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
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
“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
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
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
Now he just needs to get past Jim McGreevey.