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A Second Act in Jersey City

Can former Mayor Bret Schundler make a comeback?

By 7.28.08

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Businessman Michael Yun remembers what Jersey City, New Jersey, was like in the 1980s. "Like the wild, wild West," he said. The "streets weren't safe" and government was "out of control." Public services failed, businesses left, and corruption was rampant. Abandoned by the outdated railroad industry, it was the anemic neighbor of Manhattan, where feral dogs ran wild in the tall grass by the collapsed railway arteries and hypodermic needles, like seeds, littered the ground just west of the Hudson River. But all that changed in 1992 when Republican Bret Schundler did the impossible.

After Mayor Gerald McCann was arrested for federal fraud and tax evasion, Schundler, a former Wall Street guru who once lived in a commune and dreamed of becoming a minister, won a special mayoral election in a city where only 6 percent of registered voters are Republicans. He repeated this feat in 1993 and 1997. "I'm the first and only Republican mayor for basically the last 100 years," he said from the driver's seat of his red Toyota convertible, a grin painted atop his six foot plus frame as we toured his beloved city.

Now almost 50, he's running for the job he left seven years ago when he tried twice to capture the New Jersey governorship, falling short both times. His opponent is incumbent Democratic Mayor Jerramiah Healy, whom Schundler beat for the same office in 1997. Healy, though, is bringing in some familiar faces -- he's hired the same people who ran Jim McGreevy's gubernatorial campaign in 2001. And if history repeats itself, "[Healy's team] will...turn me into a caricature of the far right-wing Republicans that will be unpalatable to Jersey City voters." But, Schundler assured, "it will be a caricature; it won't be me they're talking about."

During his nine years as mayor, Schundler became one of the GOP's promising young stars: he implemented charter schools and health savings accounts, taxes and crime plummeted, Jersey City became number one in job and wage growth among the nation's largest cities, and he created an $8 million surplus. National Review's Jeffrey Hart wrote, "[Schundler] seems to know how to implement Ronald Reagan's ideas better than Reagan did." The late William F. Buckley Jr. told readers, "Look for [Schundler] in 2008." While quick to deflect praise, Schundler admitted, "We were doing very innovative stuff."

As before, Schundler plans to increase jobs while lowering taxes and crime. According to him, the tax levy has gone up 50 percent in seven years, the murder rate has doubled, and job growth is stagnant (19,000 jobs were created during 1993-2003, but only 450 during 2003-2006). He's also looking to make crime mapping publicly available and to use online forums to keep government accountable.

With a history to campaign on, Schundler is optimistic. Residents like Yun can compare the Jersey City of old to what it is today: Tall buildings, like inflatable castles, have ballooned up along its Eastern shore; young people in earth tones and big sunglasses proudly carry their eco-friendly shopping bags past the Grove Street train stop; and business people in power suits wait at the crosswalks by Merrilll Lynch and Goldman Sachs.

As he continued driving, Schundler turned down the revitalized Martin Luther King Dr., the main thoroughfare of the African-American community. Store fronts, once broken and covered in graffiti, are now adorned with new facades. It was easy to tell who the residents credited with the renewal. When a middle-aged man spotted Schundler's car, he yelled and waved excitedly: "Schundler!" Schundler raised his hand and waved as he turned the corner.

YET MANY IN Jersey City haven't been there long enough to know anything but the resurrected city, let alone who's responsible. "For people who have been here 20 years or more, who know what it was like...in the 1980s up to '92 when I got elected, I'm ahead of [Healy]," he said. "For people who...don't know me at all, he's shutting me out."

From the shaded backyard of his 1800s brownstone, Schundler explained his reason for running again: "I see the city sliding back. If I think I can make a difference, is it my responsibility to make a difference?" He's decided, "yes." But while many would be eager to declare this the beginning of a large scale comeback for the revitalized GOP prodigy, he's not ready to call it that. "I've run twice for governor and that didn't work," he said chuckling. "I'm thinking I'll just finish up here."

Still, he's not treating this campaign as a night cap to a mostly successful political career. The problems in Jersey City, while not as bad as in 1992, are still extensive. By fixing them, he's hoping to return Jersey City to its beacon status: "What I'd like to do is....have Jersey City really be the model for how you run municipal governments."

While not the makings of a large-scale GOP comeback, that is still good news for beleaguered New Jersey Republicans. Tom Wilson, the state party chairman, is excited about Schundler's return: "Bret Schundler is one of the smartest most principled and thoughtful public officials I have ever met....He brought free market solutions to an urban environment. He proved that it's not all about creating a bigger government with a more voracious appetite for tax money."

If he loses, Schundler plans to return to The King's College, where he began teaching policy and rhetoric in 2006, and then run again in 2013. "If I lose this election," he said, "I would probably win in the next one." But he's hoping it doesn't come to that -- he likes his chances come spring. Especially if he convinces people of one thing: "I think I can be an even better mayor now."

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