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Jewish Journal

It’s Not Easy Backing Simon

Dr. Joel L. Strom draws fire as chairman of Republican's statewide volunteer program.

by Tom Tugend

September 26, 2002 | 8:00 pm

When Dr. Joel L. Strom was attending services recently at Congregation Kehillat Ma'arav in Santa Monica, a lady walked up, fixed him with a stern eye and spit out, "You are a traitor to your people."

Strom, a 48-year-old dentist, incurred the lady's wrath because he is an ardent Republican who serves as statewide volunteer chair in the gubernatorial campaign of Bill Simon Jr.

"I guess for some people it's still an anomaly to be a Jewish Republican," Strom said during an interview in his Beverly Hills office. "What I mostly get, though, is, 'How can you possibly be a Republican?' I think, though, that attitude is changing."

It's still not easy to be a Republican activist in California, where the Jewish vote in presidential elections generally hovers around 80 percent for the Democratic candidate, but the youthful-looking Strom seems to be holding up well.

On the day of the interview, Strom finally had some cause for cheer in a campaign dogged by charges of financial improprieties, a flap over gay rights, lackluster campaigning and frequent staff changes.

Simon has had to loan his campaign vast sums from his personal fortune to remain competitive in TV ads, but he can't approach the megamillions raised by Gov. Gray Davis in his reelection bid.

The good news of the day was that a judge had just thrown out a $78 million fraud judgment against Simon's family investment firm. At the same time, a poll showed that, for the first time, Simon had pulled ahead of Davis among respondents most likely to vote on Nov. 5, which could prove a distinct advantage for the Republican if the voter turnout is low.

The political bias of the poll has been questioned, but in general, Davis seems to run only six or seven points ahead of Simon among all voters, testifying to the widespread unpopularity of the incumbent governor among independents, and even among Democrats.

Strom's first taste of political activism came as a junior high school student when he volunteered as an envelope stuffer in the 1968 presidential campaign of liberal Democrat Eugene McCarthy. Four years later, he performed the same task for the losing Democratic presidential contender George McGovern.

As an 11th-grader at Hamilton High, Strom ran for class president. The previous incumbent had depleted the class treasury, leaving it with a shocking $100 deficit, and Strom, running on a balanced budget platform, won handily.

In the early 1980s, as a volunteer lobbyist for his dental society, Strom also attended a kaffeeklatsch for a rising young assemblyman, named Gray Davis.

However, around the same time, Strom became disillusioned with the Democratic Party on two issues he cared for passionately -- health care and race relations -- and he switched his registration to Republican.

During the following six years, Strom concentrated on his dental practice and held various offices in his professional associations, but returned to active politics as a volunteer in the 1992 George H. W. Bush/Dan Quayle presidential campaign.

He took on increasingly responsible volunteer positions in Pete Wilson's 1994 gubernatorial bid and George W. Bush's 2000 presidential bid, and was elected vice president of the Republican Jewish Coalition's Los Angeles chapter.

By the spring of last year, Strom considered retiring from the political battlefields, when he was introduced to Simon, at that time a political unknown and given practically no chance in the Republican primary against popular Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and Bill Jones, California's secretary of state, a veteran politician.

"I liked Bill Simon right away," Strom recalled. "He is very personable and optimistic, has integrity and a great heart, is devoutly religious and eschews negative politics."

These days, Strom said, he is putting in four to five hours a day on his volunteer position and even more on weekends. He has the backing of his family, with his wife, Holly, a consultant pharmacist, serving on Simon's health care task force, and daughter, Natalie, 10, writing letters to the editor on behalf of her favorite candidate.

As Simon's state volunteer chair, Strom coordinates the grass-roots efforts of between 2,000 to 3,000 volunteers in California, who stuff envelopes, walk precincts, organize and attend support rallies and, like Strom's daughter, write letters to editors.

Together with such active local Jewish Republicans as Dr. Reed Wilson, Dr. Phil Kurzner and Bruce Bialosky, Strom has been instrumental in drafting Simon's policy positions and ads on "Jewish" issues, which include sharp criticism of anti-Semitic disturbances on university campuses and solid support for Israel.

"We took Bill and [former New York Mayor] Rudy Giuliani to Congregation Bais Naftoli on La Brea six months ago and then had lunch at Canter's," Strom said. "On the last Yom Kippur, Bill spoke at the services for the Iranian Senior Center."

In what Strom considers a measure of Simon's character, the gubernatorial candidate confided at one point that he, as a devout Catholic, had been deeply moved when he visited the memorial site at the Dachau concentration camp while bicycling through Europe as a young man.

"We urged Bill to mention this experience when talking to Jewish audiences, but he objected because it would seem like pandering," Strom said. "We finally convinced him to talk about it."

Strom also said that Simon has pledged to visit Israel during his first year in office.

Looking at the political demographics in the state's Jewish community, Strom estimated that one of every four Jewish voters is Republican, with the proportion rising sharply among Jews under 40.

Historically, in the 1998 gubernatorial election, Democrat Davis received 83 percent of the Jewish vote, against 13 percent for Republican Dan Lungren.

However, in 1994, Democrat Kathleen Brown drew only 61 percent of the Jewish vote, against 33 percent for Republican Wilson, according to statistics in "Jews in American Politics." Ira Forman, the book's co-editor, warns, however, that because of the small number of Jews in the sample polling, the figures should be viewed with caution.

"The profile of the Jewish community is changing," Strom said. "It's moving beyond such issues as abortion and gay rights and turning to bread-and-butter issues, such as health care, education, the huge budget deficit and taxes." On all these points, Davis is vulnerable, Strom said, although he grants that his candidate is fighting an uphill battle, in which, he added, "the media has not been helpful."

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