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Profile Of Bret Schundler

Originally appeared in the Rising Tide, RNC Magazine
By Mary Kate Cary

Mary Kate Cary, a freelance writer and former speech-writer to President George Bush, lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

As a high school student, Bret Schundler dreamed of becoming an inner-city minister. Years later, he has an inner-city ministry of sorts -- the former Democrat is using the bully pulpit of the mayor's office in Jersey City, New Jersey, to win converts of adifferent nature.

"I am sometimes criticized for preaching too much," admits Schundler, "but I am far more often encouraged to preach more." In speeches that are part conservative pep rally and part faith-versus-good works sermon, the two-term mayor has preached, persuaded and prodded Jersey City into turning itself around. And turned around it has -- residential and commercial development is booming, bringing 9,000 new jobs to Jersey City during Schundler's tenure, an increase of 20 percent. In fact, a recent Rutgers University study found that of all the jobs created in New Jersey's six largest cities during that same period, 91 percent were created in Jersey City. It's no wonder jobs are moving to Jersey City: For the first time in almost a decade, property values are up; crime is down; and, with tax coffers full and the city budget shrinking, fears of municipal bankruptcy are a dim memory. Far from a slash-and-burn fiscal austerity plan, Schundler's agenda has improved city services, put more police on the streets and created new charter schools all over town.

Schundler calls it his "urban empowerment agenda." Voters call it a winner. In 1997, they re-elected him to the only second full term of any Jersey City mayor in 30 years. In 1993, with only 6 percent of the voters registered as Republicans, Jersey City -- which, according to the Almanac of American Politics, is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States, with approximately 30 percent of the city's residents African American, 24 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Asian American -- made him its first GOP mayor since before World War I.

Mayor Schundler's wide support is a result of his deeply held belief that power belongs in the hands of the people and not politicians. He has focused on three key issues that put power where it belongs: with parents and students seeking school choice, with neighborhoods yearning for peace through community policing and with taxpayers looking for relief through lowertaxes.

And Schundler isn't alone when it comes to common sense governance with a grassroots empowerment agenda.

A rising tide that lifts all votes

"Over the past several years," says Hal Daub, mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, and president of the Republican Mayors and Local Officials, "we have witnessed the joining together of hundreds of mayors from around the country who are standing together,mobilized, to be a lead voice not only in our party, but for the citizen."

Like Schundler, GOP mayors all across America are implementing ambitious plans to improve schools, make communitiessafer and lower taxes -- and are being rewarded with re-elections by wide majorities, even in cities that have an overwhelming majority of Democratic voters.

For instance, Paul Helmke, the GOP mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, who has received national attention for his program of"community-oriented government" in which city employees and citizens work one-on-one to create solutions in just about every aspect of government service, won a third term, unusual in Fort Wayne, by 64 percent of the vote -- one of the largestRepublican vote margins in the city's history.

Mayor Richard Riordan of Los Angeles was reelected with 61 percent of the vote, despite the 2-to-1 Democratic registrationadvantage. In New York City, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1, Rudy Giuliani became the first GOP mayor to win re-election since Fiorello LaGuardia in 1941. And former Democrat Norm Coleman was re-elected mayor of St. Paul with 59 percent of the vote.

Why are so many voters -- including Democrats -- responding to and voting for Republican mayors?

Better schools

"When I ran in 1993," says Schundler, "I went door to door in some of our housing projects and explained my voucher idea:'We're spending about $9,500 per child per year for education. Don't you think if you had that money per year to educate eachof your children and you could use it to send your children to the school of your choice -- public or private -- that you could get a great education for your child?"

"Not one person said, 'I don't understand that concept.' Typically, they said, 'Thank you. You're saying I'm not going to have to beg the politicians to reform the education system any more.'"

Thanks to legislation authored by the Harvard-educated Schundler, Jersey City now has four charter schools, with a fifth, the largest in the state, opening this fall. "With charter schools," says Schundler, "you get decreased overhead, more money in the classroom, teachers with more freedom and more pay, a better learning situation and more efficiency. Everybody wins."

Schundler is continuing to fight for vouchers to enable parents to choose the publicly or privately managed school that's best for their children. In the meantime, he has established a private scholarship fund made up of donations from citizens and companies not interested in waiting for the rest of New Jersey's politicians to get on board. In its third year, the fund has already allowedclose to 100 kids to choose new schools. "Our goal," says Schundler, "is to have de facto school choice."

In Indianapolis, Republican Mayor Steve Goldsmith isn't waiting either. His reforms, recently enacted into law, include school choice provisions, annual reports for parents on school performance, merit pay for teachers and other bold ideas.

Mayor Riordan established a private/public partnership to create Los Angeles' first Police Academy Magnet School at a time when Los Angeles was in the midst of the city's largest police department buildup and had a shortage of qualified candidates. Just as other magnet schools in the city prepare students for careers in science or the arts, this school prepares its graduates forcareers in law enforcement and community service. Going into its third year with three campuses, the Police Academy Magnet School now provides the city with home-grown candidates for police officers with a built-in understanding of local issues and culture. Once again, everybody wins.

Safer streets

Schundler sees community policing as a legislative as well as a law-enforcement strategy. "Between being on the straight and narrow and going beyond the pale -- everything from having bad manners to committing felony murder -- there are shades of gray. In the middle of the gray, there are city ordinances."

His philosophy is simple: Getting caught for violating city ordinances -- on everything from litter to playing a boom box too loud to stealing shopping carts from supermarkets -- can slow down one's progress on the road to more serious crimes. It is the job of the police to enforce city ordinances, he argues, and it is the job of the city government to write ordinances that are what hecalls "ACLU-proof" -- laws that define community standards yet still stand up in court.

Schundler's plan is working. One of the city's most effective ordinances -- a curfew for young people -- has had a significant impact. The city's juvenile crime rate is falling and, coupled with Schundler's anti-crime agenda, violent crime has dropped by 23percent since he took office in 1992. "Today," he proudly notes, "Jersey City has one of the lowest crime rates of any major city in the Northeast."

Other Republican mayors are seeing results, too. Since the start of Mayor Riordan's term, serious crime in Los Angeles is down by more than one-third. In Omaha, Mayor Daub's "proactive policing" strategy has lowered crime there three years in arow. But perhaps the most noted anticrime efforts have been Mayor Giuliani's in New York City.

Giuliani's Model Block Program is an integral part of the "Quality of Life" agenda he began five years ago. On city blocksplagued by drags and violence, police first sweep in and shut down criminal activity, setting up barricades and 24-hour patrols. Then, potholes are fixed, graffiti is removed and neighborhood associations are created. Police continue to stay active in community policing programs, working with residents to take part in the new neighborhood. Crime in New York City is dropping for the first time in memory.

Lower taxes

No matter which city they're in or which program they're improving, a centerpiece of these mayors' agendas is lowering taxes. Putting power in the hands of citizens inevitably means saving money -- with fewer bureaucrats to run fewer and less expensive bureaucracies, mayors can put money back in the taxpayers' pockets.

In the year before Schundler became mayor, for example, Jersey City billed its property owners $98.2 million for services such as trash collection and water. Since then, he's improved services and drastically cut costs -- and taxes. His three tax-saving strategies: first, the mayor, a former Wall Street financier, bundled the city's delinquent tax liens and sold them to Wall Street investors, which, by increasing the percentage of taxes collected, allowed the tax rate to be reduced; second, he was the country's first mayor to offer Medical Savings Accounts to city employees, which immediately restrained the city's booming health-care costs; and third, he created the largest public-private water utility partnership in the nation, thus ending the state's monopoly on waste disposal and further reducing Jersey City's cost of providing these services.

In Indianapolis, Steve Goldsmith created a private sector task force that devised a "Yellow Pages" test for competitive bidding of government services: If a service that the city performs could be found in the Yellow Pages, it was put up for competitive bid. By taking advantage of competition and streamlining non-essential services, Goldsmith has been able to hire 100 newpolice officers, spend $750 million on infrastructure, cut taxes and still reduce the city's annual budget by more than $24 million. Details of his success are in such demand, he's even written a book: The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America.

New generation of conservatives

In city after city, Republican mayors are enacting innovative programs to return power to citizens. Mayor Daub calls them "the new generation of conservative local officials.'' That new generation, some of them former Democrats themselves, are bringing Democratic voters into the GOP fold like never before. And if that new generation has its way, city government will never be the same again.


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