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Hudson County Facts

Pushing 'Empowerment' Politics

By David A. Vise and Nell Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
The Washington Post
Sunday, May 1, 1994

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 turnaround.

"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 lot."

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.

The boyish-looking 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 control."

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 license renewals.

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.

In Philadelphia, 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 city positions.

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 city operations.

"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."

Schundler predicted 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.

"The federal 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 soar."

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."


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Hudson County Facts Winter 2006 by Anthony Olszewski
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