A new Jersey

The improbable Bret Schundler has grand plans for his state

Issue: "Reining in the UN," Feb. 17, 2001

None of us here at WORLD magazine, of course, pretends to be in a position to tell the God of the universe how He ought to order New Jersey's public affairs over the next few months. But I do have one small suggestion that I earnestly hope He makes part of His grand plan for the good of this republic. The suggestion is that God order human affairs, in a most improbable way, to see to it that Bret Schundler is elected later this year as the governor of New Jersey.

Humanly speaking, Bret Schundler doesn't have a chance. He is a self-conscious conservative in a liberal state. He's seeking to succeed Christine Todd Whitman, perhaps the most liberal recent governor in the Republican Party. But even before he can think much about a general election, Mr. Schundler has to win a Republican primary election against Mrs. Whitman's hand-picked interim successor. And Mr. Schundler isn't long on either money or strategy.

Yet all that is precisely what would make it such an enormously grand thing if he wins. For a Schundler victory-in a year when all the conventional wisdom suggests liberals are loaded for bear to get revenge for their recent losses-would be as devastating a demoralizer as one might imagine for the liberal establishment and just as energizing an encouragement for conservatives. Indeed, part of Mr. Schundler's strategy is to convince fellow conservatives-and perhaps especially fellow Christian conservatives-how important his race really is, and to enlist their support from all over the country for his New Jersey race.

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Bret Schundler may be the most epistemologically self-conscious politician I've ever talked to. Son of a Presbyterian minister, he and his six brothers and one sister were regularly challenged to think through their own answers to hard problems. "How are you going to solve the problems in Cambodia?" their father would ask them at the dinner table-and then they would discuss possible solutions. Mr. Schundler once thought of going into the ministry himself. Instead, he tried his hand first at public service, and then went into high finance in New York City. But even as he commuted into Manhattan from his home in Jersey City, he couldn't stop thinking about his obligation to the down-and-outers who lived around him. So he quit his job and ran for mayor.

On the face of it, that decision eight years ago was even more dubious than his recent commitment to run for governor. In New Jersey at large, Republicans are outnumbered only 2-1; but in Jersey City only 6 percent of all voters were Republicans. Amazingly, Bret Schundler won.

To his new task as mayor, Mr. Schundler took convictions that tended at first to be conservative-but which have become even more so along the way. He cut city budgets but increased actual services. He moved policemen from desk jobs out to the streets, and cut crime by a third. He led a fight for charter schools in New Jersey, and founded one of his own. When the ACLU didn't like Christian and Jewish holiday displays on city property, Mr. Schundler took them on in court, and he won. City employees were able to choose medical savings accounts instead of traditional health coverage.

And then, not just once but twice, he won reelection. In the last race, he won 70 percent of the Hispanic vote and 45 percent of the black vote. "I can say with pride," said former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, "that he has quite possibly been the single most conservative leader in the nation in terms of actually enacting conservative policy in a governmental jurisdiction-a leader who has not just talked the talk, but truly walked the walk."

Some say he's a winner in spite of his conservative policies. But Bret Schundler thinks he's a winner mostly because of those policies. "Not everyone agrees with all my views," he told me last week. "But everyone in Jersey City knows the mayor is trying to fight for them. They know I'm serious about what I believe."

That's why Mr. Schundler isn't afraid that his pro-life views will hurt him in the coming election-even in a state where former Gov. Whitman vetoed a ban on partial-birth abortion. He openly concedes he's changed his mind in recent years on abortion, switching from "pro-choice" to "pro-life." He says Catholic friends who were part of his alliance to promote choice in education persuaded him that choice about abortion is morally wrong. And he's confident that people will respect his principled view on the subject, even though he doubts a pro-life position is politically advantageous in today's climate.

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