Meet Bret Schundler, From Wonderful Guys Who Gave You Reagan

Larry Kudlow was running late for his own dinner party. It

was Tuesday, June 26, and Mr. Kudlow, the economist and National Review columnist, was set to host a select group of

conservative intellectuals-“our gang,” as he calls them-at his apartment at

93rd Street and Madison Avenue.

Belatedly freed from his talking-head duties at CNBC, Mr.

Kudlow rushed home to find his living room already filled with guests. National Review editor Richard Lowry was

there. So was Mark Cunningham, an editor of the New York Post ‘s editorial page.

One topic was on everyone’s lips: the New Jersey Republican

gubernatorial primary. The polls showed one of the gang’s favorites, former

Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, poised to beat moderate former Congressman

Bob Franks.

In walked former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, Mr.

Kudlow’s neighbor but no ideological fellow-traveler. “What do you hear about

Schundler?” he asked Mr. Kudlow.

“This was a cerebral crowd, and you could feel the buzz,”

Mr. Kudlow recalled.

Two weeks later, the buzz

continues. Mr. Schundler’s upset victory has energized conservative Republicans

in the city and left even squishy folks like Mr. Weld wanting to know more.

Mr.Kudlow’s friends are beaming like proud parents. Over the last eight years, they-the

Manhattan conservative intelligentsia-have done as much as anyone to create Mr.

Schundler as a national political figure. They anointed the former bond trader as

a bright hope for their movement when he was just the obscure new mayor of a

depressed little burg across the Hudson River.

Mr. Schundler’s Jersey City neighbor, John Fund, praised him

to the heavens on the Wall Street Journal

editorial page. The Manhattan Institute hailed him as an avatar of its own

beliefs. Wall Street supply-siders showered him with money and attention.

William F. Buckley Jr. predicted: “Look for him in 2008.”

Now, they say, the charismatic politician who quotes

Scripture and Karl Marx could be just the prescription for a Republican Party

mired in miasma four months into the Presidency of George W. Bush. Mr.

Schundler’s unlikely road to the nomination provides a hopeful counternarrative

to the depressing news out of Washington: falling poll numbers, Vermont Senator

Jim Jeffords’ defection and the loss of the U.S. Senate. Mr. Schundler is a

candidate who supports lower taxes and school choice and unabashedly opposes

abortion. And he won-at least in a primary-in New Jersey, a prototypical

Northeastern state that usually prefers its Republicans done medium well.

“This is going to be the

national race” in 2001, said Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative political-action

committee founded by investment banker Richard Gilder, who has long supported

Mr. Schundler. “This is the single race that the whole political establishment

all over the country is going to focus on, and it has huge ramifications for

how Republicans run in 2002 and beyond.”

Yet, even though all these New Yorkers had so many nice

things to say about Mr. Schundler, the candidate himself didn’t want to discuss

his conservative friends. Through a press aide, he declined to be interviewed

for this story.

Lately, as he prepares to face his general-election opponent,

Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey, Mr. Schundler has tried to downplay his

conservative roots and rally the support of New Jersey’s Republican

establishment, pledging to run a campaign based on local pocketbook issues like

taxes, tolls and schools. Mr. Franks is now a co-chairman of his campaign,

joining former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, former Senator Jack Kemp and

former Presidential candidate (and New Jersey resident) Steve Forbes.

“I don’t like this idea that he was the creation of, the

darling of, the conservative movement,” said Peter Flanigan, a former

investment banker and Manhattan Institute board member who is co-chairman of

Mr. Schundler’s fund-raising committee. “He was on the road to running for

governor long before that.”

Yet Mr. Schundler has clearly benefited from his high

profile. He’s certainly the only mayor of a small, rusting city whom columnist

George Will has compared to the Founding Fathers-on the Fourth of July, no

less. Now that he’s won the nomination, his conservative friends are busily

making plans to spend millions on his behalf.

“Bret’s always relied on his friends in the conservative

movement,” said Vincent Cannato, a former top Schundler aide and author of a

recently published book , The Ungovernable

City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York . “It’s no accident

that Jack Kemp was with him onstage [at his primary victory party]. This is not

a local political race. This is a national race about conservative values and

the future of the Republican Party.”

“He has friends all over the country, and they are helping,”

Mr. Flanigan said.

Those friends include

myriad conservative interest groups, foundations and political-action

committees, all of which can be expected to focus on one of the few compelling

races in what is an otherwise quiet election year.

“All the conservative grassroots groups will be in there,”

Mr. Kudlow said. “He’ll get the family groups, the gun groups. They’ll try to

mobilize every last body …. And [he'll have] all the conservative editorialists

and the National Review .”

In fact, some are already working for him. In the closing

days of the primary, Mr. Schundler’s campaign got a boost from mailings

attacking Mr. Franks that were sent by a conservative foundation associated

with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. That group has already unveiled a TV ad

attacking Mr. McGreevey. Such independent expenditures don’t count against Mr.

Schundler’s spending limit under New Jersey’s campaign-finance laws.

“I think you’re likely to see a ground war” in the general-election

campaign, said Grover G. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a

prominent Republican strategist. Mr. Norquist anticipated getting involved, as

he did in 1993 for Christine Todd Whitman’s campaign. “Everyone with resources

who cares on both sides will be in there.”

So will the Club for Growth, said Mr. Moore. He said his

organization is planning to spend “a couple of hundred thousand” dollars on

television and radio ads that will contrast Mr. Schundler’s mayoral record with

Mr. McGreevey’s, to begin airing in a few weeks.

Early on, the Club for Growth raised somewhere between

$100,000 and $200,000 for Mr. Schundler, according to Mr. Moore. “I was happy

do it because Bret’s a friend,” he said. “But I was always skeptical about him

winning the race. The odds seemed so against him in New Jersey.”

But Mr. Schundler ran a surprisingly vigorous campaign.

First his principal opponent, acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco, was knocked

from the race by a series of damaging revelations about his personal business

dealings. (Mr. DiFrancesco blames Mr. Schundler for leaking the stories, a

charge he denies.)   While a new

opponent, Mr. Franks, struggled, Mr. Schundler mobilized the die-hard

conservative voters who would carry him to victory in a low-turnout primary.

“Republicans have really

been in a funk since the Jeffords defection,” Mr. Moore said. “This is the

first sort of cheerful news that conservatives have received in many weeks. “

For Mr. Schundler’s early backers, there’s a sense of

vindication.

“We have an awful lot of Republican parties-New York State

is one of them-which basically have decided that the only way to go is to

become Democrats,” said Myron Magnet, editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal . “What Bret showed in New

Jersey is that there is a base of real Republicans out there, people that

believe the Reagan revolution actually happened.”

“For a guy who’s on the growth side to beat a moderate,” Mr.

Gilder said, “maybe it means our ideas aren’t so crazy after all.”

It was much the same reasoning that first made Mr. Schundler

a darling of the right. In 1992, fresh off of Wall Street, he ran in a special

election for mayor of the Democratic bastion of Jersey City. The old mayor had

just gone to jail, a recurring theme in Jersey City politics. Mr. Schundler

eked out a victory in a 19-way field.

A Local Hero

By happy coincidence, John Fund, the Wall Street Journal editorialist, happened to live in Jersey City.

He began writing about the Democratic town’s new conservative mayor. “It was a dog-bites-man story,” he said.

Mr. Gilder met Mr. Schundler around the same time. The new

mayor came to speak to Mr. Gilder’s group of well-connected conservative

bankers, then called the Political Club for Growth, and blew them away.

“It was such an unlikely thing-one of our crowd running for

the mayor of Jersey City,” Mr. Gilder said. “If [our ideas] could work there,

they could work anywhere-and it was just across the river.”

Over the next few months, Mr. Schundler repeated the

performance at conferences and breakfast meetings around the country. As he

spoke to the Manhattan Institute, its president, Larry Mone, remembers a

realization dawning on the group: Mr. Schundler, apparently on his own, had

come up with many of the institute’s ideas. “Bret was the living incarnation of

what we thought was possible,” Mr. Mone said.

In those heady days of 1993 and 1994, a steady stream of

conservative columnists and newspaper reporters made the pilgrimage to Jersey

City to see what Mr. Schundler was up to. Newt Gingrich called him “the most

exciting Republican in the country.” National Republican leaders put his face

on political mailings.

People like Mr. Flanigan, a wealthy advocate of school

vouchers, gave money to Mr. Schundler’s campaigns, and to a foundation he set

up to promote his education initiatives. (The foundation became a focus of Mr.

Franks’ criticism in the primary, when a judge found it may have improperly

spent $885,000 on commercials featuring Mr. Schundler.)

Then came the inevitable backlash. At home, local politicos

said Mr. Schundler was spending too much time at cocktail parties and

conference podiums and too little time getting his revolution started. Ruth

Shalit wrote a devastating profile in The

New Republic ; entitled “Schundler’s Lust,” it portrayed the mayor as

shallow, ambitious and without substantial accomplishment. Mr. Schundler kept a

lower profile after that.

As recently as this March, the National Review ‘s John Miller wrote: “Schundler was, not long ago,

a conservative golden boy …. But his time in office is a case study in

shattered hopes and diminished expectations.” Mr. Schundler failed to cut taxes

as deeply as he said he would, and failed to put his ambitious plan for school

vouchers into effect. In fairness, Mr. Miller said, there was only so much Mr.

Schundler could do-Governor Whitman, as one example, abandoned him on his

school-voucher plan.

Mr. Schundler’s style turned off some. “He’s a great

rhetorician-he loves to speak, he loves to philosophize,” Mr. Cannato said. “He

sees this [campaign] as a graduate seminar, an extended debate on political

philosophy.” But sometimes his flights of rhetorical fancy run towards the

kooky, as when he recently called Mr. McGreevey an “ayatollah” for attacking

his anti-abortion stand.

In some conservative circles, Mr. Schundler was tagged as

“another Jack Kemp.” The label meant: too much lofty talk, too little action. But now that he’s actually won, it seems

all is forgiven.

On primary night at Mr. Kudlow’s apartment, Mr. Lowry, the National Review editor, kept furtively

checking his PalmPilot. There was no TV in the room and no other way to keep up

on the latest Schundler news. Mr.

Kudlow’s guests went around the table, placing bets on Mr. Schundler’s margin

of victory.

At 10 p.m., Mr. Lowry saw a headline declaring Mr. Schundler

the landslide winner; not even Mr. Kudlow, the most optimistic, had picked the

spread. “We saw that and we all cheered,” Mr. Lowry said.

“The thing that’s interesting about Schundler for

conservatives is that he combines three strains of the conservative movement

all in one,” Mr. Fund said. “He’s got the leave-us-alone coalition. He’s got

the sort of populist appeal: ‘Smash the tollbooths.’ And he’s got the people

for whom moral values are preeminent.

“It’s very rare to get all the planets in alignment,” Mr.

Fund continued. “The last person who did it was Ronald Reagan. I don’t mean to

say [Schundler] is Ronald Reagan, but

the appeal he has is unusual enough that comparisons to Reagan are not out of

line.”

Now he just needs to get past Jim McGreevey.