In 1999, the late William F. Buckley recognized a rising star in conservative Republican circles named Bret Schundler, who had been mayor of Jersey City for six years. Seeing Schundler as a potential presidential prospect, he wrote in the New York Post: "Look for him in 2008."
Nine years and two gubernatorial losses later, any presidential dreams Schundler once harbored are gone. But we can look for him in 2009, because Schundler has all but made it official, acknowledging that he plans to run to return to Grove Street next year, eight years after he left the office.
"This is not a formal kickoff announcement, but I do plan to run," said Schundler in a phone interview.
Schundler served between late 1992 and 2001, when he decided to forego reelection to run for governor. But the Schundler of 2009 will likely bare little resemblance to the conservative candidate who unsuccessfully sought the highest office in the state in 2001 and 2005 – at least not if he can help it.
"I think I'm pretty much done with partisan politics," he said.
Whether or not Schundler will drop his Republican affiliation is an open question. The Jersey City mayoral race is non-partisan, but a poll conducted earlier this year that was suspected of being commissioned by Schundler asked voters if they would be more likely to vote for him if he changed his registration to independent.
Schundler, who currently teaches at The King's College in Manhattan, said that, if elected, he will only seek one additional term, and then return to teaching.
"What I'd like to do is serve two terms. I've been a believer in term limits. I actually tried to pass a term limit bill in my first term," he said.
Schundler wouldn't discuss strategy, or who – if anyone-he's recruited to run as council candidates on his slate. His first win in a 1993 special election is considered a fluke by most political pundits, since he managed to rise to the top of a field of just short of 20 candidates. By the time he had to seek reelection, he had made alliances with key local Democrats, like former Council President Thomas DeGise, who's now the Hudson County Executive.
DeGise, for his part, is committed to backing Mayor Jerramiah Healy for reelection, and earlier this year expressed doubt that Schundler would be able to "put Humpty Dumpty back together again."
But Schundler compares the situation to his run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2001, when he started off facing incumbent Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco in the primary. And when DiFrancesco dropped out, former Rep. Bob Franks replaced him, inheriting most county lines.
"We won by building support from the grassroots," said Schundler.
Schundler's detractors point out that he finished that 2001 primary campaign in debt and still hasn't paid it off. But Schundler said the debt was the result of legal fees incurred because of an unsuccessful post-election lawsuit by Franks, and that he was constrained from raising money from his top donors, who had already maxed out. His wife, Lynn, wrote a letter to local newspapers elaborating on why he has not paid down the debt.
Schundler's socially conservative stands in his gubernatorial campaigns have already brought about criticism from Mayor Healy's allies. Walt Boraczek, founder of the Hudson County Diversity Action Counsel and Healy's liaison to the local planning board, has already publicly ripped Schundler's gay rights record.
But the biggest push by Healy is likely to be on gun issues. Schundler ran for governor
With the National Rifle Association's support, and according to a 2001 New York Times article, favored allowing New Jerseyans to carry concealed weapons if they could prove a need to defend themselves.
Schundler, however, said that his second amendment positions were taken out of context by a well-financed Democratic machine in the 2001 campaign, and he'll be able to make his point better in the mayoral race.
To hear him tell it, his second amendment rhetoric has never been out of touch with the mainstream.
"The negative impressions were caused by absolute distortions that were drilled by heavy spending, and I didn't have the kind of money to counter-balance that in a statewide election. But in a mayoral campaign, it's actually affordable between personal appearances and direct mail," he said.
Schundler said that his main point was that no new gun laws needed to be created – that the government just needed to provide better enforcement of existing laws.
"And there haven't been any changes. In short, my policy wasn't different than (former Democratic Governor) Jim Florio. He passed the laws and enforced them well," he said. "I don't see myself being outside the mainstream."
During his time as mayor of Jersey City, Schundler said, he enforced federal laws to criminals caught committing crimes in possession of a gun – bringing about stricter penalties.
Healy has devoted much of his time to promoting anti-gun laws and gun buyback program. But Schundler points to a rapidly rising homicide rate as evidence that Healy "has just been a blowhard on this issue."
"I was mayor we worked very aggressively to get illegal guns off the street and we were successful, and violent crime and murder plummeted," he said.
Healy, however, said that Schundler's acceptance of the status quo won't please the city's voters, noting that he has recently been to Washington, Baltimore, Newark and Trenton to explore and push for legislation to slow the flow of illegal hand guns into Jersey City. He's currently pushing for a bill in Trenton that would limit gun buyers to one hand gun per month, and he touts the fact that his gun buyback program took in 897 guns.
"If Mr. Schundler thinks he's ok with doing what other administrations have done in the past, I disagree entirely. It's up to me as a local mayor to do something about the carnage that's been wrought in this country by guns," said Healy.
But Healy wouldn't say whether he will raise Schundler's socially conservative positions as an issue in next year's election.
"I think he took some stands out there in order to obtain the nomination from the primary Republican voters, that were geared toward brining him those primary Republican voters who typically bend towards conservative. I don't think that those stands, particularly on illegal guns, are good stands for the mayor of Jersey City," he said. "But we'll deal with that if and when it comes to pass."