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For National G.O.P. A Mayor As A Poster Boy
Schundler, an Unabashed Conservative, Wants to Use Image to Help Jersey City

The New York Times
Wednesday, February 9, 1994

By RICHARD L. BERKE

Mayor Bret Schundler of Jersey City, who runs the 67th largest city in the United States, where only 6 percent of the population is registered Republican, has gained popularity in national Republican circles.

A new Republican Party flier features photographs of Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, Margaret Thatcher and Bret Schundler.

Bret Schundler?

"I looked at it and just started laughing," said Mr. Schundler, whose claim to fame is that he was elected Mayor of Jersey City last year.

But in national Republican circles, no one is laughing. The party is marketing the 35-year- old political neophyte as if he were its savior. Not since the elephant has the party trumpeted a symbol so loudly.

The appeal of Mr. Schundler, an unabashed conservative and a onetime Democrat, lies in what he preaches: a gospel of lower taxes, less government and more police that has found an unlikely home in Jersey City, long a stronghold of Democratic machine politics. How, or whether, that gospel will transform a working-class city plagued by crime, drugs and general urban despair will not be clear until Mr. Schundler has been in office longer.

An 'Exciting' Mayor

In virtually every major speech, the party's national chairman, Haley Barbour, cites Mr. Schundler, who runs the 67th largest city in the United States, certainly more often than he mentions the two Republican Mayors who won election last year in the first and second largest cities, Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York and Richard J. Riordan of Los Angeles.

Mr. Schundler has no shortage of other promoters.

Representative Newt Gingrich, the No. 2 House Republican, calls him "the most exciting Republican in the country." And Jack F. Kemp, a former Federal Housing Secretary and a Republican Presidential hopeful, puts it this way, "He is the gold standard when It comes to political leadership in America today."

All the fuss over Mr. Schundler is not over what he has accomplished. Though he has reduced city spending, lowered taxes and proposed an economic plan that would make Jersey City look like one big enterprise zone, he has had little time to make his mark.

The attention comes out of the shock that Mr. Schundler was elected in the first place. Though his initial-victory was as much a result of odd political circumstances as his own popularity, he is living proof that a political party criticized for rejecting minorities and the problems of inner cities can have one of its own elected from a poor city with a large minority population.

First In a Field of 19

After Mr. Schundler's predecessor, Gerald McCann, was sent to prison after being convicted on Federal fraud charges, Mr. Schundler narrowly won a special election in November 1992, finishing first in a field of 19 candidates. Six months later, he won a full term with 68 percent of the vote.

"We've taken a beating for years for not being able to have a significant number of black Americans support us," said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a former Republican national chairman. "So when you have someone who is successful, it's something that we're very very pleased with. He is a conservative and doesn't run away from that."

Republicans have the statistics committed to memory: Mr. Schundler triumphed in a city where only 6 percent of the population is registered Republican, where no Republican had won since 1917. This came in a city that is 30 percent black, 25 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Asian-American - not the natural habitat for Republicans. Part of Mr. Schundler's appeal is that while he is conservative, his approach is not onventional. He has taken a different tack in trying to draw working-class voters. Besides campaigning or lower taxes, less spending and more police, he emphasized less traditional ideas like enterprise zones and privatizing government services. But his top priority - one that he pushes on the Sunday interview programs in Washington and on the lecture circuit - is turning Jersey City's schools, which the state took over five years ago, into a national model with a system of education vouchers.

Less a self-promoter than an earnest, sometimes pedantic, elected official, Mr. Schundler likes to talk at length about his plans. But perhaps because of all the attention, he sees his mission in historic terms. "I don't think many people remember the Continental Congress," he said in a recent Washington interview after appearing with Senator Dole as a featured guest in the premiere of a new Republican television program available by satellite.

"So I don't think holding office per se means diddly. But I would love Jersey City to be thought of as a place where another revolution occurred, a revolution, to help urban America have a chance again."

Looking at His Goals

Still learning his way around City Hall, Mr. Schundler is wise enough to laugh off those who say he should run for a higher office. His prominence as a Republican poster boy, he said, only encourages him as Mayor.

"Some of the people in Jersey City say, 'Do you think about running for higher office?'" he said. "I say, 'No, no, no, no.' What I want to do is be remembered in history someday for doing school choice in Jersey City. Let's see a poor child in Jersey City literally look at the best public schools in America and choose between them. And do it without increasing taxes by one penny."

Some Republicans snicker at attempts by party leaders to use Mr. Schundler as their new symbol. They say the leaders seized on him because they are desperate to prove that the party can appeal to minority voters.

'Their Weak Link'

"That has been their weak link," said Christopher Mobley, a professor of political science at De Paul University in Chicago. "Republicans are thinking that he might assist them in providing a compelling alternative that appeals to African-American voters."

One reason Mr. Schundler knows how to appeal to a Democratic constituency is because of his own past as a Democrat. 1981 graduate of Harvard University, he plunged into politics as a New Jersey coordinator for former Senator Gary Hart, who was running for the 1984 Democratic Presidential nomination. Then he went to work on Wall Street for Salomon Brothers, the huge investment banking house. He changed his party registration to Republican in 1991 to make an unsuccessful run for one of Hudson County's three State Senate seats. His election to City Hall was his first successful bid for elective office.

With all the other Republican success stories last year - the victories of Mayors Giuliani and Riordan and Governors Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and George F. Allen in Virginia -- it still may seem confounding that so many Republican leaders want to be seen with Mr. Schundler.

The answer, perhaps, is that he is young enough to be seen as a politician with a long future. And he is a fresh face who is reasonably well liked. And, unlike Mr. Giuliani or Mrs. Whitman, he did not make powerful enemies from bruising campaigns.

Another explanation may be that while Mr. Schundler eagerly identifies himself with the Republican Party, other newly elected mayors are taking pains not to play up their partisan identities. Advisers to Mr. Riordan and Mr. Giuliani said it might hurt those mayors to be featured at Republican events.

But Mr. Kemp, who spoke at Mr. Schundler's swearing in and sees him as something of a protege, said he thought the new Mayor had fresher ideas than his colleagues from bigger cities -- ideas, it turns out, that Mr. Kemp has himself expounded.

'Heart and Soul'

"With all due respect, I've been pleased with Rudy Giuliani's appointments and the steps he's taken, and so I wouldn't in any way criticize him," Mr. Kemp said. "But when it comes to school choice and enterprise zones, issues that touch the heart and soul of the inner cities, Schundler is closer to the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, than some of the mayors of larger cities."

The risk for Mr. Schundler is that rising stars do not always live up to the praise. He is white, but could risk the fate of Alan Keyes, who is black. Mr. Keyes, who served in the Bush and Reagan Administrations, was touted as the Republican Party's shining example of a leader who could appeal to minority voters. But in 1988 he was clobbered in his bid to unseat Senator Paul Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat. By 1992, Mr. Keyes was openly criticizing the Republican Party of racial bias.

Mindful that the favorable publicity could come to haunt him, Mr. Schundler says he feels the pressure.

"At the end of four years, if Jersey City isn't a safer and cleaner city, if we don't have better schools, better recreational opportunities for our kids, and if we don't have lower taxes and more jobs," he said, "I'm going to be awfully embarrassed."


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