Schundler-related poll fuels speculation in Jersey City

Former Mayor Bret Schundler’s political future is the talk of Jersey City political circles this week because of polling phone calls being received in the area.

Schundler, a conservative Republican who served as Mayor of this ultra-Democratic town from late 1992 until 2001, would not confirm or deny putting a poll in the field, but responded by e-mail that he has not decided whether or not to run again.

The polling questions, however, have set off speculation that Schundler is leaning towards making a run for it, while others doubt what kind of support Schundler can get after leaving the city’s political scene altogether and running twice as a firmly right wing gubernatorial candidate.

Although Schundler won’t claim ownership of the poll and declined to be interviewed for this story, Hudson County Freeholder Bill O’Dea, who received the call on Friday evening, said that it almost certainly came from either Schundler or a group that’s trying to recruit him to run.

O’Dea said the poll first asked about the entire field of potential Jersey City mayoral candidates: Mayor Jerramiah Healy, Schundler, state Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham, Ward E Councilman Steven Fulop, former Assemblyman Lou Manzo and Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith. But immediately after the first question, the survey narrowed its focus to just Healy and Schundler.

According to Jersey City real estate agent Phil Rivo, who also received the call, the survey next asked respondents how they felt about Healy, and asked them to list things they like and dislike about him. The survey went on to list several urban-area quality of life issues like crime and education, and asked respondents who did a better job at addressing them during their terms as mayor: Healy or Schundler.

And, perhaps most revealingly, after asking where respondents would put Schundler on an ideological scale, the survey asked whether voters would be more inclined to choose Schundler if he switched his party affiliation from Republican to Independent (the city’s mayoral race is non-partisan).

“Obviously I took from those questions that it would have been a Schundler-related or commissioned poll,” said O’Dea, who noted that the poll never asked if he was an elected official – a prerequisite question in most scientific surveys. “I really got the impression of the poll at this time that it was putting your toe in the water and not jumping in yet.”

The poll didn’t get a favorable response from Mia Scanga, a local political activist who runs a cable access television show on local politics and created the still-existing but not recently-updated website Stopbretschundler.com. When she first heard it, she wondered whether it was commissioned by Schundler or Healy.

“One question was something like ‘Some people see him as a right wing conservative. Do you agree with that?'” said Scanga, who said she’d probably vote for Fulop, but possibly Manzo. “It was a little more negative than that. I don’t know if Schundler would write that about himself. Why would he even bring it up?”

Healy spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill, however, said that the mayor does not currently have any polls in the field. She said it would be highly unlikely that any other candidates would run a survey that asked virtually no questions about them.

The prospect of a firmly anti-abortion, anti-gun control Republican running for mayor of a city known for the strength of its Democratic machine may seem to defy logic, but it’s happened before.

In 1992, Schundler, who had retired from a job in finance two years before, squeaked out an improbable victory in the mayor’s race. It was made possible by standing out in a field of 19 candidates running in a special election brought about by the removal of Mayor Gerry McCann, who was serving a term in federal prison after being convicted of bank fraud. (Council Presidents Marilyn Roman and Joseph Rakowski served as Acting Mayors in during the nine months between McCann’s departure and Schundler’s election.)

Schundler was also fortunate to have been randomly assigned column A1 on the ballot – right under presidential candidate Bill Clinton.

The next year, Schundler cobbled together a coalition of Democrats, including councilmen Tom DeGise and Bill Gaughan, who helped propel him to an easy re-election. Those Democrats stuck with Schundler, and endorsed him when Chief Municipal Judge Jerramiah Healy took him on in 1997.

But since Schundler left office, many of his reliable allies have moved on. For instance, one of his former top aides, Dominick Pandolfo, is now Healy’s chief of staff. Moreover, Jersey City voters were, for the most part, not aware just how conservative Schundler was when they picked him as mayor.

While Schundler remains friends with prominent political figures like DeGise and Gaughan, Degise said that Healy can count on his support next year.

“I served with (Schundler) for eight years and still consider him a friend. You won’t hear me say anything bad about him, but I’m backing Jerry Healy unconditionally,” said DeGise, who’s now county executive. “Most of those (allies) are scattered in the wind, including me. We kind of went our own ways. Bret left, made his two runs for governor, and there are people now in my administration who were with Bret and people in the Healy administration with Bret.”

Getting the old gang to support Schundler again, DeGise said, would be especially tough.

“Putting Humpty Dumpty back together is not going to be easy.”

Much of Schundler’s old base could be co-opted by Fulop, who represents the city’s gentrified, wealthier downtown section – where Schundler traditionally polled strongest.

Fulop said that prospective candidates would be wise to take a potential Schundler challenge seriously.

“At this point I would say when Bret does declare, he’ll be a serious candidate. He knows how to organize and target voters,” he said. “No matter how people spin things about his history and past, he’s a smart guy and a capable individual.”

Some observers say that if Schundler declares his candidacy, Fulop will likely follow suit quickly so that Schundler can’t cut too deeply into his base.

But Fulop said that he’s not worried about splitting votes with Schundler.

“People think we’re targeting the same base because we both have Wall Street backgrounds, but he’s targeting neo-conservatives and I’m targeting progressives,” he said.

Schundler-related poll fuels speculation in Jersey City