Swimming upstream:Bay Area Jewish Republicans may not change many votesbut they like

Ken Wornick has an apt simile to describe his life as a Jewish Republican in the Bay Area: “It is,” he says, “like a salmon swimming upstream.”

But Wornick remains undaunted. Some months ago, he and other rightward-leaning Jews launched a chapter of the Jewish Republican Coalition here in the epicenter of liberal America.

He and his colleagues know they may never represent the majority party in Northern California, but with the 2004 campaign in full swing, they’re having fun trying.

“We used to feel we couldn’t confess our Republicanism in public,” says Wornick of Burlingame. “At the seder, the break-fast, even at Jewish institutional board meetings, there was such intense condescension. Not only did we hesitate to mention our being Republican, since no one was willing to say it, we didn’t even know how many of us there were.”

Quite a few, as it turns out. Recent surveys indicate Jews registered or voting Republican this year have hit a record 26 percent, up since the last such poll. Wornick says his club now has 200 paid members from San Jose to Marin to the East Bay and more than 500 names in its database.

“We wanted to create a community,” says Norman Epstein, 36, an investment advisor at Credit Suisse First Boston and another RJC member. “There are Republican Jews, and more Jews should be moving to the party.”

Formed 18 months ago, the local RJC chapter has kept a relatively low profile, though it has hosted picnics and attended state party conventions. But the RJC will have its coming-out party 7p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 20 when it co-sponsors with the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club a presidential debate at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St. Republican Dan Schnur, a U.C. Berkeley political science lecturer, will duke it out with L.A. former Democratic Congressman Mel Levine. KQED’s Michael Krasny will serve as moderator.

As a 501c3 nonprofit organization, the RJC can not officially endorse candidates. But it’s not hard to deduce which side the club would like to see win, both at the upcoming JCC debate and the main event on Tuesday, Nov. 2.

Hillsborough resident Epstein and Wornick look forward to the local event, though, says Wornick, “We are expecting to be ostracized by our open-minded friends on the left. We’ll dodge the tomatoes.”

Gia Danniler, president of the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club, is happy to welcome the Republicans to the table, and will leave her tomatoes at home. “We view this as an opportunity to create a forum to educate community members on a range of vital issues. I don’t expect anyone to leave with any stains.”

Wornick is an executive with Post & Trellis, builders of vineyards and winemakers for private clients on the Peninsula. He notes that in his college days he was “as left as they come,” but that over time his views shifted both politically and Jewishly. “I realized the Jewish allegiance to liberalism has a finite utility,” he says. “At its extreme it is the most dangerous thing for Jews. I happen to be pro-choice, but what disgusts me is you don’t hear pro-choice Jews speak with equal vigor on the sanctity of life. We Jews should be defending the sanctity of life.”

He also rails against what he sees as a liberal assault on public education. “There’s no accountability, low expectations, and the presence of liberal politics is in every classroom,” he says. “I have teachers who tell my kids George W. Bush is an idiot.”

Epstein traces his own Republican leanings back to a 1990 trip to Israel. “I realized that how the media portrays Israel is 180 degrees from the reality on the ground,” he says. “Also, I fundamentally believe that the people know how to spend a dollar better than the government, therefore I believe in lower taxation.”

Both Wornick and Epstein also point to 9/11 and President Bush’s staunch support of Israel as additional incentives for Jews to hop on the GOP bandwagon.

“He’s been a terrific advocate of fighting global anti-Semitism,” says Epstein, “as shown by yanking the U.S. delegation out of the U.N. Conference on Racism and rebuking the [former] prime minister of Malaysia. He’s been solidly with us and got no respect as a result of his great efforts.”

Adds Wornick, “Jews have this blind belief in negotiations. They believe in their heart of hearts that since we would rather settle almost anything peacefully, our enemies feel the same way. But guess what: They don’t.”

Both men insist they are not doctrinaire party automatons. Epstein has voted for Democrats more than once, and Wornick holds libertarian views regarding gay marriage and the decriminalization of drugs.

But over time they hope to bring more Jews into the relatively unfamiliar Republican tent.

“We want to be a home for any Jew who has conservative and pro-Israel leanings,” says Wornick. “Right now, we are kicking tuchus and taking names.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.