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The Counter-Counterculture 

Ah, to be young and Republican at Cal

Wednesday, May 12 2004
Andrea Irvin's college bedroom is at once a suburban schoolgirl mecca and a shrine to the Republican Party. The UC Berkeley junior, who studies business and economics, has affixed a neat row of bumper stickers to her door ("Viva Bush!" reads one), and on the peach-colored walls has hung a Breakfast at Tiffany's poster near a Bush-Cheney '04 campaign sign. On a dresser laden with cosmetics rests a picture taken at a political fund-raiser in which Irvin stands next to Bush's former press secretary, Ari Fleisher, whom she "likes a lot." The room smells faintly of perfume. It is also the unofficial headquarters of the Berkeley College Republicans, of which Irvin is the president.

Irvin's twin bed often goes unmade, but it's from this corner perch that one of the most unabashedly conservative students at the notoriously liberal Cal dreams up club events, runs board meetings, and makes phone calls to local Republican campaigns to advance an agenda that will surely, if sometimes unintentionally, rankle most of her peers.

Though only 21, Irvin exudes a cool confidence, in part cultivated through defending her unpopular political positions on a campus best known for nurturing the free speech movement and anti-war protests. She runs the club in the same self-assured manner -- sometimes to the point of inspiring fear within the membership. Irvin says she has no desire to hold public office, yet she exhibits an innate political savvy; in her sure, careful way, she knows how to tug on the heartstrings of potential donors and unify a club that's not monolithic in its views.

She's a die-hard Republican -- entirely conservative on fiscal issues and a little bit libertarian on social ones -- and publisher of BCR's glossy magazine, the California Patriot, known for lambasting Democrats, hippies, and the homeless. (The most recent issue features a story on the "personality disorder" of presidential candidate John Kerry.) But she's sensitive to the wide swath of conservatism the organization represents, and rarely declares her political positions publicly in order to keep the disparate group cohesive.

"We don't talk about abortion in our club," Irvin explains. "We have differences of opinion on gay marriage. People are really passionate, and we can have competing ideas, but I try to stay neutral.

"If you're conservative but pro-choice, we're not going to say that you're not a Republican. We're in a left-leaning state, and you can't alienate people on one issue. ... The success we've had here at Berkeley -- we were named the best chapter in the country last year -- is because we have a unified front. We don't let petty issues get in the way."

For Irvin, power comes in numbers, and the club is thriving. In recent years, thanks to her predecessors, it has grown from five to approximately 550 members, with about 30 very active participants. As one of the larger political organizations on the UC Berkeley campus (it's on a par with the Cal Democrats), BCR has won the respect of local and national Republican politicians, who say they're impressed with the professionalism of its members and their ability to work from within the "belly of the beast."

The Berkeley club comprises a right-leaning but motley crew of jocks, nerds, sorority girls, immigrants, and loners, though there's a noticeable contrarian streak to all of them. If the unflappable Andrea Irvin is the polished, people-savvy strategist, then sophomore Amaury Gallais, for example, is the spirited, in-your-face activist.

Gallais, who like Irvin has taken on a number of leadership roles within the organization, is a political bulldog, a steadfast, unapologetic conservative and devotee of George W. Bush. Deeply religious and both fiscally and socially conservative, the French-born 19-year-old will wander through Cal's Sproul Plaza looking to launch a debate with apparent lefties on hot-button issues (currently, creationism is one of his pet topics). Or he'll pin Bush-Cheney '04 buttons to his backpack and roam the campus; if he gets a rise out of someone, so much the better.

Irvin and Gallais don't reside at the same place along the Republican spectrum, and they've adopted vastly different survival strategies, but in one respect they're in agreement. Like everyone else in the club I spoke with, both Irvin and Gallais insist that their school presents an extra challenge beyond the typical college trials. UC Berkeley professors, they say, are biased toward the left, and many of their peers have knee-jerk reactions to their ideas. In extreme cases, they claim, they or their friends have been spit on and their views shouted down.

"There's a fight that might not be taking place on other campuses, because it's Berkeley," says Gallais. "It's just outrageously liberal at every level. So we definitely have a different kind of fight. In every case, you're the minority."

It's high noon on a spring afternoon at UC Berkeley, and Amaury Gallais stands in the shadow of Sather Gate, the landmark arch that separates the main part of the campus from Sproul Plaza, ground zero of lefty politics. It's a few days before the student body elections at Cal, and Gallais is running for a senate position within the student government as a representative for the Berkeley College Republicans (he'll find out if he wins this summer). In his hands the bespectacled student carries a stack of fliers in which he pledges to "build the foundation of excellence -- a legacy of competency."

Nearby, some of Gallais' BCR friends hand out the latest issue of the California Patriot, of which Gallais is the managing editor. The magazine has endorsed him for the election, and the student -- who usually favors jeans paired with either a Ralph Lauren polo or shirts emblazoned with the UC Berkeley logo -- is pictured on the back cover in a dark suit, smiling broadly. (Gallais is also known for sporting colorful socks featuring French cartoons.)

Students stream past, and he waits patiently. He's looking for familiar faces in the throng of passers-by, forgoing big signs and flashy campaign paraphernalia for the more personal approach. He's being selective, he says, because students are tired of receiving so much election literature. Quite wisely, he's chosen to address only the select set that he knows will be sympathetic to his Christian Republicanism.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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