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Choose Schundler in NJ
By W. James Antle III
Republicans rejoiced in the election of Randy Forbes to the late Rep. Norm Sisisky's (D-VA) House seat in Virginia's closely watched special election recently, putting a seat held by the Democrats for 18 years in GOP hands and seemingly vindicating the Bush administration in this swing district. But a better indication of the party's future may be the results of the New Jersey Republican primary on Tuesday, June 26.
There, voters are faced with a stark choice between innovative conservatism and establishment Republicanism. In the race for governor, former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler is competing for the GOP nomination against the party leadership's preferred candidate Bob Franks. Franks is typical of the sort of candidate touted by Republican apparatchiks and elected officials. He has an impressive political resume with terms in the New Jersey Assembly and the US House of Representatives, but he doesn't seem to be especially moved by any causes. He projects an image of a responsible and judicious technocrat who speaks the rhetoric of fiscal conservatism while his record contains votes for tax increases. He would be better than likely Democratic nominee Jim McGreevey, but doesn't have substantial principled disagreements with him over the role of government.
In his losing race for the Senate against left-winger John Corzine, Franks said that the proposed Bush tax cut was "too large." He took predictably politically correct positions on social issues and gun control, making himself innocuous enough to win the endorsement of the New York Times when its editorial board was appalled by the crassness of the super-rich Corzine's self-financed campaign. Nevertheless, when his colorless moderation went up against his opponent's brash populism and statism, Franks still was defeated.
Contrast this with Bret Schundler, a creative candidate with an unlikely career. Schundler fires up right-to-life and gun rights activists and is profiled approvingly by conservative radio talk show hosts and columnists. Yet he served as mayor in a largely working class city that is 65 percent minority, 20 percent poor, only 6 percent Republican and had not elected a Republican mayor since before World War I. This did not prevent Schundler from defeating corrupt Democratic machine politicians with a record 69 percent of the vote in 1993, including 60 percent of Hispanics and 40 percent of blacks. He was reelected in a landslide in 1997, carrying five out eight housing projects and winning 46 percent of the black vote.
Schundler's results in office are even more impressive. He immediately cut his salary to $30,000 a year and refused to accept pay raises in any year that he failed to cut taxes (it wasn't long before his salary was up to $45,000). The city had been borrowing $40 million to $60 million annually on a $300 million budget to cover its structural deficit. Schundler managed to reduce this deficit while reducing the city's share of tax on property by 14 percent, no small accomplishment. He cut the city's work force by 15 percent through attrition alone and cracked down on tax-delinquent properties to avoid increasing the tax burden on working families.
Schundler opened up city services to private companies, allowing free-market bidding and votes by neighborhood groups to determine which company would perform services ranging from street cleaning to garbage pickup. He completed one of the largest public-private water utility partnerships in the United States, saving Jersey City taxpayers almost $7 million a year. He fought rate-gouging by city bureaucracies and pressured even agencies beyond his reach to roll back their bloated budgets. Instead of spending increases, Schundler improved city services through privatization, competition and vibrant market forces.
Additionally, Schundler lowered the cost of providing health insurance coverage to city workers by making Jersey City the first government entity in the country to implement medical savings accounts. Schundler reduced the city's capital debt while still finding money to rebuild parks and athletic facilities, and instituted the Business and Neighborhood Improvement Program. He increased the size of the city's police force from 828 to more than 900 while civilianizing clerical jobs to free up another 50 officers for street patrols. This commitment to community policing helped reduce crime by 40 percent during Schundler's time in office. Schundler brought charter schools to Jersey City and worked for expanded school choice through vouchers.
Jersey City has experienced an economic renaissance. Building and industrial development, once dormant, is now on the upsurge. Unemployment is falling. Some 9,000 new jobs relocated to Jersey City during Schundler's first term alone, with Jersey City accounting for 90 percent of the job creation in New Jersey's Big Six Cities. According to current population projections, Jersey City may overtake Newark in population in a decade. This is the fruit of opportunity and empowerment.
Empowerment is the key word Schundler uses in describing his agenda, but he does not mean the empowerment of government through larger bureaucracy, higher taxes and more red tape. He means an actual shift in economic resources and decision-making ability from government to the people over how to pursue opportunity and live their lives. This thinking animates his policy proposals regarding vouchers, lower taxes, deregulation and privatization.
Such thinking is beginning to resonate among New Jersey voters. After beginning his race against Franks with a 22-point deficit, Schundler has fought his way into a dead heat. Among likely Republican primary voters, Schundler now leads 54 percent to 39 percent.
Americans in the coming years will increasingly face choices between welfare state stagnation and private sector dynamism. Those who defend the latter must make their case in terms of individual autonomy, freedom of choice, economic growth and opportunity. Rather than relying upon the testimony of ideologues, the evidence of free-market reforms at work must be relied upon. Bret Schundler has a track record of putting these ideas into practice with impressive results.
New Jersey voters have a chance in this upcoming primary to make some real choices. Republicans can choose what kind of party they are going to be and voters in general can choose what kind of policies our elected officials are going to pursue in the coming years. Are we going to go with traditional big government approaches, or try reforms that free people to create wealth and pursue excellence? Schundler has made his choice and this writer fervently hopes New Jersey will agree.
W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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