Lungren, visiting S.F., tries to round up Jewish votes

Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren stopped in San Francisco last week to convince Jews he is their man.

While some at a "meet and greet" primarily targeting Republican Jews were clearly ready to hoist the Lungren banner, others appeared less certain.

"I find it real hard to reconcile somebody who is pro-death penalty and pro-life," said Republican David Naggar, a 41-year-old San Francisco attorney who has yet to decide who will get his vote in November.

Local Republican leader William Lowenberg, however, has no doubts that he will mark his ballot in Lungren's favor.

Lungren, a former U.S. congressman "was a consistent supporter of foreign aid to Israel," Lowenberg said in opening remarks at the event. "Similarly, he sought to keep some of Israel's most unpeaceful neighbors on the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism."

Lungren, who is currently state attorney general, likewise painted himself as an unabashed ally on issues of concern to the Jewish community. He highlighted his involvement in the plight of Soviet Jews, and his fight against hate crimes in California.

His opponent is Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat.

Lungren, aware of some Jewish GOPers' concerns about the party's rightward shift, stressed that the tent of the party he represents is broad enough for Republicans of all stripes.

"One thing I would like to do is expand the reach of the party so more people feel comfortable," Lungren told some 50 Jewish community and business leaders crammed into a conference room at a downtown brokerage firm.

"I'm not just talking about the Jewish community but other communities as well — the Latino community, the African-American community."

Some of those attending the event Wednesday of last week clearly feel less than at home in their party these days.

"There are times when I find it very difficult today to vote Republican," Orthodox Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, who worked as a speech writer for 1948 Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, told the group.

"I am concerned that the Republican party is becoming captive to the Christian right, and I as a Jew and a rabbi am very fearful of that. This country was not intended to be a church-driven country."

Lungren disagreed with Sparer's assertion, taking a conciliatory stance toward party divisions.

"I don't think we're the captive of any particular group. I really don't," he said. "I don't take shots at the moderates in my party and I don't take shots at the Christian right in my party. I try to bring them together."

Marc Wolin, a state Republican activist who supports Lungren "one thousand percent," believes his candidate is achieving that goal.

"Dan is bringing in a tremendous diversity of people," said the 35-year-old stockbroker, who describes himself as socially liberal but fiscally conservative. "That's refreshing. He has made a commitment to go into places Republicans don't ordinarily go."

Lungren, a graduate of University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University Law Center, represented his hometown of Long Beach in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979 to 1989.

During the 1970s, he became involved in the Soviet Jewry movement. He and his wife Bobbi "adopted" a persecuted Soviet Jewish family and began writing letters on their behalf.

Lungren later participated in the 1984 Congressional Call to Conscience Vigil for Soviet Jews, and spoke in Congress about the need to recognize not only the physical destruction wrought by the Soviet regime but the corresponding "destruction of the human spirit."

He also accompanied Yelena Bonner, wife of scientist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, back to Russia after she received medical attention in the United States. Lungren made that trip with an unlikely partner — Barney Frank, an openly gay Jewish Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, where Bonner was living at the time.

"It was an unbelievable experience," Lungren said of the trip.

Lungren asserted that the bipartisan approach to advocacy for dissidents proved an effective bargaining tool with Soviet authorities. It also taught the then-Congressman a valuable lesson.

"No group ought to be totally in one party or the other. I wish there were more Jewish Republicans around," he said to calls of "here, here."

Fielding questions from attendees, Lungren offered his views on a number of issues. He supports charter schools, saying "public schools would be improved immensely if there was competition."

On illegal immigration, he said, "I'm one who believes we should enforce the laws." But acknowledging that some undocumented immigrants cross America's borders seeking jobs, he proposed the United States cooperate with other nations to define labor needs, then allow visitors to work here for limited periods of time.

Money earned by workers, the attorney general suggested, could be placed in an escrow account that could be redeemed only in a worker's home country, thus assuring that they would return.

He also elaborated his position on abortion. He opposes it except in cases of incest, rape or when the mother's life is at stake.

"As a Catholic, I was brought up to believe in the sanctity of life and therefore I believe in the protection of innocent life," he said. Lungren also supports parental consent laws, which require notification of parents when an underage daughter seeks an abortion.

"I have two daughters," he said. "I think as a father I have a right to know."

Opponents of parental consent laws argue, among other concerns, that the government has no place legislating parent-child relationships.

Republican attorney Naggar, who like the vast majority of Jews favors abortion rights, said he doesn't mind disagreeing with a candidate on select issues if the candidate can elucidate his or her position.

"If I can't appreciate their intellectual process, then that rules them out for me as a candidate," Naggar said.

Lungren, in Naggar's view, did not make the grade last week.

"He pretty much didn't answer most everything."

Asked about his views on the role of religion in the public domain, Lungren stated, "I have always felt the separation of church and state does not mean the separation of religious values from the state."

In clarifying his stance, Lungren cited James Madison's position that the constitution was written with religion in mind.

"The founding documents of this republic, which gave birth to the idea of individual worth, came from what I call a Judeo-Christian tradition," Lungren said, "a recognition of individuals as being worthy because they were endowed by the Creator [with] certain inalienable rights as opposed to being endowed by their government of certain inalienable rights."

Tracy Salkowitz, regional executive director of the liberal organization American Jewish Congress, attended the event to learn more about the Republican candidate's positions. She found herself troubled by Lungren's several Judeo-Christian references.

"He was painting a community which tolerates religious minorities," she said after the event. "That's not why this country was founded, why we have a constitution. It's not a matter of toleration. It's a matter of equal rights and inclusion."

But earlier, Lungren had made it a point to stress that he values equality and sees religion as playing a major role in achieving it.

He pointed to the civil rights movement as an example of religious voices creating a moral authority that helped affect major change.

"We would never have had a civil rights movement," he noted, "had religion not been injected into the public debate."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.