TRENTON, N.J. -- In the early '90s, Newt Gingrich called him "the most exciting Republican in the country." Jack Kemp said he was "the gold standard when it comes to political leadership in America today." Can anyone guess his name?
The name is Bret Schundler, now 46, and he's trying to win a second New Jersey gubernatorial nomination in next Tuesday's GOP primary. This race and the November finale, if his candidacy survives, are significant outside this capital city of a tiny state because few northeastern Republicans are willing to be identified publicly as conservative, evangelical and pro-life.
The youngest of nine children, Schundler graduated from Harvard in 1981, helping to pay his way by washing dishes and cleaning bathrooms. He worked for a liberal congressman and on Gary Hart's campaign in 1984, and those experiences helped him to see that, in general, "Democrats care more about the constituencies making money from social programs than about the people supposedly being helped." He saw government programs typically hurting rather than helping: "The government was making people homeless."
In the late 1980s, Schundler did well on Wall Street while living just across the Hudson River in Jersey City, a municipality notorious for big pockets of economic despair and political pockets regularly stuffed with bribes. In 1992, he decided to "shoot across the bow of the machine" by running for mayor as a Republican, even though only 6 percent of the city's residents were registered that way and no GOPer had been elected since 1917.
In a special election called after the sitting mayor (unsurprisingly) was imprisoned for fraud, Schundler finished first in a field of 19 candidates. Six months later, running on his 1993 platform of less spending, lower taxes and school vouchers, he won a full term with 69 percent of the vote. He gained re-election in 1997.
Since 75 percent of Jersey City residents are members of racial or ethnic minorities, among whom Republicans often fare poorly, and since Schundler had gained large support among them by pushing for smaller government rather than imitating Democrats, he became semi-famous. His nine years as mayor turned out to be silver rather than gold, but that was a great improvement over the paper mache of previous administrations.
Still, nine years is an eternity in American politics, and it wasn't big news outside of New Jersey when Schundler in 2001 defeated a liberal Republican for the gubernatorial nomination, in the process angering the Kean/Whitman GOP establishment. The November governor's race might have drawn broad attention, but it came less than two months after the Sept. 11 disaster: Schundler, unable to get traction, lost 56 percent to 42 percent to Democrat Jim McGreevey. (If you're outside New Jersey and that name rings a bell, you're probably recalling last fall's sordid story of the married McGreevey resigning from office after saying he had a homosexual affair with a man he had made the state's director of homeland security.)
So now Schundler is trying again with "one simple message": Binding annual caps on state, county, municipal and school spending, with those caps to be exceeded only if voters approve. This would result in lower property taxes. It's essential in New Jersey to keep it simple, because the state has no major television stations: Candidates have to buy expensive ads on New York City and Philadelphia stations, which give almost no coverage to New Jersey politics.
Polls have shown Schundler in a tight race with pro-choice-on-abortion Doug Forrester; other conservatives are far behind. Schundler could (if moderates truly tolerated conservatives) bring together the fiscal and social conservative wings of the GOP by saying no to high taxes, abortion and same-sex marriage, but he needs a breakthrough. He says, "It's not about using the sharpest tone, but maintaining the clearest vision."
On Tuesday, we'll find out if that's true.