O.m.g.o.p.

Chicago young conservatives and Republicans live in a blue city—and they know it

October 30, 2011|By Georgia Garvey, RedEye

Meredyth Richards says it's tough in Chicago for a conservative.

The 24-year-old Lincoln Park resident is politically active, passionately devoted to Republican causes and living in a city where the numbers are stacked against her.

Richards, the president of the Chicago Young Republicans, said she's even considered moving.

Why does she stay?

"Aside from being a masochist, I don't really know," Richards said, perhaps only half-jokingly, while adding that "the city is wonderful and it has its perks."

It's long been a challenging road for those here who bleed red in a blue city. Chicagoans don't register to vote as Democrats or Republicans, so there are no hard numbers to compare, but the vote totals speak for themselves.

Chicago invented "The Democratic Machine" system of politics. A full 76 percent of Cook County voted for President Obama in the last election. The number of Republican aldermen in City Council: zero. The most recent Republican mayor was William "Big Bill" Thompson—in 1931.

As the 2012 election season begins to heat up, GOP presidential debates continue to make headlines, and Obama's job performance remains a hot topic for both Republicans and Democrats, party affiliations have become a natural subject of conversation.

There recently has been an uptick in GOP visibility in Chicago, too. The Chicago Tea Party just wrapped up TeaCon, a convention featuring conservative newsmaker Andrew Breitbart, ex-Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain and radio host Glenn Beck. Conservative fave Fox News recently came to town as part of its 15th anniversary tour.

For the young Chicago conservatives who spoke with RedEye, the label comes with many misconceptions—not everyone agrees with or identifies with someone like GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, for instance. Many say they are frustrated by political conversations with friends, family members and significant others.

"[Non-conservatives] always think that conservatives are stupid, of course, [and] racist," said Amanda Kardos, a 33-year-old West Humbolt Park resident and member of the Tea Party. "That we're all white men and we're all rich."

Kardos, who is white, is an R&B singer, a union member and calls herself "pro-choice." Her boyfriend is not a conservative, she said, and the couple has gotten to the point where they just avoid talking politics entirely. It can be tough, Kardos said, and she sometimes feels "isolated, lonely. You almost feel like you will be attacked for verbalizing your beliefs."

Brian Matos, 25, of Edgewater, said people often assume he's against abortion rights or gay marriage because he's a conservative.

In reality, "social issues are really not something I concern myself with," said Matos, a member of the Chicago Young Republicans who's also run for local office. He believes the federal government should stay out of people's business; he prefers to focus on local politics, which affect his life more.

Talking to friends can be especially challenging, said Justin Petramale, 22, of Woodridge. Petramale said after he came out of the closet, many of his gay friends began to take issue with his conservative affiliation.

"It's so one-sided a lot of times, I'd rather not even have the conversation," he said.

Petramale considers himself moderate on social issues and conservative on fiscal issues. But, he said, that distinction often doesn't matter.

Republicans can get drowned out by the intensity of the debate. "It's just there are so many people that feel differently," Petramale said. "You kind of get muted, where you don't feel like your ideas matter."

Richards admits she has sheltered herself from the Democratic onslaught. She works for a Republican congressman, Rep. Bob Dold (R-10th) and proudly says "all my friends are Republicans."

Kelsey Bjelland, 24, a Loop resident who works in management consulting, said she is careful not to talk about politics at work: "I know that I'm very much outnumbered." After growing up in Montana, surrounded by like-minded conservatives, Bjelland was surprised to hear her co-workers openly talk politics and make jokes, assuming she was a Democrat.

Kardos, on the other hand, said she's not shy about expressing herself. She and other Chicago-area conservatives said their opinions should be just as valuable as those of a liberal person.

"There are times when I definitely verbalize what I feel and not many people agree with me or seemingly like me after the conversation," she said. "I do get into arguments."

With the presidential election on the horizon, these debates will only become more common. And Chicago conservatives say their biggest hope is that their minority status will soon change.

"I'm super excited about" the coming election, Richards said. "It is a great opportunity. I personally think Illinois will be a battleground in the presidential race."

ggarvey@tribune.com | @gcgarvey

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