Chicago Young Republicans say it's OK to be right

A new, rare breed of Republicans standing up


Chicago Young Republicans Jake Peterson (from left), Regis Simpson, Katy Downes, and Dana Gehlhausen listen to directions from organizers before the start of the Lakeview Bike Ride in July. The group stretches beyond politics to field teams in a variety of social sports. (Photo for the Tribune by Andrew A. Nelles / July 30, 2009)

By Lisa Pevtzow
Special to the Tribune

August 12, 2009

It's not so easy being a young Republican in Chicago.

In a town where more than 85 percent of those voting in the last election chose Democrat Barack Obama for president, many right-leaning people in their 20s and 30s feel more than a little beleaguered.

Jorie Sterne, 32, a real estate agent who moved to Chicago from Texas three years ago, said she was surprised by the stigma of being a Republican. Her friends are appalled when they discover how she votes, and many of them treat it as a kind of a joke, calling her "Jorie, our Republican friend," said Sterne, who lives in Wicker Park.

"People think it's a contradiction to be young and cool and a Republican," she said.

Despite a defensive tendency by some to keep their political views to themselves, there's been an organized effort for the last two months by Chicago Young Republicans to change hearts and minds. And it has people coming out of the woodwork, the group says.

Membership is up to 500, 10 times what it was last year, said board member Corrine Williams. A party the group threw at the Cubby Bear in Wrigleyville in June, featuring cover band Sixteen Candles, drew more than 800 people and was one of the largest Republican events in a decade, she said.

To draw attention, the group has placed ads at Red and Brown Line elevated train stops and on taxi tops, saying, "It's not easy being right in Chicago" and "Dare to be right."

"People think there are no Republicans in Chicago, especially no young ones," said Williams, 26, who lives in the West Loop.

"Republicans in Chicago are basically an endangered species," agreed professor Paul Green, director of the Roosevelt University School of Policy Studies. "I imagine they feel a lot like [Gen. George Armstrong] Custer: They're surrounded."

In recent elections, about 80 percent of those voting in Chicago voted Democratic, Green said. Only one alderman -- Brian Doherty (41st) on the far Northwest Side -- out of 50 belongs to the Republican Party.

Jeremy Rose, 24, president of the Young Republicans, a group independent of the state Republican organization, said members hit on the idea for the outreach campaign after they discovered how politically isolated many of them feel.

"Because they don't think there is anyone else like them, they don't mention politics with their friends at the bar or on the beach," said Rose, who lives in Lakeview. "Part of it has to do with the fact that it's a foregone conclusion that everyone is a Democrat, so they decide not to say anything.

"It is hard, if you think you're the only one, to express your views." Rose said.

Young Republicans say they take pleasure in busting the stereotype that Republicans are middle-age homophobic white men, who smoke cigars and oppress the poor.

"If we can't break the stereotype, we will lose young people," Rose said.

Members come from diverse backgrounds, social, religious, ethnic and sexual orientation, said Jacob Peterson, 24, an unofficial member of the group's welcoming committee who is gay and half Mexican. They are bankers and businessmen, but also teachers, Web designers and real estate agents. Peterson lives in Lakeview and works in the Hispanic community helping people file tax returns and obtain services.

"It goes against the mold of the traditional mind-set people have of Republicans as rich and white," he said.

The group does some of the things expected of a political action group, like holding policy debates and political fundraisers, Rose said. They knocked on 20,000 doors from Wisconsin to Ohio on behalf of Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.

But they also field beach volleyball and softball teams, organize books clubs, throw bar parties and raise money for charities, like the Special Olympics. Each year on Gay Pride Day, a group joins up with the Log Cabin Republicans, Peterson said.

CYR has a blog and maintains a strong presence on LinkedIn and Facebook, which actually predated its Web site, and communicates via Twitter, Williams said.

"People my age Twitter all the time and Facebook all the time," said Angel Garcia, a board member in his early 30s. "Of course that's how we're going to communicate."

Williams and other members of the group said their liberal friends are open-minded about everything except people who disagree with them politically.

"What's the point of expressing my opinion because my friends are all Democrats," Williams said, describing what she called the "devil stare" when she has told people she's Republican.

Garcia, who is Hispanic and lives near Midway Airport, said he's reluctant to initially tell people about his political affiliation.

"I really want people to get to know me before they find out I'm a Republican," he said.

Even in Obama's hometown, Peterson said Young Republicans want to have a voice in Chicago. Rose said that voice is opposed to higher taxes, larger government and Obama's health-care plan.

"Unfortunately, we are living through bad economic times," said Rose, who was laid off from his job as a project manager for a Web development company in June. "For a lot of young people, this is the first time they're seeing policies in Washington, D.C., affecting their pocketbook. I can remember when all my friends had jobs, and now dozens of my friends don't and that's scary."

The economy might actually help CYR, Green said, as long as members don't stress the Republican platform on social issues.

"Young people coming up aren't going to be excited by a party that is against abortion, stem cell research and gay rights," he said.

Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune