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The 21st Century's "New Idea" candidate

By Steve Lilienthal
web posted August 20, 2001

Back in the early decades of the 20th Century, progressivism was considered to be the coming political movement. In New Jersey, prominent leaders of this movement, including a Jersey City mayor named Mark Fagan, became known as "New Idea" Republicans. In this new century, New Jersey may once again draw attention for becoming part of a coming movement. Only this time it is being led by a Gary Hart Democrat turned Republican who realizes that conservatism not only offers `new' ideas but superior ones at that.

Bret Schundler

Former Jersey City mayor Bret Schundler's biggest test as a vote-getter comes this fall, but his record indicates that he is up to the challenge of waging a winning general election campaign in the Garden State. Schundler upset Jersey City's Democratic establishment by becoming mayor. Then, he proceeded to reduce the tax burden, reduce crime, and spur urban revitalization. At the heart of Schundler's beliefs is that it is the people - not bureaucrats - who should be empowered to make the choices that matter.

This Harvard educated, former Wall Street businessman had once been a Democrat. But as he explained in a recent interview with Newark Star-Ledger columnist John McLaughlin it "became abundantly clear to me that the core of the Democratic Party, the groups that call the shots, had no interest in reforming government programs, because they were largely government employees. It seemed to me that the core interest in the Republican Party was taxpayer interests. The Republicans were saying: `We don't mind if you actually make the programs work as long as you don't make them more expensive.' I could find a more appropriate home for myself in the Republican Party."

But though Schundler may feel comfortable in the Republican Party, the establishment that runs the GOP did not feel particularly comfortable with him. So the Republican Party establishment had rallied around the state's acting governor Don DiFrancesco, who replaced Christie Todd Whitman when she became administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

DiFrancesco's candidacy imploded due to the news media's scrutiny of his financial dealings. Eventually, the acting governor exited the race and ex-U.S. Rep. Bob Franks entered. Franks had name recognition based on his unsuccessful race against Jon Corzine in last year's U.S. Senate race and inherited the support of the party establishment who bent the state's rules
to give his campaign more time and public money to run a primary campaign. Franks tried presenting himself as a reformer. But he really proved to be just another Northeastern moderate Republican more comfortable with the status quo than really shaking things up.

Schundler prevailed because he ran on a campaign that placed trust in New Jersey voters rather than the hew to the conventional politics favored by the party's power brokers. Even last-minute desperation attacks by Franks could not thwart Schundler's growing momentum. The "new idea" Republican ended up winning the nomination in a stunning come-from-behind victory.

Now, Schundler is matched against the Democratic nominee, Woodbridge mayor Jim McGreevey. It's McGreevey's second try. So far this summer, he's been more interested in trying to tear down Schundler than in talking about his own ideas about where New Jersey should be going. To his credit, Schundler did not back down when challenged on his avowed pro-life position or his sincere Christian faith.

Elites may disparage those beliefs, but voters usually appreciate the sincerity with which they are held, even if they do not always share them to the letter. They also appreciate a candidate who speaks directly to their problems and offers ideas that can work rather than dishing out more of the failed policies of the past. That is why a Ronald Reagan could win the support of voters even in northeastern states.

Right now though the latest poll released last week by Quinnipiac University shows McGreevey leading by nineteen percentage points. Schundler is not fazed by the uphill nature of the fall campaign. After all, the polls showed him down by 37 points against DiFrancesco and then 26 points behind Franks.

Most voters are not paying attention to the campaign yet. New Jerseyans rely heavily on the New York and Philadelphia TV stations for their political information. The newspapers and TV stations though tend to give the state's politics tends to get short-shrift until the fall. There is a history of candidates closing fast in New Jersey as exemplified by the victories of Tom Kean (R) in the 1981 governor's race, Frank Lautenberg (D) in the 1982 U.S. Senate race, and Christie Todd Whitman in the 1993 governor's race. The Quinnipiac poll shows McGreevey still below the majority mark. In fact, sizable numbers responding to the poll lack strong knowledge of both candidates. The unfavorable ratings for both are only in the teens. So the race is still very much open.

What's more Schundler has a record as a candidate able to cross party lines, winning votes from people that most Republicans would just write off. But the real difference this fall may turn out to be Schundler's sincere belief in a conservatism that offers new approaches for New Jersey through an agenda built around school choice, ensuring greater teacher accountability, reducing the highway tolls, less taxes and medical savings accounts.

"I went out there and explicitly laid out how I would solve the problems that the people think need to be addressed," said Schundler in explaining his primary victory. That commitment to conviction can work in the general election too. If Schundler sticks to his game plan and holds fast to his new ideas then do not be surprised if there is an upset this fall in New Jersey. ESR

Steve Lilienthal directs media relations for the Free Congress Foundation.

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