In San Francisco, there’s little life for his party

Howard Epstein, vice chairman of communications for the San Francisco Republican Party, holds up his binder with an American flag for the Pledge of Allegiance as a party meeting gets underway at Milton Marks Conference Center in the city.
(Deanne Fitzmaurice / For the Los Angeles Times)

SAN FRANCISCO — Think you’ve got it rough? Meet Howard Epstein.

He’s a longtime Republican activist in a city that hasn’t had a Republican mayor in nearly half a century, where a GOP endorsement is an epithet and party registration is vanishingly small, trailing far behind the ranks of Democrats and people who prefer no party at all.

No matter. Epstein smiles. He shrugs.

“I’m used to it,” he says, after a bite of corned beef sandwich at a saloon in the city’s Financial District. Not just to losing, but to being pulverized, election after election after election.

“If I moved into town from somewhere else that had a majority, maybe I’d say different,” Epstein, 65 and the rare San Francisco native, adds. “I’m pretty practical.”

At a time when the battered Republican Party is looking ahead to a worrisome future, GOP leaders could do worse than to listen to someone who knows adversity the way, say, Sisyphus knew frustration. Surely someone doomed to spend eternity rolling a boulder uphill, only to watch it tumble back down, understands a few things about physics.


“Listen to some of these guys; they sound almost mean,” Epstein says of the party’s leading voices. “We need to get away from that. There are some people, ‘If you’re not with us on every conservative thing, on every social issue, every political issue, we don’t want you around.’ We’ve got to get away from that, too, or weed some of those people out.”

He continues: Lay off the social issues — “two guys get married, two gals get married, I’m not going to turn gay the next day” — quit beating up on illegal immigrants and stop trying to impose the religious views of a particular faith on voters.

“You have fundamentalist Christians, Jews of all type,” Epstein says. “It’s tough to say everybody’s got to believe in our Christian values.”

Epstein is vice chairman for communications, which is to say pitchman, for the San Francisco Republican Party. Since converting to the GOP in his late 30s, Epstein has cycled through a variety of unpaid leadership roles and played the occasional sacrificial lamb when Republicans needed someone, anyone, to stand for public office. (Personal best: 18% of the vote in a failed 2000 bid for state Assembly.)

It can be difficult, he allows. Not just the election results, but the disdain. While party leaders in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, which start the presidential nominating process, or battlegrounds like Ohio, Virginia and Florida can count on all manner of blandishments from big-time candidates — personal visits, Christmas cards, fundraising help — it’s hard even to get a lowly staff member to return a phone call that comes from San Francisco.

“Emails,” Epstein says. “Sometimes.”

Still, it’s a hobby of sorts. Epstein worked hard his whole life, he said (a paint distributorship, a janitorial supply company) and never found the time to marry and start a family. The Republican Party speaks to him with its philosophy of self-reliance and letting people keep more of what they earn, so they — not the government — can decide how to spend it.

Some people travel or golf. Epstein pushes a boulder up San Francisco’s vertiginous hillsides, an hour or two a day during the slow season and much more during election years.

He’s used to being politically outnumbered. His grandfather, who fled the persecution of Russian Jews at the turn of the 20th century, was a registered Socialist. His father was a staunch liberal: Discussing the haves and have-nots, he sounded “a lot like Obama,” Epstein says, with a soft laugh. The elder scolded his son when he switched parties and voted for President Reagan’s 1984 reelection, drawn by the GOP mantra of lower taxes and less regulation.

“How the hell could you do that?” Epstein recalls his father demanding. He laughs again, though it was no joke at the time. In his extended family of 17 first cousins, Epstein is one of just two Republicans.

Though his prescription for the national party is bold, essentially abandoning GOP orthodoxy of the last 30-odd years and ignoring social issues in favor of fiscal matters, Epstein is a soft-spoken messenger. Gray-haired and retiring to the point of shyness, he apologizes when a waitress tries to whisk away his sandwich, saying he’s not quite finished: “I’m talking too much.”

His political goals are similarly retiring. Any serious candidate for elected office in San Francisco actively shuns the GOP.

“They’re lepers,” says Ben Tulchin, a Democratic strategist who has used the Republican endorsement as a weapon against opposing candidates.

But San Francisco Republicans, who make up less than 9% of the city’s registered voters, can occasionally make a difference in local elections, especially on ballot measures pertaining to taxes and spending or in close contests. (It is Republicans, to their everlasting chagrin, who first sent Nancy Pelosi to Congress in 1987 in a free-for-all, 14-candidate special election.)

So it would be nice, Epstein says, to get a little respect at the Democratic fortress that is the city’s beaux-arts City Hall. “When they bring everyone in to discuss, say, the budget, they don’t call us and say, ‘What do you think?’” he laments.

There is no trace of bitterness, no hint of anger. Epstein even has kind words for the Democrat, Leland Yee, who beat — no, bludgeoned — him in a 2002 cakewalk into the state Assembly. “I disagree with him,” Epstein says, “but I gotta tell ya, Leland’s a good guy.”

Still, in the face of overwhelming rejection, Epstein and his fellow Republicans persist.

Party recruiters are a regular presence at San Francisco’s summer street fairs, their folding table set a prudent distance from the Democrats’, and clipboard-wielding adherents sometimes mingle with the crowd outside the Giants’ waterfront ballpark, seeking new registrants. They may be met with puzzled or dirty looks, and occasionally “someone will come up and start swearing at us, or getting really rude,” Epstein says. But mostly they are ignored, he says, the typical fate of a San Francisco Republican.

As for what might constitute victory in a national election, Epstein says he would be thrilled if the GOP nominee won 30% of the San Francisco vote. (Mitt Romney and John McCain received 13% and 14%, respectively, against President Obama.)

That fond hope would constitute a stomping in most places. But Epstein imagines a 2016 scenario in which a Republican takes back the White House and, out of gratitude, offers the party’s dogged San Francisco promoter a congratulatory ride aboard Air Force One. (The closest he has come was shaking Romney’s hand last year at a Silicon Valley fundraiser.)

Epstein finishes his sandwich and smiles. He can dream.