Conservative Revolutionary

GEORGE F. WILL

July 05, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Jersey City, New Jersey. -- Bret Schundler, 34, mayor of this down-at-the-heels and ring-around-the-frayed-blue-collar city in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, says, ''I'm not a conservative, I'm a revolutionary.'' Actually, like those men who, 217 Julys ago, made the Fourth so memorable, Mr. Schundler is both.

Here at the foot of Ellis Island, in a city where 25 percent of the people are foreign-born and 41 percent speak a language other than English in their homes, Mr. Schundler is the first Republican mayor since the year when America's hero was General Pershing: 1917. Last November, the previous mayor being in jail, Mr. Schundler won the right to complete that mayor's term, receiving 16 percent of the vote in a 19-candidate congestion. A fluke, said Democrats. Some fluke.

Before this May's election for a full term, national Democrats arrived to help oust the usurper. They made much of the fact that Mr. Schundler once worked on Wall Street and, worse, did well there. They said he represented 1980s ''greed.'' Trouble is, people are increasingly nostalgic for 1980s growth.

Finally, Democrats brought in their low-rent itinerant demagogue, Jesse Jackson, to suggest that Mr. Schundler is a racist. Then the city, which is 55 percent minorities and only 6 percent Republican, gave Mr. Schundler a 68 percent landslide.

A former all-state high school tackle, he came here from Harvard and investment banking and with experience as director of Gary Hart's 1984 New Jersey campaign. He became a Republican in 1991 and his thinking has a convert's clarity.

He once considered becoming an urban minister and actually has become one, of sorts, because he believes that statecraft can be soulcraft, for better or worse. Modern liberalism has, he thinks, corrupted the nation's soul, and his kind of ''empowerment conservatism'' can rejuvenate it.

This century's dominant thesis, he says, has been the philosophy of entitlement, grounded in technological hubris and moral obtuseness. It held that modern marvels of productivity would enable government to hand salvation to the disadvantaged. ''America,'' he says, ''made the right to pursue happiness into an entitlement to happiness itself.'' This made traditional values -- thrift, industriousness, discipline, deferral of gratification -- seem anachronistic.

If you seek monuments to this thesis, see the vast tracts of cities where the spirits of an enervated population are ''weighed down by litter and graffiti, by weeds growing where flowers should be planted, by glass glittering where children should be playing.''

Mayor Schundler has cut taxes, paying for this, in part, by privatizing some property-tax collection. The city has bundled liens against delinquent taxpayers and sold them at a discount to private investors who will hire private collectors.

In a creative exercise of fiscal gerrymandering, he has drawn most of the city's commercially developable land into a low-tax enterprise zone. This job-creation strategy backs up his doctrine that ''all able-bodied people have a responsibility to work'' so that the working poor are not taxed to provide benefits to those ''who will not work.''

He favors ''voucher-driven'' provision of government services ''to get politicians out of the loop.'' Seventy percent of his constituents favor his school-choice plan to offer vouchers redeemable at public or private schools. The city's schools, which have been taken over by the state, spend $9,200 per pupil, yet just 16 percent of fifth-graders pass proficiency tests and only 40 percent of high school students graduate. Private schools here achieve a 90 percent graduation rate spending $1,400 per primary-school pupil and up to $3,500 per high school student.

From 1917 to 1949 Jersey City's boss was Mayor Frank ''I am the Law'' Hague. His desk is still in city hall. It has a drawer which the mayor could shove open in front of the person seated opposite, and then could close after that person made a cash deposit. Hague, an immigrant, never had a job that paid more than $8,000 a year, but he died worth at least $10 million.

The walk-in vault where Hague kept his swag (city employees had to kick in 3 percent of their pay) now holds office supplies. Mayor Schundler's administration is a sign that urban liberalism, in which government itself is the dominant interest group, constantly and successfully lobbying itself for ''compassion'' toward itself, is as dead as the man who sat at that desk and filled that vault.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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