On a beautiful August evening, the Penn College Republicans hold their summer networking session in New York. The setting of Jennifer Saul Yaffa C’92’s gorgeous Fifth Avenue apartment —a jewel box overlooking Central Park—is the quintessence of the Upper East Side, the most heavily Republican area in Manhattan. Yaffa is the Republican National Committeewoman for the state of New York, and graciously invites the 12 or so Penn undergrads, in New York for their summer jobs, into her home. The elevator door into the apartment opens soundlessly, and in walks Lolita Jackson EAS’89.

Jackson is smart, funny, and dynamic—the person with whom everyone in the room wants to talk. As a black Republican woman under 40, she’s something of an anomaly.

In 2003 she became president of New York’s Metropolitan Republican Club, the oldest and largest Republican club in New York, founded by Teddy Roosevelt supporters in 1902. The club is the ancestral home of Rockefeller Republicanism, and past members include Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay, Jacob Javitz, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Bloomberg. Jackson is the first African American to head the club.

“It’s hard being a black Republican, for sure,” she acknowledges, “but I don’t get grief from Republicans. Not at all. If anything, I think I got a seat at the table because people didn’t care about any of that. I am, and always have been, a very hard worker, and since we are so outnumbered in New York City, anyone who works hard can eventually have a seat at the table.”

Jackson grew up outside New Brunswick, New Jersey, and was accepted to every school to which she applied for college, earning full financial aid to attend the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Then I was told by people that I had been accepted because I was black and I was poor,” she says, shaking her head. “I wanted to find a way out of my situation, and I did it myself.” Armed with her degree, she worked in New York finance for 13 years, most recently as a vice president at Morgan Stanley, before switching to a career in politics.

“I found that the Republican Party believed in individuals, not in government providing for you,” Jackson says. As she told New York Magazine in a profile last year, “I’ll stay out of your bedroom if you stay out of my wallet.”

She will readily admit that she had no interest whatsoever in becoming involved in politics until 1994. Rudy Giuliani had just won the mayoralty a year before, and Congressional and gubernatorial seats were just about to turn Republican. Republican City Councilman Charles Millard was campaigning at her subway stop.

“I had no idea what party he was,” she confesses. “I took his flyer because he was good looking! When I read it, I realized he was the same type of Republican I was: socially liberal and fiscally practical. I was hooked, and became involved in the campaign.”

Jackson wrote Millard’s position paper on welfare reform, and was swept up in the adrenaline rush of political action. “I would imagine it was very similar to how the ‘Deaniacs’ felt—we really believed in the candidate, and it was very exciting to be involved at that time.

“We lost that race, but won everything else—Senate, the House, the governorship, and all the other local races, including State Assembly and State Senate,” she recalls. “It was a watershed moment, and it happened my very first year in politics. I thought it would be like that all the time—little did I know … But being involved in that campaign made me realize that I could make a difference and that my voice could be heard.”        

Jackson is also a member of the Republican State Committee as well as the district leader for part of the Upper East Side. As the district leader of Assemblyman Jonathan Bing C’92’s district, she says laughingly, “one of my main roles is to defeat him at the polls every two years. In spite of that, we’re friends, as we were both involved in performing arts while at Penn.” Because of the Penn connection, she also counts Garodnick among her friends, despite party differences.

In 2004, Jackson was appointed to the New York delegation for the Republican Convention. “Since I was the only delegate out of all 5,000 who survived 9/11 [“Alumni Voices,” November/December 2001], I actually became a convention spokesperson, and conducted many interviews with national and international press,” Jackson says. “I was also in charge of the New York delegation’s community-service project, where we helped on a Habitat for Humanity project in the Bronx alongside the Arkansas delegation. The convention was great, and helped solidify the desire to work in politics as a career.”

After being a “high-level” volunteer for 11 years, Jackson was named the Manhattan borough coordinator of the Bloomberg mayoral campaign, charged with implementing the grassroots strategy for “taking Manhattan,” which ranged from setting up events and organizing volunteers to leading the Get Out The Vote effort on Election Day.

Election Day finds her in the Metropolitan Republican Club room in a long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans, listening to jazz and manning the phones and computers amid a slew of Mike for NYC! signs, buttons, and paraphernalia. By evening, she seems a little tired, but her enthusiasm is unflagging. The vote has, effectively, been gotten out.

A half hour after the polls have closed, she’s making her way through the throngs of people in the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers ballroom, coming into the Bloomberg victory party she knew would happen. Not only did Bloomberg win, but his 20-point margin of victory over Democratic opponent Fernando Ferrer was the largest ever by a Republican candidate in New York City. Now Jackson’s necklace sparkles, her smile is bright, and she gives no impression whatsoever that she’s been working since the wee small hours of the morning. Somewhere in the crowd, she’ll find some fellow Penn grads, among them Bloomberg communications director Ed Skyler C’95 and opposition research point person Stu Loeser C’95. She moves on into the crowd to meet, greet, and celebrate.

Though Jackson had intended to start her own political-consulting business after the November election, the Bloomberg administration had other plans for her. Last month, she was appointed the Manhattan commissioner of the New York City Community Assistance Unit. In that post she will serve as the mayor’s chief liaison to all community-based organizations throughout the borough of Manhattan.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/06

Red & Blue City
By Jordana Horn Marinoff

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