Just a few blocks from Trump Tower, at the W. 63rd Street YMCA, around 40 people gathered to support a common cause that many of them feel they can’t discuss with their neighbors: the Republican Party.
“Let me put it this way, you’re careful about what you say when you’re in a group of people,” said one attendee at the May 3 meeting of the Gertrude and Morrison Parker Westside Republican Club. The sentiment was echoed by several other members, one of whom suggested that they picket to raise awareness of their affiliation.
The New York primary in April demonstrated just how wide the party divide is, especially on the Upper West Side. Gov. John Kasich won the Upper West Side with 1,138 votes, followed by presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump with 797 and former candidate Ted Cruz with 356. That adds up to just 2,291 votes cast for Republicans in an area with around 200,000 residents. Meanwhile, as of 2012, 69.1 percent of the Upper West Side’s registered voters were Democrats, and frontrunner Hillary Clinton swept the recent primary there with 70.7 percent of the 33,429 Democratic votes cast.
On May 3, the club booked Herb London, founder and president of the London Center for Policy Research, to speak to the group. “I didn’t think there were any Republicans on the West Side,” London began. “I thought I was going into enemy territory, so it’s real pleasure to see you here. I didn’t think that this was possible.” He went on to address Islamic extremism, the need for American leadership in foreign affairs and the threat of Chinese military ambition.
James Somers, who lives a block from the YMCA and voted for Kasich in the primary, said London was “probably the best [speaker] we’ve had in a long time ... His view on the party and on foreign policy was very insightful.”
When London opened up the floor to questions, one attendee wanted to know what else the group could do to make more progress for their party in such a Democratic area. “What do you suggest we do to at least get recognition and then to get some Republicans elected on the Upper West Side?” she said. London said what was needed was more “knocking on doors.”
“You’ve got to make it known,” he said. “You’ve got to convince them that it makes sense to be a Republican. Not an easy sell, but that’s what you have to do.”
The club’s president and district leader for the 67th assembly district, Marcia Drezon-Tepler, has been doing just that for many years, but not always for the Republican Party. Drezon-Tepler was an active Democrat until, as she puts it, the party left her. “Their stance on foreign policy, their stance on Israel, [Representative for the 10th District] Jerry Nadler fools a lot of people into thinking he’s pro-Israel,” she said. “There are a lot of measures and statements that our president makes that are anti-Israel and Jerry is nowhere to be found.”
The Gertrude and Morrison Parker Westside Republican Club was founded in the 1800s and incorporated by the state in 1941. It is named after a former club president and his wife, whose family still contributes to the club. “It’s had its ups and downs,” said Treasurer and District Leader for the 75th Assembly District Joe Maffia. “I think we’re on an uptick … primarily due to Marcia,” he said. “She’s really a policy wonk. She’s gotten really great speakers.”
Maffia estimates that, between the email list and phone calls, the club reaches out to about 600 members each month, though far fewer than that number pay the annual $25 in dues. As many as 80 to 100 people have shown up for the more popular speakers. “The party itself is much more energized as you’re seeing in turnout and interest in the race, too,” State Committeeman for the 75th Assembly District Stephen Evans said. “That benefits us as well.”
Drezon-Tepler has also noticed increasing interest in the club. “A year and a half ago we had five people show up … that was really really embarrassing, and now we have at least 40,” she said. Drezon-Tepler knows some of the speakers from the time she was an op-ed editor at the New York Sun, and others she has met at other Republican events she attends around the city.
Originally the club was intended to serve just the 67th assembly district, the bulk of which lies between 72nd and 57th Streets, but since there is no club in the nearby 75th district in midtown they attract attendees from anywhere between 96th and 14th Streets. Besides the monthly meetings they also have an occasional street fair, complete with a blow-up elephant that Maffia said has attracted more than one “rude comment.”
Susan Schernwetter, who lives on the Upper West Side and has been a member of the club for several years, is frustrated by the adversity her party faces in the area she has long called home. “There are a group of people here who are supposedly intelligent … however they come from socialist backgrounds, everybody knows that, and they actually refuse to deal with the fact that the country today is not what it was during the Depression,” she says of her neighbors. “I live amongst communists and socialists. I don’t like it. I think these people are naive. If they really want democracy it’s the republicans who are doing it.”