Fulop Out: The Back Drama to the Back Drama in the 2017 NJ Governor’s Race

Fulop.

Steve Fulop. Max Pizarro for Observer

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez likes a good cigar now and again, and Steven Fulop, mayor of Jersey City, joined him for a smoke a week ago Sunday. The pair talked about the upcoming gubernatorial contest in which many people gave the young and energetic Fulop an edge in a field of three top tier candidates.

Fulop planned to kick off in early November, and Menendez was all for it, having liked the kid’s show of guts when the Iraq War veteran ran against him in 2004 back when Menendez was a congressman. The pair left in good spirits, with Fulop apparently getting ready to finally kick start the campaign he had meticulously prepared for three years.

But by Wednesday morning, coming off a two-hour meeting with former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy, Fulop was suddenly shockingly out off the race and backing Murphy for governor on the steps of City Hall in a short press conference.

Phil Murphy

Phil Murphy is a Democratic candidate for governor. Alyana Alfaro for Observer

“Over the last couple weeks I have been doing a lot of thinking about what is in the best interest of Jersey City, what is in the best interest of the state of New Jersey and where I am situated that I can be the most meaningfully helpful to moving an agenda forward that is progressive, ” Fulop said. “Today I just wanted to make unequivocally clear that I will be running for re-election in Jersey City and unequivocally clear that I will be supporting for New Jersey governor my good friend here Phil Murphy.”

The mayor’s announcement came on the heels of a closed door meeting he had in City Hall with his most trusted advisers, including Corporation Counsel Jeremy Farrell, Chief of Staff Mark Albiez, John Minella, Mike Soliman, and Jason Solowsky.

At that meeting, Fulop told his allies that he was done as a gubernatorial candidate, pointing out that the Murphy Team were prepared to run a $1.2 million to $1.5 million ad campaign against him, apparently coinciding with defense attorney Mike Critchley summoning him to the witness stand as part of the Bridgegate Trial.

When Fulop delivered the news to his team, Soliman got up in the middle of the meeting and walked out of the room. Menendez’s former state director, the operative had signed on over the summer as a key campaign adviser for the mayor and represented Menendez campaign muscle. Prior to his indictment on federal corruption charges, the senior U.S. Senator had appeared to be Fulop’s strongest political asset, the northern power player who would be able to sit down with Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and pull Essex for Fulop.

Everyone connected to the Fulop ethos reacted with anger and disappointment.

Many people saw Fulop as Democrats’ last hope against the cynicism of having to choose between Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and the epoch of a bullying Republican Governor Chris Christie and his Democratic allies on the one hand, and a Goldman Sachs alum on the other.

Menendez was furious.

He couldn’t believe Fulop had dropped out and backed Murphy.

Why?

Why?

Word circulated that in their talks on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, the subject of the U.S. Senate seat came up, and Fulop and Murphy concurred that if it ever opened, the mayor would receive consideration.

Menendez fumed.

He like everyone else heard talk out of South Jersey that the Democrats down there were prepared to put up U.S.  Rep. Donald Norcross “when the senate seat became available.” It was that cryptic statement that truly irked the senator, as if he was already on the cold slab and his career over even before his trial started, rushed there by those who craved his office. “When the seat became available.” That was code for Menendez done. It was one thing to now and again catch a whiff of the South treating him like road kill, but now here was his own ally – the kid who had run against him all those years ago and whom he had resoled to back for governor as part of a northern push to regain power in the state – apparently talking about his senate seat in similar fashion.

Operatives who caught word of the boss’s rage tried to gauge how far it would range, and whether Fulop would find himself not only barred from Menendez’s favored cigar dens but the target of the Hudson County Democratic Organization or its fiercest cloakroom allies in next year’s mayoral election.

In the immediate aftermath of Fulop’s endorsement of Murphy there was buzz out of Menendez world that the senator couldn’t back Murphy.

He had done this once before, he told people around him, with that dud Jon Corzine. He had backed a Goldman Sachs guy for statewide office, someone who had never even so much as served on a school board, who didn’t know what a freeholder was, and look what it got him: Republican Chris Christie in a squeak-out 2009 win over Corzine. No. Never again. Wouldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it.

But Murphy was no Corzine.

Great personality.

Menendez didn’t want to hear it.

He was practically ready to go with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) over Murphy.

As he cooled, he reconsidered, say sources. His top ally, state Senator Nick Sacco of North Bergen was prepared to go with Murphy largely in recognition of the terrible chill between Sacco’s ward Speaker Vincent Prieto of Secaucus and Sweeney.

it would be hard for Menendez to sustain any deep connection to Sweeney, especially when operatives who were supposed to be allied with the senate president in the days following Fulop’s meltdown began shopping for someone, anyone, to stop Murphy.

Names?

U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell of Paterson, Bergen County Executive James Tedesco, and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone of Long Branch.

All received phone calls.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker would be perfect, sources say, but he doesn’t want governor. Gone global. No reason to babysit bosses and their deals on the Delaware.

As for Fulop, the operatives in that room in City Hall and within BlackBerry range walked out Wednesday morning with the mayor feeling like those members of a dream team ready to win the Superbowl who get routed in a playoff game.

What happened?

What had Murphy told Fulop he had on him to get him  out of the race?

It wasn’t like Fulop to roll over. If the kid had a most obvious weakness he was impetuous and, yes, fearless. They had gotten used to him taking on impossible political challenges. This was the guy who ran against Menendez when Menendez was at his most intimidating, not the warm and fuzzy indicted version who comes across like an avuncular respite from the hardened trench-coated types around him; the menacing version who had his grip on the HCDO and used to berate mayors while they helplessly hung their heads.

This was the guy who stood up to the HCDO from his lonely perch on the Jersey City Council.

This was the guy who jumped into the 2014 Newark Mayor’s race on the side of South Ward radical Ras Baraka – the son of a communist -while the rest of the Democratic establishment lined up behind a Seton Hall law professor.

This was the guy who went nose to nose with George Norcross III, the most fearsome political boss in the state.

And now he was backing down?

For Murphy?

What was going to be in that $1.5 million ad buy, the operatives wondered, as they tried to figure how to piece together and regain lives lost in the preparation for a war that never materialized.

Several theories rippled through Fulop world.

The first was that Fulop had tried to fight back against Bill Baroni and David Wildstein at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey by attempting to prevail on his own police chief to get in a running board war with the the pair of Christie acolytes. Fulop and his people had been in talks to back Christie for governor in 2013, had maybe even said he would do it, or at least gave Christie’s minders every indication he was well on his way, when he didn’t, and made himself into just about as fat a target as Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.

Baroni and Wildstein were in a punishing political mood when it came to Fulop, and unlike Sokolich, for

Bill Baroni

Bill Baroni Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

example, who wrung his hands, the mayor of Jersey City appeared willing to go toe to toe with the Port birds. But if he had wanted at any time to use public resources to retaliate and if his own chief of police had balked at what he identified as the politicization of the cops, Fulop may have gotten ahead of himself.

If his former chief had him on tape, that would be very damaging, particularly if he were pleading the fifth in a federal courtroom. The fact that the chief, Richard “Bubba” Cowan, showed up at Fulop’s endorsement of Murphy gave some credence to this theory.

Others concluded that maybe there some personal skeleton in Fulop’s closet that the Goldman Sachs Team had threatened to roll out on him, something that would be truly embarrassing and humiliating. The suddenness of the shout down with no consultations anywhere as far as anyone could tell fueled belief in some circles that this was the most likely theory.

Then there was the third theory, which is that the dogged Murphy had simply worn down Fulop in counties key to to the mayor’s success.

When Menendez was completely cowboyed up and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Fulop looked like the easy front-runner for governor. Menendez could gift wrap Hudson for the kid and easily pull Bergen  and Passaic for him, and then sit down and really work the hell out of DiVincenzo and maybe even come up with Essex and end it early.

Menendez side-lined because of his indictment made Essex harder to obtain for Fulop. That stuck him with Hudson and real opportunities for support in Passaic and Bergen. He worked hard to get close to the chairs in those two counties: Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie and Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato.

Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato

Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato Max Pizarro for Observer

Here’s the problem.

Murphy worked harder.

The Goldman Sachs guy with nothing but time on his hands and the will to win started corralling pieces of both counties early, taking advantage of top Essex operative Brendan Gill’s alliances and deep set friendships to produce whole portions of places like Paterson. Murphy launched his own incredible charm offensive on the two chairs. Fulop was still only 39 and oftentimes appeared more comfortable on his Blackberry than face to face with New Jersey’s endless drift of political human flotsam. But Murphy was a Currie and Stellato contemporary and there was an easy bond there. The Goldman dude back-slapped his way into hearts and minds. He had town hall after town hall. He had coffee clatches with Latino groups and African American groups. He tirelessly worked the hell out of city council people and Currie and Murphy allies.

Fulop and his team scoffed.

It went back to that classic Lou Manzo line.

You can go all in and sell yourself with a laser light show – ads and appearances and videos and the rest of it -but at a certain point you’re just bothering people.

Murphy was bothering people.

That was how Team Fulop digested his ubiquity.

But he wasn’t, as it turned out.

He had launched his gubernatorial campaign far ahead of anyone else in the pack and he was really connecting.

he had money, too. Not Corzine money. But Goldman money.

Gill, his top campaign adviser, was running a real campaign. He was carefully running every conventional play to ensure he built a foundation for his candidate,m and it was effective.

Murphy, second from right, with Mo Butler, Essex County Freeholder Len Luciano, and Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill.

Murphy, second from right, with Mo Butler, Essex County Freeholder Len Luciano, and Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill. Max Pizarro for Observer

Fulop figured all he needed was Stellato.

Stellato would pull Currie.

The two played high school football together.

They’d stick together.

But then Murphy started pulled up entire sections of Bergen County, right from underneath the so-called powerful chairman. Just ripping them up. Assemblyman Gordon Johnson. Well, Johnson wasn’t anyone really, let’s face it. That was the kind of quiet push back and rationalized reaction. Dumont. Well, those guys in  Dumont, they aren’t real. Teaneck. Well, that’s Loretta, and you know Loretta. Then Paramus.

The mayor of Paramus.

Oh, God.

Oh, God.

Paramus was big.

That’s a big Bergen town. Important.

There was some back-chatter saber rattling. LaBarbiera. Labarbiera. He is going to be dead when he runs for reelection. But no one said anything out loud.

It seemed more like desperation.

The reality was that Bergen was the equivalent of Deepwater Horizons in Fulop world.

Meanwhile, in Passaic, Currie apparently voiced irritation that anyone should ever have concluded that he would simply end up standing on the same square as Stellato just because the two of them played football together.

Pascrell, left, and Currie and Senator Nellie Pou's breakfast on Saturday morning at the Brownstone.

Pascrell, left, and Currie and Senator Nellie Pou’s breakfast on Saturday morning at the Brownstone. Max Pizarro for Observer

Dammit, I’m a chairman with my own county, we’re not joined at the hip with Bergen, Currie apparently told people. He had even sat with Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe and toyed with the iddea of joining forces with McCabe at some point – not immediately, but maybe they could make something happen. He loved Stellato, Currie. But Stellato wasn’t the only Democrat in New Jersey politics. McCabe leaned Murphy early. Unlike Stellato, who told people he was with Fulop unitl and unless something catastrophic happened, Currie refused to discuss whom he backed.

He leaned Fulop, said sources, because Stellato was with Fulop. That grew increasingly annoying.

Currie was the freaking state chair, after all, and people perceived him to be bottled up with Stellato and Fulop.

Plus, Murphy charmed. Murphy had money. Murphy was everywhere. A lot of people in Currie’s county already loved Murphy.

As long as we continue to have dinner with Currie and Stellato, but mostly Stellato, we’ll be fine, Fulop allies figured. But Gill and Murphy continued to strip those counties bare.

Gill.

What a pain, the Fulop people had to be thinking.

The former Frank Lautenberg state director had been available at one point as a possible adviser.

Fulop met with him, and passed him over.

Let him go to Murphy.

That had to rankle Fulop by the time it was all over, because Gill knew statewide operations the way some people know the sports pages of the local newspaper. When Lautenberg had gotten very old, Gill all but took the reins of the office. That’s overstating it perhaps, but it’s accurate to say the state director was very hands-on, and trained under the late senator to understand the complexities of having to build campaigns that didn’t simply dependent on the good graces of county  chairs. Never an overly popular personally, Lautenberg employed people like Gill who were smart enough to build reinforcing cross ties to force chairs to move, if need be.

Gill had the savvy to do things like fasten Murphy behind Ward 6 Paterson incumbent Andre Sayegh – long a Gill friend – in Sayegh’s tough stare-down with Al Abdel-aziz in the May nonpartisan election. Sayegh won, and when he did that night, he mentioned his inclination to back Murphy for governor.

With things like that going on under his feet in his home county, Currie was hardly rock solid for Fulop, and if the third theory is correct (which, by the way, still doesn’t explain the content of the ad), Fulop simply could not withstand the defection of one of his northern chairs, which would cave in his strategy.

Sometime on Wednesday morning, the mayor went to sit down with Baraka, who had gone out early for him, voicing his support vociferously largely as a favor for Fulop having backed his mayoral campaign.

Fulop needed to tell Baraka personally before he went live with his announcement at City Hall.

Baraka was ticked.

He had stood by Fulop at political risk to himself.

Short of Menendez prevailing on him at full strength, DiVincenzo  was not going to back Fulop, and Baraka backing Fulop put him at odds with the powerful county executive, a headache he didn’t need.

As he sat there with his political ally, two-thirds of a northern urban alliance that broke when Paterson Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres became too much of a political liability for them to take seriously, Baraka had to be asking himself the same question that was on everyone else’s mind who had watched the incredible meteoric ascent of Steve Fulop.

Why?

He was supposed to have been getting ready for his gubernatorial lift-off, but now, in the coming days, Fulop intended to huddle up with his top campaign guns, Tom Bertoli and Shawn Thomas-Sully, to figure out if they would stand with him in his reelection bid next year and stand there in the trenches with him as they had in the past.

Hudson Freeholder Bill O’Dea looked strong and was ready to run if Fulop decides he can’t, even though he said last week he would.

The meeting with Bertoli and Thomas-Sully will say a lot.

In Passaic yesterday, a packed roomful of state Senator Nellie Pou allies at the Passaic senator’s annual Brownstone breakfast expressed little disturbance at the news of Fulop’s exit from the race. Courted behind the scenes to face Murphy, Pascrell looked hardly interested, as he made a pressing announcement to the crowd.

“Phil Murphy hasn’t arrived yet,” Pascrell declared from the stage.

Dispirited groans ensued.

But Murphy had called and was on his way.

“He’s going to be the governor,” a Democratic source told PolitickerNJ. “This will all be mopped up in the next ten days.”

Full-throated cheers sounded for Murphy in the enormous room as the black-tied waiters pushed through swinging doors on the lavish second floor with plates heaped high with food for the hungry, happy crowd.

Pascrell

Pascrell Max Pizarro for Observer

 

 

 

Fulop Out: The Back Drama to the Back Drama in the 2017 NJ Governor’s Race