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Jewish World Review June 25, 2001 / 4 Tamuz, 5761

John H. Fund

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Man vs. Machine: New Jersey's GOP establishment is doing everything it can to stop Bret Schundler -- EIGHT years ago, two Republican businessmen won upset races to become mayors of heavily Democratic cities. Both Richard Riordan in Los Angeles and Bret Schundler in Jersey City, N.J., reformed their cities--crime and racial tensions are down, job creation and civic pride are up--and went on to win re-election. Both are political and policy giant-killers. But the reaction of the GOP hierarchy to their respective gubernatorial ambitions couldn't be more different.

Fifteen of California's 20 GOP House members have signed a letter practically begging Mr. Riordan to run for governor next year against Democratic incumbent Gray Davis. Mr. Riordan's many contributions to, and endorsements of, Democratic politicians have all been forgiven.

Mr. Schundler, however, is the Peck's Bad Boy of his state party in his race against former Rep. Bob Franks in next Tuesday's primary for governor. Though he has won three times in a city where only 6% of voters are Republicans, the party has declared him unelectable statewide. His stands in favor of education tax credits, ending tolls on state highways, and combating sprawl by making urban areas more attractive, have been ridiculed as right-wing "extremism."

The different reactions to the two mayors rest in the political cultures of the two states. California, as Ronald Reagan proved, doesn't spurn political newcomers, and its wide-open politics makes it possible to reach primary voters directly.

But New Jersey is a machine state. The GOP is dominated by 21 county chairmen; two-thirds of them work for state or local government. The candidates these bosses anoint often win by running on reform--term limits, voter-initiated referenda and education reform--but drop the ideas once in office.

This year, the GOP bosses fell behind Acting Gov. Don DiFrancesco, a career pol who took over when Christie Whitman joined the Bush cabinet. But ethical clouds swirling over Mr. DiFrancesco made him vulnerable to a Schundler challenge, so the bosses engineered his departure. Mr. Franks, who narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race to millionaire Jon Corzine last year, was called back from Washington.

The bosses greased all the skids for Mr. Franks, a former state party chairman. A law was rammed through the Legislature that delayed the primary for three weeks and transferred most of Mr. DiFrancesco's campaign treasury to Mr. Franks. The spending cap for his nascent campaign was increased to $5.9 million from $3.8 million, with $1.4 million of extra public financing to boot.

Despite all these advantages, Mr. Schundler has gradually caught up with Mr. Franks in independent polls. So the party machine has gone into overdrive to throw up additional roadblocks.

County clerks have reserved prime ballot positions for Mr. Franks, forcing Mr. Schundler to spend time and energy to avoid being relegated to ballot Siberia.

The state elections board that disperses public financing sat on Mr. Schundler's submission for two weeks, forcing him to go essentially dark in the media during that time.

Hundreds of state employees appear to be helping the Franks campaign both on and off the job. Last week, pro-Franks letters of support were sent to reporters during work hours from a fax machine in the office of Secretary of State Buster Soaries Jr., a co-chairman of the Franks campaign.

Lawyers for Mr. Franks have asked the elections board to deduct $885,000 from Mr. Schundler's public financing on the grounds that a school-choice foundation he founded ran TV ads last year that indirectly aided his candidacy. Mr. Franks also ran an ad claiming Mr. Schundler had "cheated needy children" by misappropriating scholarship money to pay for the ads, despite records that donors knew ads would be run to build political support for education tax credits. The Newark Star-Ledger calls the Franks charge "a brutal misrepresentation, even by campaign ad standards."

Mr. Schundler hasn't run a gentle campaign either, and he has unfairly linked Mr. Franks to former Democratic Gov. Jim Florio. But he alone has had to spend $250,000 in legal and accounting fees to overcome the machine's roadblocks. Jim Bopp, a noted election law attorney, notes that New Jersey's public-financing system is "McCain-Feingold hell on the state level because it puts politically appointed bureaucrats in charge of deciding what political speech is allowable. It's the ultimate anti-insurgent protection program."

But despite its best efforts, the GOP machine is proving rusty. Claims that Mr. Schundler is too conservative for New Jersey ring hollow. A new Quinnipiac University poll shows him leading Mr. Franks among likely primary voters by 54% to 39%. The reasons are clear: 50% of likely GOP voters say cutting taxes is "very important," On social issues, 51% of self-described moderate Republicans support stricter limits on abortion.

Bob Prunetti, the Mercer County GOP executive, supports Mr. Franks. But when pressed he admits Mr. Schundler could win statewide in November despite the state's liberal tilt on abortion and gun control. "He's not emphasizing those issues, and voters would respect someone with conviction who'll cut taxes even if they don't agree on everything," he says.

Should Mr. Schundler win next Tuesday he will face Jim McGreevey, a formidable Democrat who came within 26,000 votes of defeating Ms. Whitman in 1997. But Mr. McGreevey is a crony of the Democratic machine; Jersey voters would, for once, have a clear choice.

Privately, national Democrats won't dismiss the threat that both Mayor Riordan and Mayor Schundler represent. The two men--Republicans elected in cities where two-thirds of the residents are black, Hispanic or Asian--have defied the odds too many times. But in a twist common to dying machines, New Jersey's GOP establishment seems more afraid of reform than it does of losing to the other party.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


06/15/01: A Schundler Surprise? Don't count out "the Jack Kemp of New Jersey"
06/06/01: Memo to conservatives: Ignore McCain and maybe he'll go away
05/29/01: Integrity in Politics? Hardly. Jim Jeffords is no Wayne Morse
05/22/01: Davis' answer to California's energy crisis? Hire a couple of Clinton-Gore hatchet men
05/07/01: Prematurely declaring a winner wasn't the networks' worst sin in Florida
04/23/01: How to fix the electoral process --- REALLY!
04/11/01: A conservative hero may mount a California comeback
03/30/01: Can the GOP capture the nation's most closely balanced district?
03/09/01: Terminated
03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
02/15/01: In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness
02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
12/29/00: Why are all Dems libs pickin' on me?
Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
10/25/00: She's really a Dodger
09/28/00: Locking up domestic oil?
09/25/00: Hillary gives new meaning to a "woman with a past"
09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund