Sunday, Nov. 11, 2001: Five days after he was defeated for governor of New Jersey, Republican Bret Schundler arrived at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., to keep a long-standing commitment to address the annual banquet of the national political organization known as GOPAC. While former Jersey City Mayor Schundler had lost to Democrat James McGreevey by 56% to 42%, the talk that evening was about the future rather than the recent past. Almost to a person, GOPAC participants slapped the Garden State conservative on the back, hailed his championship of issues such as tax cuts and school vouchers during the just-ended campaign and urged him to try again.
Would Schundler consider a bid for the Senate or the U.S. House the following year? “No,” he told me without hesitation. “The governorship is the job in which you can really get things done.”
How would he have any better chance against an incumbent Gov. McGreevey this year than he did against an outsider in ’01? “McGreevey’s going to be another Jimmy Carter,” said Schundler with characteristic self-confidence. “The state will be ready for my agenda then, as the nation was ready for Ronald Reagan’s.”
So the onetime Wall Street “Master of the Universe” spent the next four years laying the groundwork for his anticipated rendezvous with destiny. Schundler provided Garden State Republicans with writings and addresses, laying out his agenda. Fresh ideas such as an omnibus property tax cut and decreasing the size of the central government in Trenton to accommodate the loss of revenue were spelled out in detail by Schundler. Moreover, like Reagan in the years before he became President, the man from Jersey City hit the “rubber chicken” circuit statewide and was widely received at township and county GOP events.
So with the Republican primary for governor now just days away (June 7), just how does Schundler’s prediction of four years ago hold up?
McGreevy, who sought to increase taxes in the state with the highest property taxes in the nation as well as one of the highest state income taxes, certainly lived up to Schundler’s prophecy. Last year, surveys of a prospective rematch repeatedly showed the ’01 opponents in a near-tie, or Schundler with a slight lead. But then came the bombshell. In news that shook the political world in and out of New Jersey, the married governor revealed he was gay, that he had had a relationship with a state employee, and he was resigning from office.
New Jersey’s political landscape was turned upside down. Democratic State Senate President Richard Codey succeeded McGreevey as governor. And U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine, multi-millionaire former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, declared for the Democratic nomination and muscled Codey out of the primary contest. He is considered a cinch to win the primary next month.
Schundler faces six primary opponents. But in a state where every governor for the past 24 years has previously lost a bid for statewide office, his major rival is 2002 GOP U.S. Senate nominee Doug Forrester. The founder of BeneCard, a manager of prescription drug benefits, Forrester is worth an estimated $50 million.
Forrester has spent more than $8 million on his primary bid compared to $1.4 million spent by Schundler. In addition, Forrester has been endorsed by more county Republican committees than the ’01 nominee. A just-completed Quinnipiac (Conn.) University poll showed Forrester leading Schundler by 39% to 33% statewide, with the remaining candidates in single digits. Schundler spokesman Bill Pascoe noted that the same survey showed 55% of Schundler’s supporters are sure they will vote for him while only 46% of Forrester’s share the same feeling. “You do the math—you’ll see that among those who have made a definite decision, Bret is leading his opponent,” said Pascoe.
It’s Property Taxes, Stupid!
During a recent visit to Human Events, Schundler dismissed polling numbers and his being outgunned on the fund-raising flank. As he put it: “Message trumps money and issues move people. We are collecting signatures on petitions in support of constitutionally limiting the pace at which government spending grows, so we can force the state to return a fair share of tax revenues to school districts and municipalities. In so doing, we’ll be able to lower property taxes year after year until they are phased out altogether. When they sign on for my property tax revolution, voters also sign a notice to politicians pledge—to vote against any candidate for any office who won’t commit to lowering taxes. If we could pass the Permanent Property Tax Reduction Amendment this year—while the legislature is in session—so they can make it onto the ballot this fall—we’d all be much better off.”
Regarding opponent Forrester, the Schundler camp noted that his record on taxes and spending is not clean. “On Nov. 26, 1979,” observed Pascoe, “in his second meeting as a township committeeman in West Windsor, Douglas Forrester voted to double his own salary.” In addition, Pascoe pointed out that when Forrester was mayor of his township, “He raised the property tax levy by 204% in four years. That’s what Doug Forrester did in the one and only time he was ever elected to public office. We still can’t locate a mayor anywhere in New Jersey, current or past, who raised property taxes as fast as Doug Forrester.”
Schundler also volunteered during his visit here that he has been spending a lot of his Sundays attending and speaking at predominantly black churches. Anticipating my next question—whether any of those he meets will vote in the Republican primary—Schundler replied: “No, most will still vote in the Democratic primary. But I’m laying the groundwork for the fall. African-Americans I have met are increasingly concerned about school choice because of the condition in public schools and they are interested in property tax reform. This is an issue that will cut across a lot of old lines, I assure you.” Recalling how he almost always mentions his opposition to abortion in these Sunday addresses, the Jersey City man insisted there is a strong pro-life sentiment among younger black voters.
A recent National Research poll showed Corzine (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 5%) defeating Forrester by 41% to 36% and Schundler by 42% to 31%. Again, Schundler exuded self-confidence in the face of these numbers. “I read Sen. Corzine’s announcement of his candidacy carefully,” he told me. “It contains 1,899 words and property taxes are not among them. We’re going to continue pushing for our Permanent Property Tax Reduction Amendment and he will have to take a stand. And, under the circumstances here in New Jersey, voters won’t take no for an answer.”
(Bret 2005—Schundler for Governor, 187 Mill Lane, Mountainside, N.J. 07092 (908-379-2738)
Will Third Time Be Charm in Nebraska?
After losing a Republican primary for Senate to Chuck Hagel in 1996 and then losing a heart-breakingly close general election to Democrat Ben Nelson in ’06, former Nebraska Atty. Gen. (1990-2004) Don Stenberg has recently decided to make a third Senate bid next year. Stalwart conservative Stenberg, best known for arguing the case for his state’s ban on partial-birth abortion before the U.S. Supreme Court, will, if nominated, face a rematch with Nelson (lifetime ACU rating: 52%).
A just-completed poll by Channel 3 (Omaha) shows that Stenberg still packs a political wallop among Cornhusker State Republicans. According to the survey, Stenberg gets 61% of likely primary voters, compared to 6% for state party Chairman David Kramer, and 2% for Republican National Committeeman Kerry Winterer (who has recently decided not to make the race).