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Rising New Star On The Right Horizon

Originally appeared in The Washington Times on Thursday, July 8, 1993
By Suzanne Fields

Every generation has a defining political slogan, a cliche, a kitschy phrase to identify its prevailing philosophy.

These expressions are a shortcut to meaning, shorthand for attitude, and sometimes shortchange an entire generation with the gab, the glib, the hip and the flip.

"Don't trust anyone over 30" for example, sank like "stoned" when the baby boomers entered their third decade. But slick slogans also reveal purpose and capsulize ideals, giving insight into the character of those people who speak them, changing the perception of political challenges for those who hear them. The overused word of the moment is "empowerment" and the cliched phrase is "empower the people.'' You hear it on the lips of politicians both left and right (it's often distorted for political expediency). But when it's linked authentically with good ideas that may actually translate into reality, it has resonance (another current cliche) and popular appeal.

That's how Bret Schundler, Republican mayor of Jersey City, uses "empowerment" and he thinks we may be as interested in what he means by it as those who elected him.

After winning a long-shot race in a special election last November to take the place of a mayor who went to prison, Bret Schundler, 34, won 69 percent of the vote in a May election for a four-year term in a city that is only 6 percent Republican. He won overwhelming support in ethnic, working class neighborhoods.

How did he do it? He's quick to say he didn't campaign strictly as a Republican: "I'm the Jersey City Party." But he did offer a conservative agenda. He talked about giving people control of their lives, control of their money, control of political decisions.

"If you ask voters to 'trust me', they won't" he told a group of reporters at a Manhattan Institute Forum luncheon in Washington. "But they'll listen if you say 'I will help you,' 'We will solve this problem' 'I will give you the resources: ' He has a low-key, straightforward approach that is refreshing and impressive even in Washington. Can he be that elusive right man in the right place at the right time on the right?

It didn't hurt that he followed a corrupt local Democratic Party, notorious for spending money to oil the nuts and bolts of its patronage machine. (Jersey City, after all, was Boss Hague's turf.) But he won with more than corrupt enemies.

Bret Schundler is willing to incur the wrath of the National Education Association, the 2.1 million-member teachers union, by playing David to their Goliath. He tells how and why.

Jersey City has a pretty good chance of becoming the second city in America with school vouchers for public and private schools. (The first was Milwaukee.)

"I think if a parent wants to send his child to a religious school because he thinks the values that they teach are important, and that parent wants those values taught to his or her child, I think they should have that right" he says. "So we'll have school vouchers so you can go to the best school available, and that will force the public schools to get better as well as making private schools available, even to the poor."

Jersey City now puts out $9,200 for each public school pupil, an expensive investment that ought to do better than nearly a two-thirds dropout rate. Private schools begin at one-third of that cost.

"By putting money in parents' hands, they'll want to see performance" he says, "They won't protect incompetence." He's not asking for more money, but wiser spending and local control.

Is Bret Schundler a fluke or good fortune for the future? "Who controls money controls" he says. Putting money back in the hands of those who pay the taxes is what he means by empowerment: "That's a revolution worth fighting for."

He may merely be mouthing this year's hot political slogan or kitschy cliche. But here's even money that says Bret Schundler will deliver the revolution, Right there in Jersey City.


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