Does California have something to learn from Jersey City? Government leaders from San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as Gov. Pete Wilson, are listening to Bret Schundler, the shiny new mayor of the tarnished old city.
Schundler said Wednesday that his anti-crime program has been on the agenda. So have his innovative school-choice plan; his tax cutting strategy; and his Republican variation on the theme "Power to the People."
"I'm confident government programs can be made to work when you focus on enabling people to do well themselves," said Schundler, who will meet today with San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan.
A former Wall Street investment banker and former Democrat -- he campaigned for Gary Hart for president -- Schundler is a Harvard trained sociologist who still puts in volunteer hours at a soup kitchen.
Using Jersey City as a laboratory for urban experimentation, he quickly built a reputation as a new-style Republican with a national political future. "What I want to do is, I want to make history," he said, "Jersey City is the perfect place to do it." His first experiments have been a raging success.
Schundler attracted national attention by cutting Jersey City's property taxes to increase tax revenues. The plan involved pooling $44 million worth of city liens for owed property taxes and selling them to a Wall Street bank, which paid $25 million up front. Schundler used the money to cut property taxes.
One result was a 13 percent increase in Jersey City's property tax collection rate. The city should get back another $27 million from the bank after bond holders are paid off. Schundler's pain-free lien plan includes an anti-eviction provision to protect tenants. Schundler said Wednesday that the Los Angeles mayor's office has been reviewing his lien program for possible adoption in Southland.
Schundler, who turned 35 last week, became mayor of Jersey City with 16 percent of the vote in a special election in 1992. He was the first Republican to capture the office since legendary Democratic Mayor Frank Hague cranked up his infamous political machine in 1917.
Less than a year later, Schundler captured 68 percent of the vote to win a full four-year term in a city with a Republican registration of 7 percent. He cut the city's work force 10 percent and doubled the number of police officers assigned to the streets without increasing the size of the police force. He vested neighborhoods with control of the city workers who serve them.
Now he is adopting a New York City program that gives private security guards immediate access to police officers on their beats.
Schundler said Governor Wilson's office has inquired about his crime package. He met with Wilson in October.
Schundler drew up a school-voucher plan, which, he said Wednesday, has the support of Christine Todd Whitman, New Jersey's new Republican governor. Backers of California's recently defeated voucher initiative also met with Schundler this week.
His plan would protect the public schools' revenue base while providing vouchers of at least $500 a year for elementary students and $1,000 a year for secondary students transferring to private schools.
The plan, which is opposed by New Jersey teachers unions, also would raise academic standards in all schools by instituting annual student tests in six subjects.
Schundler said he wants to use Jersey City for a pilot voucher program. He predicted Wednesday that it would succeed and spread rapidly.