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A City's Top Politician Doubles As Its "Spiritual Leader"
Jersey City, N.J., Mayor Bret Schundler takes up the 'life is sacred' banner

Originally appeared in the National Catholic Register in the April 26 - May 2, 1998 issue
By Brian Caulfield

Bret Schundler's Reflections On Human Worth And Dignity

Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler sounded like the preacher he once thought of becoming as he held a government-sponsored prayer vigil April 13 outside a sewage treatment plant where a newborn baby had been found dead amid the refuse. He spoke of life as a sacred gift and blamed an unmoral and throwaway culture for creating the conditions that would lead a mother to drop her hours-old baby into the sewer, and also cited the recent school shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and in other public schools across the country.

He plans to lead his New Jersey city in publicly proclaiming "the sacredness of life" and announced that a section of a local cemetery would be set aside for burial of unidentified bodies of children and adults, so that those who died unknown and unnamed may receive the respect they apparently did not receive in life.

"There was an incident in Jersey City last year in which one 19-year-old murdered another teenager within 10 feet of a police officer," Schundler said in a Register interview. "This shows a society that has contempt for life, and people end up showing self-contempt by their violence. Sometimes people despair that things can't be changed, but they can. We can only do it by coming together as a community."

The recent vigil at the sewage plant was opened by the prayers of a Catholic priest and closed with an invocation of a Protestant minister. Schundler, a rare prolife Republican leader operating in close proximity to New York City, would later be debating lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union over the placement of a creche last Christmas on city property. He contrasts sharply with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a nominal Catholic, who supports abortion, criticized the Pope for condemning partial-birth abortion, and marches each year in a "gay pride" parade that passes in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

A Presbyterian who speaks passionately of the "natural law," Schundler insists that government has an obligation to take sides on moral issues and should allow for a reasonable public practice of religious faith. He calls partial-birth abortion "legalized infanticide" and chides New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman, also a Republican, for vetoing a state bill outlawing the procedure. He is a strong advocate of school choice for parents and has won three elections mainly on the strength of his economic policies, which have drawn on his Wall Street experience, after the previous mayor wound up in jail for fiscal shenanigans. Schundler has bought the city time by selling off the municipal debt and enf orcing greater compliance with property tax laws.

Not your average mayor by any standards, Schundler is a strong, consistent voice within a too-often-compromising Republican Party. He is up for re-election in two years and the 39-year-old talks of "limiting myself' to two terms and possibly seeking higher office.

Jersey City lies a few hundred yards directly across the Hudson River from midtown Manhattan, just out of the shadows of the impressive. skyscrapers. Built largely by Catholic immigrants of the past century, it is a place of old factories, new sweatshops, and deep pockets of poverty that has also seen an influx of new residents and sparks of prosperity since the 1980s. Young urban professionals, drawn by the quick rail ride under the Hudson to Manhattan, have remade parts of Jersey City in their own image , turning old industrial buildings and rundown two-family houses into quality residences and reclaiming swaths of waterfront real estate for parks and malls.

The city, also has a long history of corrupt politicians and an entrenched Democratic machine. When Mayor Jerry McCann was jailed in 1992, Schundler was a Wall Street yuppie living with his wife and their daughter in a gentrified section of the city. Letting idealism and the call to public service get the better of him, he left A large salary to take on the sea of troubles that come with inner-city governance. His economic talk sounded good to people who had been sold out by the previous mayor, and he struck a chord with the city's poor people, performing an end run around the liberal Democratic tactics of winning their support with subsidized housing, high taxes, and handouts. Schundler pounded the pavements and climbed the steps of the public housing projects, pushing his school choice program to parents who were fed up with an ineffective and dangerous public school system that had been taken over by the state because the city could no longer handle it. He won the special election to fill the vacant City Hall seat in the summer of 1992, won the regular election a few months later, and was re-elected in 1996.

Exactly how his fiscal program will fare in the long run remains to be seen and he will likely be back on Wall Street or off to higher office by the time the creditors come knocking. He has drawn criticism from human rights watchers who cite him for placing economic good above moral principle, by maintaining Jersey City's "sister city" relationship with a region in China, which carries out a one-child policy and forced abortions. Schundler has responded that free trade of goods and ideas is a way toward social change.

He has failed to get school choice instituted though he continues to push it as a foundational tenet in turning around the culture and giving families a greater stake in the future of their children. In a recent letter to the Wall Street Journal, Schundler debunked the notion that the Constitution is violated by allowing public funds to help parents send their children to private and religious schools.

The GI Bill allowed veterans to attend the schools of their choice, he wrote, and "federal Stafford loans and Pell grants for higher education can be similarly used at any accredited college or university, regardless of religious affiliation." He added that public schools are not "value neutral" but inculcate values "which are generally secular and relativist in nature."

He continued, "Those parents who seek alternatives to the government's education monopoly by sending their children to schools that reinforce the message of there being absolute rights and wrongs should not be legally discriminated against by having to pay extra to educate their children accordingly."

He said that he is against abortion at all stages of life in the womb and remarks of partial-birth abortion, "What's the difference of an inch? If it's illegal to kill the baby once fully delivered, why is it legal just a few moments before?"

The focus on the late-term procedure is good, he added, because the Supreme Court allows state regulation of abortion in the third trimester and too few local governments have taken the initiative to ban or limit abortion in that period.

Whatever economic, crime, and educational problems the city may suffer, Schundler sees himself as a leader of the human spirit as much as the city's top politician. A prayer vigil to mourn the death of an abandoned baby is more symbolic than practical, but symbols can have deep-reaching effects, he said. "It's not enough for the mayor to say, 'If you murder a police officer, we'll arrest you,"' he said at the vigil. "It's part of my role to say, 'Murder is wrong."'

Only moral convictions based on religious beliefs and a sense of absolute truth and justice have the strength to move people to act together for change, he told the Register.

Brian Caulfield writes from New York.


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