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Jersey City - Rich In Democratic Traditions - Switches To GOP Portfolio

Originally appeared in The Washington Post on Sunday, May 1, 1994

By William Claiborne
Washington Post Staff Writer

JERSEY CITY
So, what is Bret Schundler, a nice, Republican Wall Street portfolio manager and protegé of Jack Kemp, doing in a place like this and as mayor no less?

Everybody knows that Jersey City's last mayor, Gerald McCann (D), went to prison for corruption, following a tradition upheld by 14 other Hudson County mayors in recent years.

Even people who grew up in the leafy, upscale suburb of Westfield, as Schundler did before going to Harvard, know about the Democratic machine founded by Frank ("I am the law") Hague. For 75 years that machine had an iron lock on the two-thirds minority vote in this somewhat seedy and crime-ridden city of 230,000 people across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

"The first city into an abyss is the first city to realize that it has to get Out of the abyss," Schundler said. "People were looking for a new direction."

The 34-year-old, born-again, neo-Conservative astounded New Jersey Democrats by narrowly winning a special election last November and then easily was elected to a full term six months later. Only 6 percent of voters here are Republicans.

Now Jersey City is headed in a new direction, one that points to deregulation, privatization, school vouchers, enterprise zones and fiscal restraint; in short, conservative positions that conventional wisdom says run contrary to the ideology of working-class and low-income people.

Schundler already has reduced city spending, lowered taxes, improved Jersey City's investment bond rating, put more police on the Streets and attracted some new jobs.

In Jersey City Thursday for Schundler's swearing in to his first full term, Kemp said reforms the new mayor is enacting will have an impact not only in Jersey City, but also in "every city in the nation."

Representative Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) recently described Jersey City as an ideal urban laboratory for testing some of these conservative principles and bringing them to national attention before the 1996 presidential campaign.

Schundler too sees longer-term in political consequences. The dominant thesis of the 20th century has been entitlement. The 1996 election will be the election that repudiates this thesis. We are going to set up our system on a different set of values, and that is what Jack Kemp and Empower America are all about," the mayor said in an interview, referring to the conservative policy study group co-chaired by Kemp and his fellow former Republican Cabinet members, William J. Bennett and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick.

Schundler is the first to admit that he was an unlikely candidate to try to pull Jersey City out of the abyss when he moved here in 1985.

A few Manhattanites were buying old brownstone houses here and fixing them up because of the city's easy access to New York. But there was no large-scale gentrification of Jersey City like there had been in nearby Hoboken, said Schundler, who said he has "always been hooked on cities," was something of a yuppie pioneer.

He had been a fallen-away Democrat who worked in Gary Hart's first presidential campaign in 1984, when he joined Salomon Brothers inc., the New York investment banking firm. where he handled over $24 billion in investment portfolios in his last year.

Running in a field of 18 candidates in a special election here last November, after McCann went to prison for misappropriating funds, Schundler surprisingly won a thin plurality victory. But the real surprise came in May, when, in spite of the efforts of Jesse L. Jackson, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ.) and a Democratic campaign that sought to portray him as a "Wall Street shark," Schundler won with 69 percent of the vote.

Schundler said that in spite of his privileged background and his conservative ideology, he felt comfortable campaigning in Jersey City's heavily ethnic working-class neighborhoods.

"More cops and lower taxes. I think that struck a chord," he explained. "But the main thing is, people are beginning to understand what economic empowerment means, and they want to be a part of it."

A devout Christian, Schundler is given to quoting from the Scriptures when he talks about social issues -- "He who does not work does not eat" -- and about values, his favorite topic.

"We shortchange our kids when we don't teach them that you don't find happiness only through self gratification. We need to empower people with the values that enable them to make contributions, and we need to provide rewards for successful contributions," he said.

Not exactly the stuff of traditional politics in Jersey City, where for years many homeowners have not bothered to pay their property taxes because they know that, historically, less than I percent of tax liens lead to foreclosure on the property.

That pattern changed earlier this month when Schundler sold $45 million in tax liens to a bank trust and applied the proceeds to the city budget as part of his plan to reduce property taxes by a third over four years.

Since Schundler took office in November, the city's rate of tax collection has risen from 78 to 90 percent, while the average annual property tax on a $100,000 house has fallen $300 instead of rising $500, as planned by the previous Democratic administration, according to the mayor's chief of staff, Michael R. Cook.

"When I talk about empowerment I don't just talk about the philosophy. I talk about it in practical terms, like lowering taxes and empowering people with more disposable income," Schundler said. "There's nothing abstract about that."

Cook said taxes had risen so high in Jersey City that homeowners were "tapped out and at a point where it was questionable in their minds whether they should continue paying their taxes at all." The tax lien sale, he said, demonstrated that "with a little creativity and a lot of determination, it's possible to solve a fiscal crisis without raising taxes."

Schundler said he also has moved to reduce spending and cut the public payroll and has increased police foot patrols from 38 percent of the force to 65 percent. Following the lead of New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio (D) in welfare reform, Schundler is pushing workfare here and an expansion of an urban enterprise zone program, which allows local businesses to charge just a 3 percent sales tax in the zone if they create new jobs.

But Schundler said his top priority is creating a citywide experiment with school vouchers, which, in effect, would reverse a migration of students from parochial schools to an inadequate but expensive public school system.

Fifteen years ago, Schundler said, half of Jersey City's students went to Catholic schools. However, with white flight and a demographic transformation of a city that is now 30 percent black, 25 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Asian, only a quarter of the students attend private schools.

"I say, 'Wait. Let's stop that migration and, in fact, reverse it,'" said Schundler, who added that the $9,200 per pupil now being spent to get less than a third of the students through high school would be more than enough to cover private school tuition in a voucher system.


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