TRENTON, N.J. - It's a short trip these days from whiz-kid to has-been-and Bret Schundler, now 46, will avoid that slide only if Christians and conservatives show appreciation for good ideas plus perseverance.
Mr. Schundler is 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.
This candidate is all three, plus one more: He has learned to battle with civility and speak boldly without screaming. He has lapses, as do we all, but in conversation last month he dropped a sentence that I wish was on the wall in many offices around the country, but particularly those of Christians: "It's not about using the sharpest tone but maintaining the clearest vision."
The youngest of nine children, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 six 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Schundler had gained large support among them by pushing for smaller government rather than imitating Democrats, he became semi-famous. WORLD had a cover story on him, Newt Gingrich called him "the most exciting Republican in the country," and Jack Kemp said he was "the gold standard when it comes to political leadership in America today."
Although his nine years as mayor turned out to be silver rather than gold, that was a great improvement over the papier-mâché of previous administrations. But nine years is an eternity in American politics, and it wasn't big news outside of New Jersey when Mr. Schundler in 2001 defeated a liberal Republican for the gubernatorial nomination, in the process angering the Kean/Whitman GOP establishment (see WORLD, July 7, 2001).
The November governor's race might have drawn broad attention, but it came less than two months after the Sept. 11 disaster: Mr. Schundler, unable to get traction, lost 56-42 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Schundler in a tight race with pro-choice-on-abortion Doug Forrester; other conservatives are far behind. Mr. 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.