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'Young Republican' club is nothing but a grand old party

Saturday, April 19, 2003

The Young Men's Republican Club of Allegheny County, a beery slice of Pittsburgh tucked into a brick storefront along Suismon Street on the North Side, will not endorse candidates in this year's primary. Nor will it endorse in this year's general election. Nor the next.

"We're not going to get involved too much in that," said club president Branko Kapusta. "Years ago, it was a little bit different."

That is to say, years ago the Young Men's Republican Club had young men who were Republicans. On a given day, the club is inhabited by elderly men who are Democrats. Kapusta, for instance, is its president and he ran for City Council in the Democratic primary 10 years ago. His predecessor, John F. Davis, is a registered Democrat who last voted in Allegheny County in 1991.

"Geographics change. We don't get a lot of people from Mt. Lebanon down here," Kapusta said.

Geographics have, indeed, changed. The club formed in February 1934, with the mandate to provide a gathering place for civic improvement as well as a library and reading room.

"That's our library," a member said, pointing to one beer tap. "That's our reading room." He pointed to another. On this day, the reading was brisk.

The club was issued one of the state's first liquor licenses at the end of Prohibition. The North Side in those days was a strongly German community that has, in later years, blended in ethnicity and race and been sawn in half by an expressway which hums two doors away from the club.

Urban renewal has not marred the club's interior. It is a large, square room, illuminated by anemic lamps and sunlight that leaks through a glass block window. On one wall hangs the oversize charter issued by the county 70 years ago. A pool table stands unused. On another wall, a neon sign reads "Duquesne Beer," which was last brewed in 1972.

"Somebody needs to sign him in," said a bartender, who looked at a notebook-toting visitor he was certain must be some manner of state inspector.

A jolly, white-haired man named Jim Sheehan offered a tour of the place.

"You should see when the workers all start coming in -- the boilermakers and electricians. All the Irish. I'm an Irish electrical worker myself," Sheehan beamed.

The front door, where visitors must be buzzed in before getting buzzed generally, features decals from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Iron Workers, Boilermakers, Local 2 of the Insulators and the Laborers Union. None is likely to be carrying a copy of National Review.

Pittsburgh's 23rd Ward is so overwhelmingly Democratic that Republicans generally do not field candidates, save for an occasional practical joke.

A quick poll of the men at the bar produced no Republicans, although several members assured me they had seen one or two in captivity.

"The only Republican I ever voted for was Nixon," one man bellowed. "He had guts."

When did he vote for Nixon, I asked.

"When he ran. You know, for president."

"He ran three times," I said.

"The time he won," the man said, returning to a highly apolitical beverage.

Behind the bar are the obligatory bar photographs. There are boxers. One of them, aged considerably from the hard-looking young man in the photo, now tends bar. In a place of honor is a pastiche of photographs of Charles "Commando" Kelly, who was born a few side streets away, went to war in 1942 and received the Medal of Honor.

"This is our place here," said Jim Schultz, as I bought him a round. By "our" he means North Siders whose names were on the same doorways 75 years ago.

"My mom brought me in here when I was little," said Ray Wingold, at 48 a younger member. Wingold was signed by the St. Louis baseball Cardinals in his senior year of high school, but wound up in the Marines. He pointed to a small hole in the bar.

A quarter used to be glued to the spot, with the wires of a joy-buzzer screwed into its underside. Kids visiting would reach for the quarter and the bartender would flip a switch and give them a jolt.

"I fell for it every time I came in," Wingold said.

Wingold's mom was a Democrat. So is he.

"I always wondered why they called it the Republican club," he said.

The daily number came up on the TV screen.

Schultz took a sip of beer.

"Everybody's waitin' to win the number and leave the North Side," he smiled. But nobody got up to leave. This is their place.

Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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