TOO HOT FOR JERSEY'S GOP
SCHUNDLER'S A CONSERVATIVE FIGHTING THE
STATE GOP ESTABLISHMENT
Originally appeared in the New York Post on Wednesday, February 28, 2001
By Eric Fettmann
For eight years Bret Schundler has been a national poster boy for the
Republican Party -- a symbol of innovative urban leadership with a proven ability
to attract minority voters, touted by admirers and journalists as a likely GOP
So why are many Republicans pleading with him to drop out of the New Jersey
Time was when Schundler was one of the brightest stars on the GOP horizon: At
34, he was elected mayor of Jersey City in 1992 - the first Republican victor
since World War I in a city whose voters are 65 percent minority and only 6
Moreover, he won by preaching unabashed Republicanism - both fiscal and
social. Before George W. Bush was even elected governor of Texas, Schundler was
preaching for school vouchers and charter schools, earning the wrath of the New
Jersey teachers unions.
And despite intense opposition from national Democrats, he's been re-elected
twice, winning 69 percent and 59 percent of the vote.
Schundler inherited a city that was suffering from the legacy of 75 years of
corrupt one-party government: In 1993, only 40 percent of Jersey City's
public-school students graduated high school - this a full quarter-century after
the state seized control of the city's schools because they were so bad. And
even then, many of those students were barely literate.
Moreover, Jersey City was on the brink of insolvency, with a huge deficit. He
bundled city liens on unpaid property taxes and sold them to a Wall Street firm,
providing the city capital with which he cut property taxes. And while the deal
did not meet expectations -- largely due to problems with the private agency and
unforeseen legal obstacles -- it did dramatically increase the city's
tax-collection rate from 78 percent to more than 99 percent and lowered the
average residential property tax bill by $1,200.
Jersey City may not be the paradise on the Hudson that Schundler predicted,
but it is a far different - and better - city from when he first took over. And
that is due mainly to the experiments and ideas that have led former U.S.
Education Secretary Bill Bennett to call the mayor "one of the most original,
innovative thinkers in the Republican Party."
Schundler, in short, would seem to be the perfect gubernatorial candidate.
But the state GOP organization would love nothing better than for him to pull
out of the race, which he formally entered earlier this month.
For one thing, the county machines have rallied behind acting Gov. Don
DeFrancesco, who succeeded Christine Whitman when she left office early to join
the Bush administration. Instead of a host of contenders looking to succeed a
lame-duck governor, Republicans now see an opportunity for the lackluster
DeFrancesco, as the state's chief executive, to score name-recognition points in
the runup to the general election in November.
The last thing they want is a potentially fractious GOP primary in June -- and
early indications are that a DeFrancesco-Schundler contest will be nasty and
The other problem is politics: New Jersey is a state where not only voters
but even GOP officials don't look kindly on a Republican who actually sounds
The Garden State hasn't had a Republican senator of any ideological stripe in
a generation; and it's been more than half a century since a genuine
conservative held top statewide office. Whitman, for example, opposed
restrictions even on partial-birth abortion - and DeFrancesco is very much a
Republican in the Whitman mold.
In contrast, there's no mistaking Schundler's unabashed conservatism. It is
evident on every front, including the social one - he has marched with abortion
foes and favors abstinence education. (Schundler's major campaign planks,
however, are tax cuts, school vouchers and control of urban sprawl.)
Predictably, state GOP Chairman Chuck Haytaian and the Republican regulars
prefer to stick with the uninspiring DeFrancesco -- even though he's saddled with
the dubious legacy of the never-popular Whitman administration and reportedly is
already drawing complaints from the party's grass roots. Haytaian has been out
front labeling Schundler an "extremist" -- which does little more than provide
plenty of ammunition for the Democratic candidate, Jim McGreevey.
Schundler, who held a major fund-raiser at the Waldorf-Astoria last night,
admits he faces long odds. But he's convinced he can win based on his record and
his hope that "voters want to see that you are someone who will stand up for
what you believe in -- they don't want squishy politicians."
That's been a winning formula for Republicans elsewhere. You have to wonder
why they don't want to follow it in New Jersey.