New York's newly elected mayor, Rudy Giuliani, is occasionally daunted by the task of governing a city in which one person out of seven is on welfare. He and other big city mayors might do well to look across the Hudson for inspiration. There, in New Jersey's second-largest city, 34-year-old Bret Schundler is attacking the welfare state head-on.
Schundler, a Republican whose very election represented something of a political miracle in Jersey City, where Republicans comprise only 6 percent of the electorate, first came to office in the context of a 1992 special election. He was re-elected the following May after running a decidedly right-of-center campaign.
Schundler enjoys Ronald Reagan's essential gift: A handful of strongly held convictions define his larger world view. He is clear and articulate about what he thinks an urban center needs: safe and clean streets, as many cops on the beat as the crime rate demands, secure schools that emphasize the fundamentals, low taxes, school choice for parents, and children and work instead of welfare.
Schundler's main aim is to see government "empower people to do well for themselves." By his lights, this requires taxpayers ensuring that government serves them. Schundler contends that as things stand, government has no incentive to do well: "Governmental interest groups want to protect themselves. They are not focused on service."
"We're not talking about creating heaven," says Schundler. "We're talking about (doing something for) children who don't have any opportunity for an education, kids who are having children before they are old enough to take care of them, young people who are losing their minds on drugs." These are problems that can be overcome, the GOP maverick asserts.
But throwing money at America's cities isn't the answer, Schundler argues. "There has been enough spent (on urban America) in the last 30 years for 25 Marshall plans," Schundler notes. "We have to start asking: How can we spend the money and actually help instead of hurting?"
Bret Schundler wants to divide Jersey City into 133 "special improvement districts" and then turn tax dollars over to each so every district can provide such supplemental sanitation and security services as prove necessary.
He also wants to give Jersey City's parents the opportunity to choose what schools their children will attend -- to see "every American kid have a great education -- public or private."
At present, as Schundler sees it, if a child is born in the inner city "and the local school is a place of chaos, we don't let that child go anyplace else." In his view, that's plain wrong. Schundler favors giving children vouchers and letting them pick a parochial, public or private school.
If Schundler appears ready with answers to combat the failure of the welfare state, it's not because he's always been a conservative Republican. Quite the reverse. Schundler started his political life as a registered Democrat.
He grew up in a small New Jersey town, and is the son of German immigrants. He was a star football player, and was recruited by Harvard. There, he immersed himself in a liberal arts curriculum. After graduating, he went to spend time in a church in Washington's inner city: "I was a Democrat at the time. I was a great believer in social justice, and still am."
Schundler got his first political job as a staffer for a Democratic congressman, Roy Dyson, on Capitol Hill. It was in Dyson's office that Schundler began the intellectual journey that ultimately led him to desert the Democratic Party. Dyson, according to Schundler, was an old-school politician who pandered to special interest groups: "He'd sit there and say, "Whatever you guys want, I'll do.'"
Schundler went from Capitol Hill to work in Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign. He enjoyed the experience, believing he was working to create "a more just America." He retains one particularly strong memory from that campaign: Although Hart had been a strong supporter of organized labor, he refused to support one piece of legislation that the unions favored regarding automobiles. "So they made him into the antichrist," says Schundler. "Because on one issue he wasn't willing to sell his soul -- though he'd sold his soul many times on other issues."
For Schundler it was on to Wall Street and trading bonds at Salomon Brothers. Then came a stint at another Wall Street firm. During this time, Schundler came to understand that "markets actually work."
Today Schundler's changed "in terms of what I think will promote justice." Whereas liberals believe that government can solve all America's social problems, Schundler says he learned that government doesn't work: "I think the solution is (to have) government help you do well for yourself."
Lally Weymouth writes about current affairs for the Washington Post.