Heavily Democratic New York may not be a battleground state in this or any other presidential election, but as the Republicans roll into town for this week’s convention, the newly minted New York regional director of the Republican Jewish Coalition is thinking well beyond November.
For Greg Menken, exchanging business cards is as important as gathering votes or checks.
“New York is really the epicenter of Jewish life in America,” said Menken, 31. “The reach of the Jewish community here extends well beyond the borders of the state. The New York regional office is going to be involved locally for years to come, whether or not New York is in play this year.”
The coalition is sponsoring or cosponsoring five events during convention week, including leadership lunches and evening galas.
Menken believes he can take advantage of the “excitement” to raise the profile of the Washington-based organization, which recently opened offices in California, Florida and Pennsylvania.
“The conventional wisdom that New York is not a battleground state does not diminish the role of the RJC here,” Menken said in an interview at the sparse RJC office in Midtown, where he and two other staffers work. “We don’t fund-raise directly for the Republican ticket. My job here is to raise resources for the RJC itself through activities.”
Recent poll data from the RJC’s nemesis/counterpart, the National Jewish Democratic Council, suggests Bush and his party have gained little ground with Jews since the 2000 election, when 80 percent of Jews voted for Al Gore.
Last month, 77 percent of those polled said they would vote for Democrat John Kerry, apparently unimpressed by the president’s oft-touted support for Israel.
But Menken is undeterred, and he has reason to be in New York City, with its large share of observant Jews who are more likely to place Israel at the top of their priority list. At a recent surrogate debate between supporters of Bush and Kerry in Midtown, with hundreds of mostly Manhattan singles in the audience, there were frequent boos for Kerry and hoots and howls for the president. Menken was on hand to give out cards.
He is confident that Jews in their 20s and 30s who initially registered Democrat are ripe for the picking. In fact, he’s one of them.
“It’s just a matter of getting my hands on a voter registration form,” Menken said of his forthcoming political conversion. “I’ll sacrifice the joy of voting in New York primaries.”
Raised in upstate Poughkeepsie, the son of a Republican doctor and an independent nurse, Menken registered Democrat when he came to New York City to study at Columbia. But the “extremely left-wing” political activism he witnessed on campus pushed him in another direction.
“I disagreed profoundly with them,” he said.
Watching what he considered “anti-American” demonstrations, he said he couldn’t imagine Republicans taking part in them, and came to believe “the Democratic Party nationally is soft, and the Republican Party embodied the issues I care about.”
After earning a degree in economics and political science, he worked in commercial banking for several years before working for two Democrats, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Councilman Herb Berman.
Shortly after Berman’s failed campaign for city comptroller, he and Menken went to work for Republican Gov. George Pataki as community liaisons. He left Pataki’s office late last year to run the RJC office.
If you believe the NJDC, efforts by the RJC and Republican elected officials to sway more Jews from their traditional Democratic base have accomplished little other than increasing crossover votes in local elections.
But former Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat increasingly drawn to support Republicans, said he is seeing support for Bush in unexpected places.
“I spoke at a golf tournament in Suffolk County, and when I asked people who they were voting for, I was delighted that more than 50 percent raised their hand for Bush,” said Koch. “These weren’t Orthodox people. They were secular people who could afford to belong to a golf club.”
As the election nears, said Koch, “more people will search their souls and realize that it is Bush who has been a supporter [of Israel and Jewish causes] at every turn.”
One RJC young leadership board member, Keith Zakheim, 29, believes the ongoing crisis in Israel and the war on terrorism after 9-11 have caused a reassessment among young Jewish professionals. That, he said, has led them to the Republican Party.
“They are talking more insightfully and are substantially more engaged,” said Zakheim, a Republican town councilman in Paramus, N.J. His father, Dov, was until recently the U.S. undersecretary of defense.
“Usually, social agenda and domestic issues trump Israel and the pro-Israel vote,” said Zakheim. “Because of terrorism in the U.S. there is a bunker mentality, and for the first time Israel trumps any domestic considerations, and that will help Bush.”
Another RJC enthusiast, Samantha Epstein, 25, said that like Menken, she became aligned with the Republican Party based on her experience in college.
“I went to NYU with an open mind and was hit by a lot of different liberal agendas,” said Epstein. “To counter that, I started to do my own research and found myself much more aligned with the Republican Party.”
Epstein, who works in real estate, hopes that young Jewish professionals like her who support Bush and are drawn to convention-related events can be convinced to switch parties.
“People who are Generation X, who are now professionals making some money, are very concerned about the future and have moved to the right in the last couple of years,” said Epstein. “We’ll be looking to get the word out.”