Pushing 'Empowerment' Politics
By David A. Vise and
Washington Post Staff Writers
The Washington Post
Sunday, May 1, 1994
JERSEY CITY, NJ.
When Bret Schundler took over as mayor of this diverse city less than
two years ago, it was on the verge of bankruptcy and crime was raging
out of control. Since then, he has cut taxes, balanced the budget and
made the city's streets safer.
Instead of trying to
address pressing issues with expanded government programs, Schundler has
given citizens greater clout to combat problems on their own. He calls
it the politics of empowerment and talks eagerly about how new ideas are
improving Jersey City and other urban areas.
All the cities are
going to die unless power comes to the people," he said. Schundler
is one of a coterie of mayors advocating fresh approaches to government
in cities that are plagued by problems similar to those facing the
District: too much crime and drug abuse, dire budget problems despite
high tax rates, and inadequate schools and public housing.
Schundler and others
said these cities have one thing in common that has eluded the District:
they have been through financial and political crises that changed
people's attitudes about the urgent need for change. Though the District
government nearly ran out of cash in its operating budget earlier this
year, a sense of crisis has failed to take hold in part because of a
perception that the federal government will bail out the city in an
emergency, experts said. "I think it is a big psychological problem
Washington has and will always have," said Richard Pogue, a partner
in the biggest law firm in Cleveland and a leader in that city's
"There is no sense
of urgency or immediacy, or crisis. That is a big burden for the mayor
or dry council to carry around. Nobody takes them seriously because..,
the feeling is, 'Don't worry, Congress will come in.' We had been
through adverse stuff and being knocked around and that helped a
Schundler said he
thinks conditions will continue to deteriorate in Washington until there
is a shift in direction similar to the one he is pursuing in Jersey
City. Among his first priorities in this troubled city across the Hudson
River from Manhattan was making people feel safer by dramatically
increasing the police presence on the streets. Schundler created a
70-officer foot patrol in part by pushing police out from behind desks
and into neighborhoods, something D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly has had
difficulty accomplishing on a large scale.
Much progress has been
made in the fight against home burglary, car theft and muggings in
Jersey City, which he said are down about 20 percent, though the murder
rate has not declined. Schundler said the new system is more effective
in combating "crimes of opportunity" than 'crimes of passion.'
He also said linking police and residents more formally has empowered
citizens and made officers more accountable.
Schundler also has
straightened out Jersey City's finances. After determining that
extremely high tax rates and inordinately low tax collections were major
problems, Schundler turned to the private sector for help. (The District
disclosed last week that one reason for its tight cash situation is
difficulty in collecting delinquent taxes and other bills, which it is
trying to do something about.) Schundler 'initiated a first-of its kind
program that involved selling $44 million in outstanding tax liens to a
Wall Street investment firm, triggering private market incentives to
collect the overdue taxes.
The investment firm
paid Jersey City $25 million up front, alleviating a cash crisis, and
also agreed to pay the city more in the future based on collections,
which have increased significantly. The program was so successful that
other jurisdictions in New Jersey are considering similar deals.
With the support of the
city council, Schundler next cut local property tax rates, the opposite
of what his prede- cessor had proposed and the opposite of the recent
budget solution in the District, where new fees and taxes were added.
The new collections program and the lower rates increased revenue in
Jersey City. To spur retail development in struggling neighborhoods,
Schundler cut sales tax rates in those areas in half.
35-year-old mayor also is aggressively lobbying the state legislature to
allow the city to experiment with a school voucher program, which would
give parents the option of sending their children to public schools or
using money from the government to pay for private school. Jersey City's
problem ridden school system was taken over by the state before
Schundler took office, and though spending has soared, the schools have
not improved, he said.
With school vouchers,
"we would have empowerment," he said. "The government
would be taxing but control would he at the local level. ... Nothing
will change until you put the people, who are the consumers, in
Residents of public and
private housing in Jersey City soon will have greater control over the
cleanliness of their neighborhoods through a new program that will allow
them to choose from among competing private firms that will clean
graffiti, remove debris and prune trees, all with city funds.
"If I can make it
clean and safe in the poorest neighborhood, then we are in
business," Schundler said. "If the maintenance company doesn't
keep [residents] happy, they can fire, them."
At the outset of her
term, D.C. Mayor Kelly was so enthusiastic about the idea of
"reinventing" government that the book of that name, by David
Osborne, was virtually required reading for her cabinet. Kelly can claim
some improvements in service, notably in infant immunization and drivers
But for the most part,
the D.C. government provides its services in much the same way as when
the mayor took office more than three years ago. Since that time, the
city's financial problems have grown so much worse that she is
considering asking President Clinton to appoint a presidential
commission on the District.
Del. Eleanor Holmes
Norton (D., D.C.) said the District needs to make major changes in its
operations and cannot rely on the federal government for solutions.
"Not only has Washington used many outmoded practices but other
cities have as well," she said. "... Democratic mayors are
simply not figuring it out. It is almost as if somebody handed them the
lesson plan from 1965 and they are still using it."
Ellen O'Connor, D.C.
chief financial officer, has said the mayor is doing her best to balance
the city's growing financial problems against the need to maintain
necessary services for District residents, many of whom rely heavily on
the city for support. She also said the mayor responded to the tight
cash situation by making cuts and raising money from new fees.
Schundler said greater
control of city spending is essential, and Norton said that problem
could be addressed in Washington through stricter laws that mandate
greater financial discipline.
In New York, Mayor
Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican, borrowing a technique from the
private sector, is using employee buyouts to limit the payroll.
spending is restricted by an appointed financial control board, which
can reject city budgets and withhold funds and gives politicians
insulation from special interest pressures.
In Cleveland, which has
gone from ridicule in the 1980s to being studied as an innovator, the
core change involved a broad-based partnership between local politicians
and top business executives that was formed after it became the first
major city to default on a loan since World War II.
In addition to the
heightened involvement of chief executives of major corporations and
consulting firms, the companies loaned employees to the city to analyze
myriad problems, recommend solutions and help recruit talent for top
Local businesses also
funded central-city community-development programs and made executives
available to tackle city problems on an on-going basis. Along the way,
housing, commercial construction, the efficiency of local government and
the city's image and finances all improved. Those changes began under
then-mayor George V. Voinovich, a Republican, who now is governor of
Ohio, and the political partnership with business continues under Mayor
Michael R. White, a Democrat, who is considering privatizing numerous
"The government is
just one thread in the fabric of a community", Voinovich said.
"If you expect to solve problems of the government, you have to
galvanize resources that exist in the community. I think too often
political leaders think they can do it by themselves."
things will get worse in in the District if the federal government takes
greater control of the city's affairs, a move that would shift authority
further away from the people, rather than closer as he is trying to do
in Jersey City.
government is so big that you could fund Washington as a welfare client
for a long time," Schundler said. "When the federal government
takes over Washington, D.C., services won't get better but spending will
Schundler, the first
Republican mayor elected in Jersey City since 1917, presides over a city
that is 30 percent African American, 25 percent Hispanic, 10 percent
Asian; and 78 percent of whose registered voters are Democrats.
He says times still are
tough for many unemployed residents. But things had gotten so bad after
the former mayor went to jail that the voters were willing to give him a
chance in a special election in 1992. Six months later, he was reelected
in a landslide that reflected the largest margin of victory ever
recorded by a mayoral candidate in Jersey City.
Schundler senses that
he is making a difference and brims with confidence when he talks about
the persuasiveness and potential of his empowerment campaign. "I
could get elected in Washington," he declared. "There is a
change in thinking taking place in America."