G.O.P. gathering draws many party faithful, and others challenging conformity
Young Republicans have descended on New York City for the Republican National Convention to re-elect Pres. George W. Bush and Vice Pres. Dick Cheney. They may be party loyalists, but not all align themselves neatly with the policies of the incumbent administration and some are even uncertain about who they will vote for on Election Day.
Colette Obzejta, 18, stood outside the Hotel Pennsylvania across from Madison Square Garden on Sunday and calmly watched the throngs of protesters pass, some shouting obscenities and carrying signs that ridiculed and accused the president of lies, violence and hatred.
“It’s their right, the freedom of speech and if they want to sit here and make fools of themselves, that’s fine,” said the Villanova University student from behind a wooden police barricade. She stood there without engaging protesters and let presidential insults bounce off her.
“I support the president on everything he has done,” she said. “I am for Iraq and I support his position on abortion. Just go through the list and he’s got them all nailed down for me.”
Obzejta is a page at the convention and will help out with logistics. Despite her claim of total loyalty, like many young Republicans in town this week, Obzejta picks and chooses from the party platform in a way that may surprise both fellow delegates and gay rights activists alike.
“There is no reason to deny gays and lesbians the right to partnership,” she said. “There is no reason that people who are homosexual cannot be perfect parents.”
In fact, some young Republicans came to their first political convention specifically to disagree with their party’s platform. Of course there are the Log Cabin Republicans who work from within the party to dismantle anti-gay planks, its support for the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) key among them. Jeff Cook is the national field director for the organization and at 25, he can easily reconcile Republican policy with a gay lifestyle.
“Now we are not fighting for liberal things. We’re not fighting to be able to have sex. We’re fighting to be able to have families,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “As people start talking about slowing down and having a family, they tend to be much more Republican. I think that’s going to happen to the gay community.”
It’s not just gay Republicans pushing change in their party.
On Sunday, members of the Republican Youth Majority (RYM) gathered in a Midtown Hotel for a welcoming reception.
“Our motto is ‘Pro Choice, Pro Environment, Pro Fiscal Responsibility,” Evan Herman said. Herman, 23, is a recent graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans. Herman and others at the reception were drawn to the moderate stance on social issues and the message of diversity and inclusion that they said the RYM represents. The organization paid his way to New York City in exchange for working at the convention.
“Three hours of sleep a day for the past three days and I am still running strong,” John Little said. Little, a 24-7 volunteer, studies business administration at Tennessee State and rode 21 hours on a bus to work for the RYM.
“This is my first time dealing with Republicans,” he said with a decided drawl. “The Republican Party is diverse in race, in gender, in political views and what side they stand on and that is one thing I like.”
Little said he wanted to meet people and find out more about the party and eventually make an informed decision.
“The war, [the president] got a bad rap for that,” he said. “You need strength at a time when people are scared and he showed true leadership.”
On other issues, such as the FMA, Little disagrees with the president. “I feel church and state should be different. When the federal government gets involved, it creates chaos like it is creating now,” he said, sounding a conservative note.
Rachel Khalili, a recent college graduate, traveled from San Clemente, California, to perhaps jumpstart a political career. The RYM fits her like a glove.
“The Republican Party has started to alienate some of its members because it has been so hardcore conservative,” she said. “I just want the party to be more inclusive and a more moderate kind of appeal where they accept people with other kinds of beliefs.”
Khalili declined to say if she would vote for the president in November.
“I really like his tax cuts and things but I don’t agree with his stance on gay marriage and on abortion rights,” she said. “I am here to support the Republican Party and I am here to promote the message of inclusion and increasing the diversity in our party.”
A run-in with protesters outside the California delegation’s hotel shocked Khalili, the 22-year-old with a rosy Republican disposition. “I am not used to that kind of blatant hatred,” she said. The hardest part was not responding to untrue accusations. “They were saying, ‘You’re pro-life, you’re anti-abortion,’ and I was thinking, ‘No, I am not. Can I just explain to you my position on these things?’” Instead she just smiled and kept walking.
Protesters’ use of harsh language and in-your-face tactics puzzled some young visitors. At a youth convention at Madison Square Garden Wednesday, young Republicans convened to hear speakers including Jenna and Barbara Bush, former Bush spokesperson Ari Fleisher and Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff. Loud whistles interrupted Card’s speech when he addressed the importance of discipline and three men and one woman from ACT Up stood on their chairs, raised a banner and removed their outer clothes. Underneath white T-shirts read “Bush Global AIDS Liar.” Young Republicans seated nearby backed away at first and then surrounded the disrupters. They blocked the anti-Bush message with “W” signs and chants of “four more years.” Men in dark suits carried the political infiltrators out by their shackled hands and feet. Two other men in suits were also carried out.
The youth convention brought together all factions of Republican youth, including many more closely aligned with Bush on social issues. Oliver Wolf, a young delegate from Maine who called the partial-birth abortion ban “a step in the right direction,” and Andrew Dell, the chair of the College Republicans at the University of Georgia and a delegate from that state, were among them. Dell supports the FMA and he cited faith-based initiatives as reasons young people should vote for Bush.
Many young Republicans in New York said that their morality drew them to support Bush’s most controversial policies, including the war in Iraq. Jamie Henning, 17, will not be old enough to vote in November, but she will volunteer for the Bush-Cheney campaign when she returns to St. Luis.
“I am a Christian and in the Bible it says that being homosexual is wrong… God says it’s a sin,” she said following the youth convention. “If we want God to favor our nation, then we need to follow his laws and he will bless us and take care of us.”
Peter Neethling, a convention page from Sacramento, California, distributed signs to delegates and guests; a friend from his church nominated him for the job.
“I’m a very passionate Christian,” he said.
Neethling supports faith-based initiatives because they show that the president “tries to encourage people to express their religion and not discourage it in anyway.”
Neethling is pro-life. His opinion of homosexuality? “It is a very destructive force and it is an act that causes pain.”
Cook, who did not attend the youth event, is well aware of these attitudes but he said it’s nothing compared to what he hears from other gay people.
“Gay people have a lot of hostility and for good reason,” he said. “A lot of them have experienced rejection and hurt and it’s understandable that gays and lesbians respond more to the political hug that Democrats like to give instead of the naked reason that Republicans like to show.”
But don’t even gay Republicans need a hug every once in a while?
“Gay Republicans feel betrayed by this administration and I think it’s a reasonable feeling,” he admitted. “We were promised that the president believed in federalism and believed that the government is best that is closest to the people but he doesn’t believe it on marriage anymore.”
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