Shortly after moving to Jersey City in 1985, a 26-year-old Bret Schundler ascended the escalator at the Grove Street PATH station and found a group of men drinking beer and playing craps.
“It was incredible to me that they could be doing that in plain view in that public a place and not worry about it,” said Schundler, who had left off working on Democratic political campaigns to take up a career in finance. “But the police back then didn’t think that was enough of a serious crime to worry about.”
Witnessing that kind of scene helped inspire the beginning of an extraordinarily unlikely political career. Seven years later, Schundler, who had undergone an ideological transformation into a conservative Republican, went on to be elected mayor of a heavily Democratic city.
Almost eight years after leaving office and going on to run two unsuccessful bids for governor, Schundler now says that he’s witnessing a throwback the machine politics that he worked so hard to change – the same type of policies that he thinks brought Jersey City to the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1990s, when the city led the state in job losses and 22% of residents defaulted on their property taxes.
“I just bring this up to say that we turned it around pretty dramatically,” he said. “When I was in office, Harvard University did a study, and it found that of all the 100 largest cities in the United States of America, we were number one in job creation and the reduction of unemployment and poverty.”
Schundler won’t say whether Mayor Jerramiah Healy solely deserves the blame. And he won’t criticize his own immediate successor, the late Glenn Cunningham. But Healy, he says, is part and product of the problem, and that’s why he’s considering returning to City Hall next year.
“The fundamental problem we have is a return to machine politics going on. The problems that we’re having with crime and drugs is a problem with policing, and I think it’s a problem with machine politics coming back,” said Schundler.
But Schundler remains uncommitted to the prospect of returning to City Hall.
“I still haven’t made up my mind definitively whether I’m going to run or not,” said Schundler, who wouldn’t give so much as an indication of which way he’s leaning.
Schundler won the mayor’s race after former Mayor Gerry McCann went to jail for fraud, and after the short terms of two acting mayors. He managed to squeak out a victory in a field of 19 candidates, and then hold on in two subsequent elections by forming alliances with key Democrats like then-Councilman Tom DeGise (now county executive) and Councilman Bill Gaughan. But after departing from the political scene to devote his attentions statewide and seeing his former allies scattered across the city with various allegiances – and without nearly 20 candidates competing in a special election –
Schundler will likely find it much more difficult to cobble together enough support to run a viable campaign. He might also have to compete for votes with Ward E Councilman Steve Fulop, who has co-opted much of Schundler’s former base.
As DeGise, who remains friends with Schundler but has committed to backing Healy for reelection “unequivocally” told PolitickerNJ.com last month, “Putting Humpty Dumpty back together is not going to be easy.”
Schundler, however, wouldn’t discuss the politics of his prospective candidacy. Not even whether he will support Republicans John McCain for president and Dick Zimmer for U.S. Senate (a poll from Schundler asked Jersey City residents if they would be more likely to vote for him if he dropped his Republican affiliation).
Right now, Schundler is weighing his options. He’s happy with his as a professor at The King’s College. He loves his frequent tours of Eastern Europe to lecture officials on municipal government on behalf of the school and the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank (In December he met with the mayor of Tirana, Albania).
The hours are flexible, leaving him plenty of time to spend with his two children, ages nine and sixteen.
“Being mayor I worked about sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. I don’t know about (Jerramiah) Healy,” he said.
But Schundler’s family also provides a motivation for him to run. The increase in violent crime struck close to home in April, when his son, returning from a Little League game, walked past a corner that hours later became the scene of a homicide. Six months into 2008, Schundler sees murder rates approaching what they were for a full year during the latter portion of his incumbency.
“The biggest distressing factor is the dramatic increase in violent crime,” he said. “We reduced violent crime by a huge amount, and its rising. This year we’re already at a pace of what we would have as a full year in terms of murder. I think I saw that they’ve had 17 murders or so in Jersey City.”
The budget, Schundler said, has been handled the same way. During his years in office, he kept it went up 1.5% per year. Recently, it’s been rising at approximately 6% per year. That’s led to a much larger tax levy and increased property taxes. Schundler even sees to city squeezing its residents with aggressive tactics to write parking tickets, with fees of $42 (Schundler remembers them being $27 during his term).
“It seems to met they’re trying to generate money as opposed to making sure that parking is orderly and safe. It’s just another tax on people but it’s just another antagonizing tax,” he said.
Of course, Jersey City’s drop in crime during Schundler’s time in office was accompanied by downturn in crime across the country. And the redevelopment of Jersey City’s waterfront, which Schundler is particularly proud of, began with the Newport development during the first McCann administration in the 1980s (development which had come to a halt soon after).
Now, according to Schundler, the plans for the Powerhouse Arts District he championed have become, in essence, a giant real estate development without providing a cultural center.
Regardless of whether he runs, Schundler said that he’s going to make a concerted effort to change politics as usual in the city.
“I’m not sure when I’m going to make a definitive decision vis-à-vis running, but I will spend more time organizing citizens,” he said.
The timing of Schundler’s assertions is coincidental, as Jersey City Democrats began running a cable television ad today of Healy touting his accomplishments as mayor, a clear attempt to position him for next year’s race.
Healy spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill said that crime as a whole has dropped each year since Healy became mayor. And she contrasted Schundler’s anti-gun control positions during his gubernatorial bids to Healy’s gun buy-back programs.
“(Schundler) could have been called a lobbyist for NRA, in a sense,” said Morrill. “He advocated allowing for the watering down of gun laws which only increases the number of guns. This mayor has fought against illegal guns and the guns that are causing crime and killing people every day.”
Morrill also said that Healy has had to grapple with fiscal woes left behind by Schundler, who she said used fiscal gimmicks, like selling a recreational complex to the board of education to balance the budget just before leaving office. She also said that Healy is trying to reverse “overzealous enforcement practices” by the parking authority, which “became the norm under the Schundler administration.
As for development, Morrill said that Healy kickstarted housing development in the city’s Journal Square section. And as for the Powerhouse Arts District: “This is the first administration to actually do something in the arts district, not just talk about it.”