social functions. “I think one of the hardest things to deal with is openly saying you’re a Republican and not being attacked at a dinner party,” Butler says. “I was recently at a wedding in which everyone was trying to bait me for a Bush-bashing. They were all saying, ‘Why do you like President Bush?’ At first, I got suckered in. I thought they really wanted to know!”
Then he joined the New York Young Republicans Club. “I joined right before September 11 and got extremely active right afterward,” says Butler. “On September 11, I was right there.” He ran for safety along the East River after the first tower collapsed just north of his office.
“Al Qaeda always saw us running. They saw us getting out in Somalia, in Lebanon,” Butler says. “I think they really ran into a brick wall when they ran into President George Bush. You see President Bush walk into a room, it looks like he’s got six guns on his hips. That resonates with many Americans.”
Maxine Friedman is just the sort of person you’d want to help you sell any message. And it’s just as well, because Friedman is here to convert. Tall, blonde and glamorous, she moved to Manhattan in 2002 to take a promotion within the marketing division of CB Richard Ellis, the corporate-real-estate firm. More noticeable to her fellow Republicans, however, Friedman came here to spread the gospel of a California-based conservative group called Lead 21.
Lead 21 was founded in serious Clinton-Gore country—San Francisco—three years ago. “It was about planting a flag in the Bay Area, saying that you don’t have to be afraid if you want to be Republican,” Friedman explains. Lead 21 mixers were a place for serious conservatives to trade ideas with Dinesh D’Souza and former California governor Pete Wilson.
The group targets affluent young professionals, particularly those in the media and finance. While Friedman, 30, fits seamlessly into that crowd, she does have views that tend to raise eyebrows among some of her new friends in the city. “I have been a Christian—I’d say a strong Christian—for about four years. I’m not a Jerry Falwell, crazy, in-your-face Evangelical,” she says. “But I’m scared a little bit for our country. I’m scared about the slipping social ethic.”
Friedman, thus, is firmly anti-abortion and anti–gay marriage. “The whole gay-rights thing is hard for me,” she says sheepishly. “I have a ton of gay friends. I have a gay aunt. I have a transvestite uncle. I want what’s best for them. It’s tough for me. But, you know, I believe what the Bible says. That’s the Word for me.”
Friedman was raised in Los Altos, California, an only child, but part of a big, and very Democratic, family. “My mom’s one of thirteen children, a big Catholic family. My parents were strong liberal Democrats. And I was, too, growing up.”
Her “epiphany moment” came during the federal lockout of 1993. “All I could think of was how much money they were wasting, and I kept getting angrier and angrier about it. I felt like Bill Clinton was just so weak. He’s articulate. He’s a good orator. But he never seemed totally wholehearted on any issue. He was so soft.”
Friedman insists that her political views are not a problem for her as she explores life in the East. “If anything, I find that people in New York kind of like the fact that you have an opinion. I really haven’t faced too many arguments at dinner parties so far,” she says. “But maybe that’s because I’m hanging out with too many Republicans.”
If the local Democratic party can’t hold onto the likes of Troy Johnson, then it’s really headed for ruin. At least, that’s what Johnson himself believes.
As he himself explains, “I’m not a typical minority.” His father, a cook at Gouverneur Hospital, was Black Cherokee, his mother, a nutritionist at the federal Department of Agriculture, Puerto Rican. During his early childhood, the family lived among working-class Jews and Irish “in the South Bronx, before it was ‘the South Bronx,’ ” Johnson says. They fled, like many, in the mid-seventies, and ended up in Wakefield, a quasi-suburban enclave in the North Bronx.
His parents dutifully voted Democratic. “I was apolitical,” says Johnson, now 37. What he cared about was football. His goal was the pros. But after a tryout for the Dallas Cowboys in 1987, he tore up his knee. Luckily, he was starting to discover a new arena in which to fulfill his competitive instincts—politics. His interest had started back in college. During a scrimmage at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, he found himself thinking about the Liberty Bell, the Founding Fathers, and Ronald Reagan, then president. “I just felt really proud to be American,” he says. He watched his mother embrace Rudy Giuliani over David Dinkins in 1989. “That bipartisan thing sort of woke me up.” Then in 1993, a Republican cousin started working on Christine Whitman’s gubernatorial campaign in New Jersey. “My cousin had always been active within the party, and he told me, ‘Learn your history; this is the party that freed the blacks!’ ”
Before long, he was passionate. “I just love the party. I love what it stands for. This country is based on capitalism. Work for yourself. Help yourself. That’s the philosophy. It’s a very simple solution.”
The gains in the war on crime that came during the Giuliani years were all the further proof he needed. “Before Rudy, you couldn’t walk the streets,” Johnson says. “Crime was a huge issue for the minorities. Even going back to 1993, a lot of Hispanics voted for Giuliani. They said, ‘Hey, I want to be safe.’ Everybody wants to be safe. That’s their No. 1 priority. As far as crime goes, Rudy Giuliani really saved the city.”
Soon, Johnson was ready to graduate beyond his grassroots work for other Republican candidates in minority neighborhoods. In 1996, he attempted his biggest stab at glory since his Cowboys tryout, taking on entrenched Democrat Keith L.T. Wright for the 70th District Assembly seat in Harlem. “I got destroyed. I got 550 votes, man, compared to 20,000.”
But Democrats, he says, would be unwise to look at numbers like that and presume they predict the future. “Look at Mississippi. Thirty-six percent of the state is black. Trent Lott is their U.S. senator. It’s clear the country is becoming—I don’t want to say conservative, that could get me in trouble—but more Republican. There are 230 congressmen that are Republican. The trend is our way.
“Here, it is a little different,” allows Johnson, a civil servant who now lives with his wife and young son on East 72nd Street. “You have to remember that New York City is not America. Still, Mayor Bloomberg got 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in the last election, Pataki 40 percent. Bloomberg got 25 percent of the African-American vote. There are conservative blacks out in Astoria, Queens. There’s a movement happening.”
The Sacrificial Lamb
If you can’t be a winner, at least be a martyr. Just don’t tell that to Michael Benjamin. Next to him, Bobby Lee and Stonewall Jackson would have seemed like heavy favorites. Benjamin, 34, is a former securities trader who is currently mounting a campaign to unseat Senator Chuck Schumer. The good news for Benjamin is that, after chugging his old Ford Explorer through every one of the state’s 62 counties, he’s raised $600,000 from nearly 16,500 supporters. The bad news? Schumer’s raised $18 million.
It’s far from guaranteed that he’ll ever make it onto the ticket. But Benjamin is undaunted, having run a doomed race for Jerry Nadler’s congressional seat in 1996, although with Rudy Giuliani’s endorsement. For this race, Benjamin even abandoned his daytime career as a self-employed trader of options and securities.
The son of naturalized immigrants—his father is an Iranian Jew, his mother Honduran—Benjamin spent much of his youth in Latin America, where his father restructured Third World debt for Bank of America. Benjamin, however, spent at least several months of each year with his grandparents in Forest Hills, and after enrolling at New York University in 1988, put down roots in the city for good. He’s now in the process of moving from the Upper East Side to Brooklyn Heights.
“Senator Schumer has consistently voted for more regulations, more taxes, and more bureaucracy,” fumes Benjamin, who is pro-life but whose true passion is his crusade against taxation and red tape. “In the late nineties, I started a Web-design company. It lasted for about a year, then we dissolved the company. We did all the paperwork. That was five years ago. I still get bills, I still get paperwork!” Benjamin is so incensed by New York’s taxes that he’s willing to speak out against people like Governor Pataki, a man whose support Benjamin needs to get himself onto the 2004 ticket. “I really like the governor’s focus on bringing high-technology jobs from the semiconductor and nanotech businesses upstate,” he says. “That’s the future. But I sort of wish he would have been more focused on easing heavy regulations and high taxes on businesses in New York.”
Benjamin, like most local Republicans, is also incensed by the smoking ban. “I really believe in the power of choice. I would have pushed to allow bars and restaurants to pick whether or not they are a smoking establishment or nonsmoking, and put a sign outside.”
He’s also critical of the ban’s originator, Mayor Bloomberg. “I don’t believe that increasing property taxes to a level that causes businesses to leave New York is really the answer to our budget problems here,” he says. “We’re driving businesses, and people, out of New York.”
Then again, Benjamin says, Bloomberg’s not exactly a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. “It’s interesting how in New York, some of the captains of Wall Street are so liberal. Somebody should actually do a study on how the heads of Goldman Sachs, like Jon Corzine and Bob Rubin, and the head of Bloomberg, Michael Bloomberg, could be so liberal. It’s the free markets that made them so wealthy. Why shouldn’t all people be able to benefit from that?”