Since Corruption Thursday, I continue to hear people say that it is impossible to govern effectively in Hudson County without playing the corruption game. I quickly respond to such nonsense by citing the ultimate counter-example, Bret Schundler, who governed as mayor of Jersey City most effectively and without a hint of scandal from 1992 until 2001. He did so also as a Republican, in a city and county where Republicans are virtually an extinct species.
When I think of Bret, I also think of the man I regard as his Democrat counterpart in integrity and excellence in urban government, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark. It is remarkable how much these two outstanding men have in common, aside from being successful urban reform mayors.
Both men were educated at elite universities, Bret at Harvard and Cory at Stanford, Oxford, and Yale Law School.
Both men were excellent football players, Bret as an all-state player at Westfield High School and Cory as an All–Pacific Ten Academic player at Stanford.
Both men received national media acclaim for their successes, particularly in reducing crime in their respective cities.
Both men possess outstanding communication skills.
Both had to overcome the opposition of establishment figures in their rise to power in their respective political parties.
Both men have been strong advocates of school choice, vouchers, and charter schools.
There is another characteristic that the two have in common: Both are men of strong policy beliefs, yet each has a healthy degree of pragmatism. I know this from having worked governmentally with both mayors – I worked closely with Bret in my capacity as the Assistant Commissioner of the former Department of Commerce and Economic Development and later as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission and with Cory during my tenure as Regional Administrator of Region 2 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Bret and Cory each understand that in pursuing economic and environmental goals, a mayor should seek to attain the maximum achievable measures and not overplay his hand. In the words of the Talmud, if one grabs too much, one gets nothing. Both Bret and Cory understood this.
I must confess that as an Orthodox Jew, something else endears me to both men. Each has demonstrated a strong bond with the Jewish community both during their academic years and throughout their respective careers in public service.
As an undergraduate, Bret was a student for six months at Haifa University in Israel. My personal bond with Bret was forged, however, when I accompanied him to Israel in September, 2001, during his gubernatorial campaign, on a mission to provide consolation and support to victims of terrorism. The mission was sponsored by the United Jewish Communities of Metro-West.
We flew from Newark to Israel on September 9, 2001. While we were in Israel on September 11, we received the horrifying news of the destruction of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Instead of us comforting Israelis, they consoled us. It was an experience that I will never forget. On September 12, 2001, I accompanied Bret to a private meeting with the then mayor of Jerusalem and later prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert. After years of serving as a liaison between political leaders and Jewish community leadership, I can gauge pretty well the sincerity of the political leader in question. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind as to the good intentions and true friendship with the Jewish community of Bret Schundler.
Cory Booker has also demonstrated his friendship and brotherhood with the Jewish community in a most vivid way. While at Oxford, as a demonstration of his commitment to end tensions between Jews and African-Americans, he became the president of the L’Chaim Society, an organization founded by his good friend and fellow Oxford student, the famed Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. As my friendship with Cory Booker has grown, I have come to regard him as a true brother and comrade in our efforts to bridge the gaps and divides that unfortunately have come to exist between our respective communities.
What is most interesting about these two men is that the weakness of each is the strength of the other.
Bret’s major weakness is a lack of self-discipline. This weakness was most evident during his 2001 campaign for governor against Jim McGreevey. He had a superb general consultant in Matt Leonardo and an outstanding campaign manager in Bill Pascoe. Yet he drove both men crazy by constantly getting off message in his dealings with the media and on occasion during the debates.
By contrast, Cory is an individual of superb self-discipline. He always stays on-message, with a constant focus on his mission.
Cory’s major weakness has been his inability to assemble in Newark a staff of aides and department heads that is worthy of him. I really fail to understand why this is the case. He does have a superb “kitchen cabinet” of friends and professionals outside of government to give him good advice and counsel. It has always confounded me why Cory cannot attract to Newark a staff of “the best and the brightest” from throughout New Jersey and the nation.
Again by contrast, Bret was superbly successful in assembling in Jersey City one of the best municipal government staffs in the nation. Two individuals stand out in this regard: 1) Bret’s chief of staff, Tom Gallagher, an alumnus of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; and 2) his press secretary, Darren Boch, who understood exactly how to sharpen, refine, and direct Bret’s message.
The respective strengths of Bret and Cory have always enabled them to triumph over their own weaknesses. As mayor, Bret would listen and give due regard to the advice of his staff and almost always made the right decision, suppressing any inclinations he may have felt to go in another direction. Cory’s self discipline and determination has enabled him in virtually every case to achieve his objectives in Newark, in spite of any weaknesses at the staff level.
Bret has earned his place in history as Jersey City’s greatest 20th century mayor and one of the finest mayors in the history of New Jersey. His loss to Jim McGreevey in the 2001 gubernatorial election was a loss for the people of New Jersey. He would have been a magnificent governor. I truly hope that he will someday return to more active involvement in New Jersey politics.
Cory had a most bright future in New Jersey politics. He will be a very formidable candidate for governor or U.S. Senate during the next decade.
Bret Schundler and Cory Booker both demonstrate that corrupt behavior and dishonesty are not necessary attributes for successful urban governance in New Jersey. In a time of agonizing scandal in our state, we in New Jersey can point to these two men with pride.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.