The Magazine

The Battle of Trenton

Can Bret Schundler pull off another upset?

Sep 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 01 • By JAMES HIGGINS
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IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF AMERICAN CONSERVATISM, young Reaganites imagined there would one day be a sort of apostolic succession from Ronald Reagan to Jack Kemp. When Kemp’s star faded and Bret Schundler was elected mayor of Jersey City—a bright spot for conservatives in 1993, that bleak first year of the Clintons—some of those same hopes came to rest on the tax-cutting 34-year-old Wall Streeter, who like Reagan and Kemp had managed the trick of appealing to urban Democrats. Now, a decade later, Schundler faces an uphill race for the governorship of New Jersey that will settle the question of whether his brilliant future lies ahead of or behind him.

Schundler, 42, is the youngest son of a New Jersey family of nine, a Harvard graduate with a picture-postcard family, and an articulate, telegenic spokesman for the full range of conservative causes. He has a record of appealing to minority voters—in his 1997 reelection, Schundler won 70 percent of the Hispanic vote—and to Democrats. Jersey City is a multiethnic melting pot, with only 6 percent registered Republicans. Pre-Schundler, Jersey City had a long, often embarrassing, and always Democratic political history, including decades of domination by Democratic thug Frank "I am the law" Hague. As Steve Forbes describes it, in Jersey City before Schundler "the newspapers had a stock headline: ‘MAYOR INDICTED.’" Hague got away with it, but three other Schundler predecessors were term-limited by the criminal justice system.

Schundler’s first victory in 1992, in a special election with 19 candidates, could be written off as a fluke in which voters did not realize they were casting a ballot for a Republican. It is much harder to make such a claim about his two victories in subsequent regular elections in 1993 and 1997, when he won 69 percent and 59 percent of the vote.

Schundler’s opponent this year is Jim McGreevey, a former state legislator who is now mayor of Woodbridge, a city of some 95,000 residents three turnpike exits south of Jersey City. McGreevey faced no serious challengers for the Democratic nomination. His campaign heavily emphasizes the words "work," "respect," and "values," and mentions the middle-class careers of McGreevey’s parents and grandparents—cop, nurse, Marine Corps drill instructor—almost as often as the campaign mentions the candidate himself.

Positioning himself as a reform mayor and centrist, McGreevey is running on such Clintonian bromides as "Recognize and respect New Jersey’s diversity as a strength," and "Commit to ending racial profiling." His chief issues are uncontroversial micro-subjects such as the reform of administrative law courts. McGreevey’s real claim to the Democratic nomination is that he came within one percentage point of upsetting former governor Christine Todd Whitman in her 1997 reelection bid.
Whether that presages a victory for McGreevey this year is no sure thing, since the 1997 race was run more as a referendum on Whitman than anything else. Whitman by then may have become the New York Times’s favorite Republican—an extreme abortion rights advocate who moved steadily leftward after pushing the tax cuts that got her elected through the legislature—but her electoral base had soured on her. She beat McGreevey by 26,000 votes in a year generally favorable to incumbents, while winning 100,000 fewer votes than in 1993. McGreevey was clever enough to hammer at Whitman over high auto insurance rates—a perennial winner for challengers and headache for incumbents. But it was, in effect, a one-candidate race. In that sense McGreevey has not really been tested in a tough statewide contest.

The course of the New Jersey governor’s race already rivals a Robert Ludlum novel for bizarre plot twists. The seat was expected to be an open one, with Whitman forced by term limits to leave office. McGreevey, respected by state Democrats for the race he ran in 1997, was expected to be the Democratic nominee. Then, in July 2000, Sen. Robert Torricelli entered the race. Torricelli might have been a formidable challenger, but the same flamboyant campaign finance practices that may win Torricelli a federal indictment won him an ice-water welcome into the race. He gave up within weeks.

Schundler and New Jersey Senate president Don "Donnie" DiFrancesco expected to run against each other in the Republican primary. The two might as well have come from different planets. DiFrancesco is the archetypal insider from the bipartisan Trenton legislative clubhouse, at home with deals and patronage and opposed to anything that might rock the boat, such as a Schundler-sponsored educational choice plan that would have benefited poor children in Jersey City’s abysmal public schools.