The accommodating, poll-driven, can't-we-all-get-along Republicans are getting nervous in New Jersey. That's because Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler might win Tuesday's primary for governor against the party establishment's choice, former Congressman Bob Franks, whose campaign has been mostly about attacking Schundler. Franks, a four-term ex-Congressman, is the choice of all but two of the party's county chairmen. He lost last year's Senate race to Democrat Jon Corzine by just 3 percentage points.
When Schundler was elected mayor of the mostly Democrat, mostly union town of Jersey City in 1992, he brought to the job what the Washington Post's Lally Weymouth accurately described as "Ronald Reagan's essential gift: a handful of strongly held convictions," which included safe and clean streets, as many police officers as the crime rate requires, secure schools that teach the fundamentals, low taxes, school choice and work instead of welfare.
Schundler turned Jersey City around and, in the process won two re-election bids, attracting Democratic and Independent voters. He also attracted new businesses, which had shunned Jersey City because of high taxes and high crime. Schundler, a former Democrat, has won three races for mayor in a city where only 6 percent of registered voters are Republicans. He thinks he can do for the state and his party what he has done for Jersey City.
New Jersey has a history of corrupt politics, so when one mentions "convictions" it's easy to think first of the kind that come in a courtroom. But Schundler has the other kind of convictions and he states them without apology. This is what strikes fear in the soft hearts of the GOP establishment, because if Schundler can win the primary and general election without compromising his strong religious and conservative political principles, the establishment will be challenged to find some principles of its own.
Schundler is not just pro-life. He acts on his Christian beliefs and seeks to persuade others that those beliefs are objectively true. Three years ago, he held a prayer vigil outside a Jersey City sewage treatment plant where a newborn baby had been found dead amid the refuse. He spoke of life as a sacred gift and blamed an immoral and throwaway culture for creating the conditions that would lead a mother to drop her newborn into a sewer and teenagers to shoot-up their schools.
In a telephone interview, Schundler said Tuesday's primary will be a referendum on conservatism vs. liberalism. "A lot of people think you have to be a liberal to win in the Northeast," he said, "but there's a big gulf between some of our leaders and where the rank and file are. If I win, it may keep some of the Northeast (congressional) Republicans on the reservation instead of having them, like Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT) flirt with Democratic policy positions."
If Schundler wins the primary, he'll not only face the likely Democratic candidate, James McGreevey, but the powerful teachers union. That doesn't worry Schundler, who unapologetically favors school choice. His proposal has a twist he believes will survive a court challenge. Instead of direct grants by government to private schools, Schundler's plan would provide a substantial tax credit for people who donate to charities that already offer scholarships to poor children. If someone gave $1,000 to such a charity, says Schundler, they would receive under his plan a combined tax deduction of $850 from their federal and state governments. The charity would choose which family receives the scholarship and the parents would choose the school. Schundler believes there are sufficient "degrees of separation" to survive any church-state separation court challenge because the charitable scholarship programs already enjoy government's blessing.
The latest Quinnipiac University poll (conducted June 14-18) shows Schundler surging past Franks. This respected poll indicates an incredible turnaround from a significant Schundler deficit, showing the mayor now leading by a 54-39 percent margin among likely GOP primary voters.
When Schundler won the mayor's race in Jersey City nine years ago, The Wall Street Journal called his victory "an earthquake." If he becomes governor of the Democratic-leaning New Jersey, the aftershocks will be felt in Washington.