An emerging conservatism among Jews has rattled traditional Southern California partisan allegiances, and local Republicans are claiming a surge of new Jewish recruits. But in Orange County, one of the most conservative strongholds in the nation, party leaders say the migration has been going on for years.
"I think it has been rather consistent and ongoing for quite some time," said Tom Fuentes, chairman of the O.C. Republican Party. "What I've seen is a philosophical motivation among practicing Jews involved with their faith finding a value compatibility with the values of the Republican Party."
The conservative trend, as well the presence of Jewish Republicans on the ballot in the upcoming election, has energized the once-dormant local chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which has bloomed to 75 members.
"It sort of petered out over the last several years, but now it is thriving," said Bobby Zemel, an RJC member from Anaheim. "I think recent events in the Middle East have really shaken American Jewry into understanding which party has the interest of Israel in mind. I think they are especially attracted to Jews in leadership within the Republican Party in Orange County."
Zemel pointed to Adam Probolsky, a pollster from Costa Mesa who heads the 400 Club, the O.C. Republican Party's largest fundraising arm. Zemel also cited his father, former Anaheim City Councilman Bob Zemel, who serves as the party's second vice chairman and is currently seeking to reclaim his council seat, and Jon Fleischman, a deputy with the O.C. Sheriff's Department and former executive director of the California Republican Party.
Taking exception to Zemel's thesis is Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, a high-profile Democrat whose re-election race is of countywide interest because of Irvine's role in reshaping the much-contested El Toro airport into a multiuse park complex.
Agran is running against a Republican, Mike House, and is campaigning on a slate with two other Jewish candidates. Agran said he did not "buy it for a minute" that Jews were leaders of the local Republican Party.
"I think this business about Jewish people in high positions in the Republican Party of Orange County is largely a myth," said Agran, whose running mates for two city council seats are incumbent Beth Krom and Mitch Goldstone. "The fact of the matter is that Jews share progressive values that are most reflected in the Democratic Party and in independent thinking." Agran said it was in a democratic spirit that neither his running mates' religious affiliation nor his opponent's became an issue in their races.
House is joined on the Republican ticket by Irvine City Council candidates Christina Shea, a former two-term mayor of Irvine, and Chuck DeVore, an aerospace executive.
DeVore, Goldstone, Krom and Shea are vying for two open seats, along with Libertarian candidate Linda Lee Grau.
Fuentes said Jewish Republican candidates in Orange County have benefited from the local support, especially Republican County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is running for a state Assembly seat. Spitzer, who leaves open a highly coveted seat, is expected to defeat his Democratic opponent, Bea Foster, a teacher from Santa Ana, mainly because of the highly Republican makeup of Assembly District 71 and his popularity in leading the defeat of El Toro.
Although the Republican Jewish Coalition has not formally endorsed Orange County candidates, it supports candidates along strict partisan lines. One candidate, however, seven-term Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), has posed a unique challenge to some Jewish Republicans.
Rohrabacher's Jewish opponent, Gerrie Schipske, a Long Beach community college trustee and the Democratic nominee for the 46th Congressional District, has accused Rohrabacher of being "anti-Israel." Rohrabacher, a senior member of the House International Relations Committee, could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for Rohrabacher vehemently denied Schipske's portrayal of the congressman.
Rohrabacher was one of only 21 House members to vote against the May 2002 resolution in support of Israel. According to the spokesman, however, this was a vote in support of President Bush, who was trying to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, not a vote against Israel.
"I count Dana as a friend," said Probolsky. "He has voted very differently than what I hoped he would vote regarding Israel, but I think there are a whole lot of efforts by friends of his to try to get him to see a different perspective."