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Is the Republican Party Reviving Itself in the Northeast or Heading Straight for Oblivion?

Aired June 27, 2001 - 19:30   ET



BRET SCHUNDLER (R), NEW JERSEY GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: They said that it couldn't be done, but you proved it otherwise.



ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight: A big win for conservatives in New Jersey. But is Bret Schundler too conservative to be the state's next governor? Is the Republican Party reviving itself in the Northeast, or heading straight for oblivion?

ANNOUNCER: From Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak.

In the CROSSFIRE: In New York, Bret Schundler, Republican candidate for New Jersey governor.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. Is there anything rarer than a statewide conservative political candidate in New Jersey? One emerged yesterday when conservative Bret Schundler stunned the state's GOP establishment by thrashing its anointed candidate, Former Congressman Bob Franks, by 14 percentage points.

Schundler is the mayor of Jersey City, elected three times as a Republican in that overwhelmingly Democratic city where whites are in the minority. Nevertheless, as a anti-abortion, pro-gun conservative, he was viewed as a sure loser in liberal-trending New Jersey. Though opposed by 20 out of 21 Republican county chairmen, and badly underfunded, he was the clear choice of Republican voters.

Is the Republican Party turning to the right? Is Bret Schundler leading the GOP to a Goldwater-like disaster against Democrat Jim McGreevey in November? Or has he sounded a signal for Republican revival in the Northeast?


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Mr. Mayor, good evening. Thank you very much for joining us on CROSSFIRE, and congratulations.

SCHUNDLER: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be with you.

PRESS: Mr. Mayor, let me begin by asking you the question that Bob raised. As a native of Delaware, I've been following this race in New Jersey pretty closely. And it seems clear that the way you won is you got the pro-life and the pro-gun and the pro-voucher extremists all in one room and then you got them all out to vote.

But doesn't that put you way, way too far out on the right to be able to win in November?

SCHUNDLER: Well, I think you're a little wrong, first of all, on the way you saw the race taking shape. In fact, our support was strong all across the board. And as was mentioned in the opening, you know, I've won three races in a row in an overwhelmingly democratic city. I won by as much as 69 percent, the largest margin in Jersey City history, with 45 percent of the African-American vote, and 70 percent of the Hispanic vote.

So it really doesn't matter what your race is, what party you are. It doesn't matter where you live or how much money you make. Everybody wants lower property taxes and better schools, everybody wants the ability to choose for themselves what school their child attends. They want to be able to control the destiny of their community, not have some bureaucrats in the state capital or Washington make those decisions. And, frankly, they like my proposal to get the tolls off the parkway, also.

So, yes it's true. I believe that every life has value, and I think this is a country where you may have some people who have different views on that, but I think we can respect each other. And I think there's also a lot of consensus. I think there's consensus for my belief that we should ban partial-birth abortion, we should have parental notification legislation passed in New Jersey.

But ultimately, beyond those hot-button issues, there's enormous issues where there is consensus with regard to the need to solve the problem -- and where what people found in me was someone who's willing to talk about real solutions and spell out how we can get from here to there, and the willingness to take on the very powerful interest groups that will resist reform.

That's the thing that's lacking, the courage to actually take on some of these interest groups that will fight some of the initiatives that I put on the table.

PRESS: Well, Mr. Mayor, you seem to believe you can pull everybody together, though the truth of it is that last night, the night of your victory, you weren't even able to pull together all the members of your party. Here's what acting governor, Republican Governor Donald DiFrancesco had to say about you last night. Quote: "He had a great message for the primary. I don't know what his message is for the general election."

You don't even have all the members of your party behind you at this point, Mayor. SCHUNDLER: Well, I think we are doing fairly well, bringing everybody together. I don't know what Don will do. We have reached out for him and were hoping for the support. I think you appreciate that I challenged Don when he was acting as governor. I think he has some hard feelings towards me because of that. But I'm hopeful that we can put that all behind us, and we can go forwards. But you know, at the end of the day, I'll tell you something.

I didn't win this election because of the leadership support, right? I won it because I got the votes from the people. And I think, at end of the day, people are looking for someone who's going to fight for them, who will ultimately make a decision as to what will help individual citizens and not worry always about whether or not an interest group disagrees, or for that matter, even leaders in their own party disagree.

NOVAK: Mayor Schundler, congratulations.

SCHUNDLER: Thank you.

NOVAK: And Donny DiFrancesco was really humming and baking last night after you won. And let me read to you something else he said. He said: "Bret Schundler needs to explain himself on the issues and his legislative agenda. I could be energized for the party. Whether I could be energized for Bret Schundler or not, he's going to determine that."

Just as a bit of practical politics, what is he expecting of you, and what are you going to do to meet that expectation?

SCHUNDLER: Well, I reached out to him two days ago. I asked for him to be willing to support me if I win this election. I also called him earlier today. And I think he will come onboard. The bottom line is, again, that I challenged him in his position. He thought that having the incumbency, even though not having been elected to the office, that he should not be challenged. And again, I take a different view.

I don't think that a leader is in a position to say all of the people should support him just because he's the leader. I think it's, at the end of the day, it's the people who have a right to choose who they want to be their leader, in this democracy of ours. So I did challenge him. But I want Don to be onboard.

And there are issues, I have to tell you, where he and I disagree, and it's -- you know, more so than, let's say, the pro-life issue or the Second Amendment. Don disagrees with me on other issues. He's not been a supporter of school choice. He went to the New Jersey Education Association and he explained that he would not be supportive of some of the proposals I put on the table. But I think that these are important issues to go forward with, if our party, on the one hand, is actually going to help children get an education. And on the other hand, if we're going to win elections.

You know, I won five out of eight housing projects in Jersey City. Why did these individuals for first time in their life vote for a Republican candidate? Because I promised to give them the power to do what was best for their child, and not have to beg politicians to reform the schools, as has been the case in the past.

NOVAK: Mayor Schundler, Richard Nixon, who ended his life as a resident of your state, New Jersey, used to say that Republicans should move to the right in a primary, and move to the left in the general election.

I don't want to put words in your mouth, but what you're saying about Donny DiFrancesco is that you hope he's aboard, but you're saying you're not going to move left in order to bring over some of the people that were hostile to you in the primary. Is that correct?

SCHUNDLER: That's correct. And one of things I point out: My whole approach to governing has never been to tell a legislature -- let's say, for instance, a council member in my city council in Jersey City -- they have to get onboard, or else I'm going to try to hurt them or throw them out in the next election.

What I have done is like -- when Ronald Reagan got into office, he appealed directly to the people to support his tax cuts and his budget cuts. Those individual citizens called their Congress people. Of course, at that time we had a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, and that outrageous outpouring of public support for Ronald Reagan's agenda is what helped him pass that legislation.

I've taken the same approach towards my city council. When I needed votes, I didn't try to beat them up or shout at them or make them feel that I was going to forever hold it against them if they didn't give me their vote. I just tried to go to the people and ask them to call their legislator in support of my proposal.

Now, I believe at the end of the day, that that legislator has the right to say no. They're elected directly by the people. They're not appointed by me to a position. They have the right to say no. I just think it's important that they know that many of their citizens support the policies I'm pushing. So I try to take an approach like that.

PRESS: Well, Mr. Mayor, you didn't directly -- but you compare yourself to Ronald Reagan. I've seen you called a Reagan Republican. You refer to his model, there.

If that's the case, I want to ask you, you know, up until 1984, Ronald Reagan was already four years in the White House, you're a Democrat working for Gary Hart. And in 1987, Ronald Reagan's last year in the White House, you finally make up your mind that you're going to become a Republican.

I mean, are you a Republican or an opportunist who became a Republican in order to win election?

SCHUNDLER: Well, I have to tell you it's not that opportunistic to become a Republican and run for mayor in a city which is only 6 percent Republican. When we have a Republican convention in Jersey City, it's my wife and I having breakfast in the morning. (LAUGHTER)

SCHUNDLER: I sometimes joke about the fact that I got 69 percent in that election. Again, 69 percent of the people our community are Democrats. I'm still trying to figure out who the Republicans voted for.

But the bottom line is, I became a Republican because -- I was a Democrat. I was in college, the Democrats talked about caring about the poor. As a Christian, I believe that we have a responsibility to do -- well, there's a scripture that says: "That which have done to the least of these have done unto me."And I felt that the Democrats were the party that cared. They said they cared.

As I worked with the party, I came to believe that they were more committed to the programs that were in place and the interest groups making money from those programs, than they were to the people those programs were supposed to serve, and that they were unwilling to reform these social programs to expand opportunity and create real social justice.

So then I began to listen to Ronald Reagan for the first time, and already, by the end of that election in 1984, this guy was swaying me over. And I would say that Ronald Reagan made me a Republican.

Also there were people like Jack Kemp, who talked about how you can reform programs so that you keep power in the hands of the people and you allow them to truly ensure that they can get opportunity for that.

PRESS: Now the challenge of course is to take that message from Jersey City statewide. And let's look at this state again. This is a state that has become increasingly moderate, if not liberal: Went twice for Bill Clinton, gave Al Gore a 16-percent lead over George Bush last year. Two Democrats in the United States Senate. Seven Democrats in Congress. And the only Republican governor is a moderate, if not only a Democrat, like Christie Whitman.

And you really think that a Republican, a pro-life Republican will carry this Democratic state because you are going to get rid of the tolls on the Parkway?

SCHUNDLER: You know, I don't think there's anything immoderate about lowering people's property taxes, so they don't have to worry about staying in their home or putting food on the table. I don't think there's anything immoderate about allowing low-income families to be able to choose the school they think is best for their child.

And I might add, my citizens don't think there's anything immoderate about caring enough for them to cut their property taxes and give them improved educational options also. There's nothing immoderate about reforming tenure, so that children have a great teacher in their classroom, and if someone is clearly ineffective, you replace them. That's just common sense.

There's nothing immoderate about repealing Mount Laurel for that matter and giving a community an opportunity to maintain its small- town character if it chooses. And redirecting investment towards revitalizing our cities. And there is nothing immoderate about getting our darn tolls off the Parkway.

So if you want to talk about what the citizens are looking for, they don't want somebody who is radical like Jim McGreevey, who voted for the tax increase of $2.8 billion, that worsened the recession, resulted in very high unemployment, especially in the inner cities, hurting who? Not the bosses. But the most marginal workers, who are the first to get laid off.

They don't want somebody radical like Jim McGreevey who raised their property taxes 70 percent. And at the same time, taking all that extra money didn't do anything for the citizens. Violent crime went up 50 percent in McGreevey's Woodbridge. They don't want somebody who is so radical he doesn't believe parents should at least be notified when a non-emergency surgery is performed on children.

NOVAK: OK, we will have to take a break. And when we come back, we'll explore how Bret Schundler's views on abortion and gun control play in the Garden State.



BOB FRANKS (R), FMR. N.J. GOV. CANDIDATE: Now, we must come together and rally behind Bret Schundler. He deserves the opportunity to have a united party at his side. I intend to help lead that effort, only by working together can we defeat Jim McGreevey in November.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

That was Bob Franks, the man that Bret Schundler defeated to win the Republican nomination for governor last night in New Jersey. Bob Franks has now agreed to be co-chair of the Schundler.

The big question is, of course, New Jersey gave Al Gore a big 16- point win last year. Is there anyway it's going to turn around this year and elect a conservative, Republican, governor? Here's one man who says he can. The candidate himself. Mayor of Jersey City, now Republican nominee for governor Bret Schundler -- Bob Novak.

NOVAK: Bret Schundler, while you are enjoying your victory, I would like you to be a little bit introspective and tell me, what was it that caused Bob Franks to attack you so vociferously, personally in the campaign, that led 20 out 21 county chairmen to oppose you, that led most of the legislature to oppose you, and it's my understanding, when Donny DiFrancesco had to get out the race because of his person business affairs, it was the White House that thought you were a sure loser and got Mr. Franks to come in the race, he was going to run for the Senate next year. What was it about you that led everybody to oppose you so hard? SCHUNDLER: Well, the White House issue, I think the reverse was true: I think they saw Bob Franks as a good candidate for Senate and they encouraged him not to get into the race. They saw me as a good candidate for governor and they thought they could have him there for that seat. As you know, Bob Torricelli is having a few problems, and they thought he would be a good candidate there.

As far as the county chairmen and the legislators, I have a good relationship with most of the county chairmen and most of the legislators. However, when you are talking about county chairmen you are talking about the political organization of the state. And when you have an incumbent acting governor, you are talking about in fact the acting governor's political organization.

So when says, thou shall support me, don't be surprised when they support him. When he says, thou shall support my friend, don't be surprised that they follow his lead in that regard. Ultimately, if you came in to Jersey City, and talk to my ward leaders, you would find that they also would seek my direction, relative to supporting a candidate for office.

So it's not a surprise that the county chairman went in the direction that Don DiFrancesco asked them to go. But now, it's water under the bridge. The nomination is over. And these are people I have had a good relationship with, and we will work very well together.

As far as the legislators are concerned, not all of them actually did endorse Bob Franks. There was a little hyperbole there. A number of them just stayed out of this election. Those who did, did so, on the one hand, I think because they had had a relationship with him when he was an assemblyman for a long time. Or because the chairman asked them to or because they were, you know -- it was just easier to go that way with the leadership pushing that way.

Again, Don DiFrancesco is the leader of this large political organization, and he was pushing very aggressively.

Now with all that said, that is all water under the bridge. That is not going to be a problem, as we go forward, and you saw the most clear evidence of that today when we had the lunch, Bob Franks and Tom Cane and I together, where they agreed with Jack Kemp to be co- chairman for my campaign. Again, we have Steve Forbes as our general chairman.

NOVAK: Former Governor Tom Cane, who was a liberal Republican.


NOVAK: Mayor Schundler, I have been trying do a little research to find out the last time the state of New Jersey elected a conservative governor and I'm having a little trouble. I have gone back before Woodrow Wilson and I think it was some Republican before Woodrow Wilson.

But the fact is, in our time, and that's even a little early for me, as old as I am, isn't it a fact that this state has not, in the memory of man, elected a conservative governor?

SCHUNDLER: Well, you know, Tom Cane tells me that when he ran in 1981, he had only three county chairmen who were with him. All the rest were supporting his opponent, that he had the conservative organizations on his side, that...

NOVAK: But he was not a conservative, sir.

SCHUNDLER: He was actually -- he was never pro-life. He did support restrictions on abortion. He was never -- I don't know if he was endorsed by the NRA or not. The reality is, you probably know that my position on the Second Amendment is that we should enforce the laws we already have. And New Jersey has the most restrictive gun control laws in the United States of America. So it's not exactly putting me way out on the right to say that we should enforce laws that were put there by Jim Florio and Chistie Whitman, frankly.

PRESS: Actually, Mayor, I think you go a little beyond that. I want to ask you about a couple of those issues now that you didn't have to campaign on in the primary, but you're definitely going to have to...


PRESS: Let me ask my question, if I may, and I want to start with the abortion question, because you are pro-life, you're anti- abortion, but you would not even allow abortion, as I read your material, for the three classic cases of rape, incest or life of the mother. That puts you to the right of George W. Bush on this issue. I mean, you really think that's going to play, statewide?

SCHUNDLER: I think -- I guess one of the issues here becomes what are you looking from a governor? If what you want is a governor who will try to impose his values on you, or what he -- pose what he believes is right, then I might not be that governor. But if all you want is someone who tries to get people into a discussion about what is right, and where you can form a consensus, tries to move the law, then I would be the governor you're looking for.

And the reality is, for instance, we already have consensus now on ending partial-birth abortion, which is legal, currently, in the state of New Jersey. I think we already have consensus on the issue of parental notification, not just for abortion, but for any kind of surgery on a minor. So that where we have consensus, I will go and move legislation.

I'm not going to try to impose what I believe is right on an electorate that disagrees with me, but I will try to get a discussion going. And I think there are lots of things you can do by holding up the value of life. You can have people choose not to have abortions. You can also, through encouraging sexual abstinence, you can have people not get pregnant in the first place.

PRESS: Yes, but, Governor (sic), the bottom line is you are saying that any young woman in New Jersey who is raped has to have that child -- it should be illegal for her not to do anything other than have that child.

That is an extreme position, and I'm asking you again, do you think the voters of New Jersey are going to vote for someone that extreme on that issue?

SCHUNDLER: Why don't you tone that down a little bit and have a civil discourse here?

The bottom line is, what you're saying is that you believe that anybody who views all life as having value -- doesn't matter if it's a retarded human being, doesn't matter if it's an older person who's ill and maybe facing death, or an unborn child -- as life, you think that's extreme. Well, I'm sorry that you have that fairly intolerant view. I think an awful lot of people...

PRESS: I think that's the view of most Americans...

SCHUNDLER: All throughout history...

PRESS: ... and most people in New Jersey.

SCHUNDLER: ... there have been people who have tried to define away the value of others' lives, whether you're talking about, you know, those that define away the value of the African-American slaves before the Civil War or, I guess it was Aristotle who said that some were born to be masters and some were born to be slaves. That's happened all throughout history.

Now, I believe that every life has value. I don't think it's extreme. I'm not going to try to impost that view on you, but I might try to reason with you, and not even call you an extremist in the process. I might try to be civil about it. And if we can create consensus, as we did, ultimately, on the abolition of slavery, if -- actually, that required a little more than mere rational discussion -- if we can achieve some consensus, as we already have on partial-birth abortion, as we already have on parental notification, then we have the opportunity to pass legislation.

But this is a democracy. You're not going to find a leader who is elected by the people who tries to impose their will. What you're going to find, I think, is that the people will support someone who has strong convictions, is willing to talk about it honestly, doesn't lie to people, doesn't try to be politically expedient, but tries to lay out where you can, perhaps, make the society a more just and good society.

PRESS: All right, Mr. Mayor. The campaign begins right here. Thank you for joining us and starting off the debate tonight.

SCHUNDLER: Thank you.

PRESS: Long road ahead of you. We thank you for joining us. I'll have to have you back.

SCHUNDLER: Thank you.

PRESS: And Bob Novak and I will be back, take a look at New Jersey with some caustic closing comments, coming up.


NOVAK: Bill, you can blather about rape and abortion, but the truth about Mayor Schundler is, like another Republican who twice carried the state of New Jersey, Ronald Reagan, he is a conservative who comes over very well for working people. He is articulate, he is reasonable. I think he is a tougher candidate than Franks. I think it's going to be a hell of a race in New Jersey.

PRESS: I think he is a gift to the Democrats. You know, there were Democrats in Camden -- Democrats in Camden out yesterday, who were walking precincts to get the vote out for Bret Schundler, because they know this guy. When he gets out there on abortion and on guns...

NOVAK: That's a fairy tale.

PRESS: ... on guns, he is far too extreme for the people of New Jersey.

NOVAK: Well, I would say this, that I don't think Franks had a chance to win. I think the only reason he did well in the last election was Corzine was an unpopular candidate. But I really believe that this is a potential superstar in the Republican Party. Keep your eye on him. You know, it was people like you who said that about Reagan. You remember? "Please, nominate Ronald Reagan! Please, nominate Ronald Reagan!"

PRESS: You keep your eye on California. This is the exact copy of what happened in California when the right-wingers took over the party, Bob.

NOVAK: With Reagan.

PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: On the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE!



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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