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True Bret

If mayor Bret Schundler gets his way, Jersey City Could become a slice of Heaven on Earth

By Tom BcGrath
New Jersey Monthly
October, 1993

"When you're studying these communes, you're really studying small experiments in trying to make the world a perfect place," the new mayor of Jersey City is saying, talking about the communal churches he studied while an undergraduate at Harvard. A big but still baby-faced young man with a blue striped shirt, a red tie, and a crisp barbershop haircut, he is sitting behind a sturdy desk inside Jersey City's rather weary-looking city hall. "It's true whether you're studying a contemporary communal group, which decided that they are going to try in their own social relations to bring Heaven to Earth, or whether you're studying something of a historical nature from the nineteenth century. For example, you could study the Shakers or you could study Mennonite groups. And when you study groups like this, groups that have separated themselves from history and gone on their own and with great intention tried to re-create society on their own..." -- his voice fades as he searches for a way to sum it all up -- "It's fascinating stuff."

Make no mistake, When it comes to experiments In living, Bret Schundler knows what he's talking about. For the past year, he and the 230,000 citizens of the state's second largest city have been engaged in a big one. Last November, not long after then Mayor Gerald McCann was thrown out of office and into jail on federal corruption charges, the 34-year-old Schundler won a special mayoral election and became the first Republican in 75 years to run this richly diverse but perennially problem-plagued city along the banks of the Hudson River. While at the time many local Democrats called his victory an accident -- an unpleasant but nontheless rectifiable by-product of a crowded nineteen-person field --the people of Jersey City proved them wrong. In May they elected Schundler, a millionaire Wall Street financial consultant and former Democrat, to a full four-year term; they gave him a remarkable 68 percent of the vote and put into office all nine of his choices for city council.

Clearly, Schundler's election signals a break from both politics as usual and politicians as usual in Jersey City, where Democrats outnumber Republicans ten to one and the Democratic machine has chugged along practically unchallenged ever since Frank ("I Am the Boss") Hague began his three-decade reign in the twenties. Indeed, while the town suffers from the same problems that afflict most cities these days (high crime, high unemployment, budget shortfalls), the solutions the new mayor has proposed and tried to put into place-lower taxes, a school-choice system, enterprise areas -- are hardly typical. What's more, the soft-spoken Schundler, an elder in his neighborhood Presbyterian church, is a far cry from both the machine-style bosses of Jersey City's past and the blowdried, always-ready-for-prime-time pols of America's present. As his study of communal churches indicates, he is an intellectual and deeply spiritual soul, one who is as likely to make a reference to Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he is to Hubert Humphrey, as apt to cite a verse from the Bible as he is the numbers from the latest Gallup poll.

His background is also not what you'd call typical for a big-city politician, either. The youngest of nine children, Schundler grew up in the suburban surroundings of Colonia, out-side Woodbridge in Middlesex county. There, he listened to his mother, who spent her childhood in Nazi Germany, preach about tolerance, and his father, the owner of a chemical business, talk about the responsibility everyone had to solve the world's problems.

"At the dinner table, my dad would say: 'The Khmer Rouge has taken over Cambodia. What do you think?'" Schundler recalls. "And then the next day he'd say: 'There's all sorts of litter on the streets. Do you think we could get all the kids to clean it up?'"

A bright student and top football player at Westfield High (he was an All-State lineman in his senior year), Schundler went off to Harvard with an eye toward becoming a Presbyterian minister. While he was there, however, he decided he wasn't called to be a man of the cloth. He remained active in Christian causes but embarked on his own intellectual journey, trying to figure out his place in the world.

"I'd just go to the library and see what books were on the shelf. I remember picking up one book by Kierkegaard," Schundler, who got his degree in sociology, says now, a smile crossing his face. "These are not the kind of books you want to read when you're going through these periods. It was something like Fear and Trembling. Just good existential philosophy to shake you up."

While studying and living with a communal church in Washington, D.C., during his senior year, Schundler did an internship with Democratic representative Roy Dyson; after graduating, he took a staff job with the Maryland congressman. In 1984, he was the New Jersey coordinator for Gary Hart during the Colorado Democrat's first (pre-Monkey Business, pre-Donna Rice) run for the White House. When Hart lost, Schundler switched careers and took a job on Wall Street with the brokerage firm of Salomon Brothers -- attracted, he says, by the entrepreneurial spirit, the chance to stay in touch with what was happening around the world, and, of course, the money.

If this seems like an odd place for a sociology major with an expertise in communal churches to end up, Schundler agrees. And yet he is also quick to defend the industry chat has been attacked as the epitome of eighties greed. "Functionally speaking, Wall Street has an extremely important purpose," he says, noting that without it, American business couldn't operate. "Anyone who thinks that Wall Street rips off America, well, they just don't understand much about how the world works."

Schundler and his wife, Lynn, moved to Jersey City in 1985, when she enrolled in law school at nearby Seton Hall University and he decided to pursue his interest in urban ministry. Over the next couple of years, he became involved in a number of community groups, including one that tried, unsuccessfully, to reduce the city's high property taxes. His entry into local politics, in 1991, came almost by accident. A year earlier, he and Lynn had quit their jobs and gone on a ten-and-a-half-month trip around the world. When they returned, Schundler found himself increasingly distraught by the way government operated in Jersey City, and he decided to back someone to run against the machine in the election for a state Senate seat. The only problem? There was no candidate. Finally, Schundler decided to change his registration to Republican -- a move he'd been contemplating for a couple of years anyway - -and become the candidate himself. "It was a little weird," he says now of his decision to run, "because I hadn't exactly planned that I would be a politician or anything like that." While he lost the race, he did better than anyone had expected -- including himself. This set up last fall's run for mayor.

Of course, even though Schundler is an out-of-the-ordinary politician by Jersey City standards, he certainly wasn't spared the ordinary rough-and-tumble of Jersey City politics. At times it got tough. Really tough. In this spring's election, for example, his opponent, Hudson County freeholder Louis Manzo, tried to paint Schundler as a "Wall Street shark" and brought in two heavy hitters -- Jesse Jackson and Bill Bradley -- to campaign against him. What's more, Manzo tried co connect Schundler to the politics of apartheid (his family's chemical business uses vermiculite, a mineral imported from South Africa).

None of the criticisms stuck, however, and according to some, that's a sign of how sick the people of this town have become of standard political games. "He offered people something concrete," says Thomas Mansheim, chairman of the urban studies department at St. Peter's College in Jersey City. "And his opponent, Manzo, just tried to attack him as a Republican and didn't come up with any answers. And people were willing not to get hung up on party affiliation."

What is Schundler all about? He isn't easy to categorize. While right-wing advocates like the Wall Street Joumal columnist George Will, and Evans & Novak have tried to make him a poster boy for conservative causes, Schundler isn't exactly the second coming of Pat Buchanan -- or even Ronald Reagan. In fact, many of his ideas sound almost like a New Republican response to the "New Democrat" platform that Bill Clinton ran on last fall. "We didn't just say, 'We're gonna cut taxes, and that's the end of the problems of the world,'" Schundler says of his campaign, "because I don't think that is the end of the problems of the world. You can cut taxes and still have kids who have no place to go, who are lost to the streets, and who will end up having no opportunity in this life and become part of the problem."

Instead, he has focused on empowerment. For instance, he has a plan for welfare reform that, while guaranteeing food and housing, insists on people working. Perhaps more important, he is currently trying to work through the New Jersey Legislature a plan to implement an experimental school-choice system in Jersey City. This would provide vouchers to city residents and allow them to choose the schools -- public or private -- they wish their children to attend. To Schundler, the plan's importance can't be overstated. "Since the civil rights act, which enfranchised African-Americans with political rights, I think this would be the most significant legislation that's been passed in America," he says, "because it would enfranchise our poor with educational rights -- the right to seek out the best education available even though you don't have a big bank account."

But while Schundler's ideas and the reasoning behind them may be embraced by many and even admired for their progressive wrappings, the real world of politics is always there to intrude. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial in July headlined THE NEA's PUBLIC ENEMY #1. While lauding the new mayor's zeal for tackling the thorny issue of school choice, the editorial detailed the formidable National Education Association's plans to block the initiative by any means possible -- including instituting a weekly payroll deduction for its member to fund anti-school choice legislative candidates in November.

Still, thus far most observers give Schundler decent grades for his performance. He helped solve Jersey City's financial crisis and actually cut taxes by bundling and selling its tax liens -- a move he says was inspired by work he did at Salomon Brothers in the eighties. He impressed city residents with his handling of the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing, in which some Muslims from Jersey City played a key part. He's put nearly 90 more police officers on foot patrol since taking office. Finally, he's brought some sense of hope to even the Most hopeless parts of the city. "People's attitude is 'Let's see what he can do,'" says Melissa Holloway, a councilwoman representing the Bergen-Lafayette section. "They're skeptical, but if he can do what he says, they'll love him to death."

Schundler himself says he's more confident than ever that the problems his adopted hometown faces can be solved. If they can, he thinks Jersey City -- which is 37 percent white, 28 percent black, 24 percent Hispanic, and 11 percent, Asian -- could become, well, precisely what those communal churches he studied strived to be: a perfect place to live and an example for other communities to follow.

"You have young and old. You have rich and poor. You have everything you want in terms of diversity here," he says. "And I would argue that that means we have fulfilled the most difficult criteria to realize of Heaven. And now the second thing is a layup, comparatively speaking -- which is making it work."

He stops. "You could go to the suburbs and you could make the suburbs work," he says with the kind of smile on his face that Jersey City hasn't seen from its mayor in a long time. "But you can't make it Heaven."


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