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They call their meetings in "secret," just like the old Freemasons used to do. They represent a powerless, often despised minority in San Francisco. They have been laughed at, ridiculed, lambasted, lampooned, or, even worse, ignored completely.
And yet, they nurture the dream that has launched a thousand revolutions: that they are planting the seeds of something really big. Picture it: A friend converts a friend, who in turn converts another friend; the populace grows restless under the status quo; new visionaries step forward to fill the void. Before long, San Francisco is swarming, teeming, veritably bursting with armies of ... Republicans?
Maybe not. But even conservatives dream. That's why a handful of them recently formed the San Francisco Republican Assembly, a loosely affiliated social club for the city's downtrodden GOP stalwarts. The assembly offers an oasis for true believers, a refuge from inhospitable cultural climes. Much like a support group for UFO abduction survivors.
Lacking a lodge, the assembly is compelled to meet at a hotel near Fisherman's Wharf, where the bounty of the free market spills onto the sidewalks for all to see. Fliers announcing the events are passed out "secretly" to anybody who will accept one, and they include the request that you "fax this flyer to your friends and associates."
Gathering each month at the Holiday Inn, a few dozen mostly older, mostly white club members sip cocktails, trade business cards, and dine on smoked salmon and cracked crab. Among the potted plants and framed quilts of the Bristol Bar & Grill -- a veritable Denny's on steroids -- clean-cut men in tweed sport jackets mingle with the Pacific Heights Republican Women's Group, proper ladies who might best be described as "very nice." After hitting the appetizer buffet, members say the Pledge of Allegiance and a quick prayer, then sit back to listen to a conservative guest speaker or debate the future of the GOP.
It is an opportunity for conviviality, plotting, and commiseration. Mostly commiseration. A voice -- even a tiny one -- in city affairs would be nice, assembly members say. Affirmation knows no ideology, and being on the wrong side in a one-party town causes more than political impotence; it can also be terribly lonely.
"San Francisco is the kind of place that, if you don't toe the politically correct line, you're really afraid," says club member Ira Victor, a 35-year-old Internet consultant from the Mission. "You get labeled as a racist if you say there shouldn't be any racial discrimination. You get labeled as being against poor people if you think taxes are too high. It's very isolating. You feel like you're the only one out there."
Assembly members, as one might expect, say they are fed up with the liberal Bay Area's hundreds of feminist-, environmental-, and Democrat-oriented clubs. They hope to someday grow big enough to actually mount a credible counterpoint.
"Frankly speaking, it'll be a long time before we see a Republican mayor or any Republican official on a citywide basis, primarily because a lot of people are turned off by the Republican name," says Adam Sparks, the assembly's founder and president. "We've been Mau-Mau'd to death by San Francisco's liberal progressives for so long that the conservative side of the debate has never even been heard."
A 48-year-old real estate broker from Twin Peaks, Sparks knows the difficulty of breaking into city politics as a conservative, having tried -- and failed -- twice to win a seat on the Board of Education.
But with district elections for the Board of Supervisors coming next year, Sparks argues that Republicans have a chance to win a seat or two on the all-Democrat governing body. Beyond that, who knows what could happen?
Though formed just last summer, the assembly is already planning to run supervisor candidates and push ballot propositions. Some assembly members will also serve as plaintiffs in a Pacific Legal Foundation-sponsored lawsuit against the city, alleging lack of compliance with Proposition 209, which sought to end affirmative action. The group is also seeking plaintiffs for a suit against the school board over Prop. 227, which curtailed bilingual education.
If not respected, the assembly hopes at least to be noticed. It's the little acorns/mighty oaks theory. Unfortunately, even as the assembly is trying to take root, nuts keep falling farther from the tree.
At its January meeting, a messenger arrived bearing bad news: Donald Casper, chair of the Republican Party's County Central Committee, explained that statewide GOP voter registration has fallen to just 36 percent of California voters, down from 39 percent in 1991.
Only one county in California still has a Republican majority, and it ain't San Francisco. It's Orange, of course. "I think I'd be happier there," muttered one woman at the news.
In San Francisco, Casper noted, the picture is even more grim: As of May 1998, GOP registration was an abysmal 15 percent of registered voters, meaning there are 64,562 card-carrying Republicans in the county.
That might be enough to fill a football stadium, but it doesn't count for much compared to the 256,255 registered Democrats, or 59.5 percent of the electorate.
Not only does San Francisco continue to have the lowest percentage of registered Republicans in the state, but in May it was the only county where GOP voters were actually outnumbered by those who decline to register under a specific party (19.7 percent, or 84,658).