At the last Jersey City Municipal Council meeting, Ward E Councilman Steve Fulop did not get a warm reception. That’s not unusual for Fulop, who has been a consistent adversary of many Jersey City politicians since he was elected to the council in 2005.
But this time it was personal.
Fulop had just introduced a resolution that would have banned dual public office holding, personal use of city vehicles and required former city officials to wait three years after leaving the city’s employment before they could lobby the city. If passed, Jersey City would have the strictest ethics measure in the state, said Fulop.
It didn’t help win Fulop any friends, especially considering that five of the nine council members hold more than one public job.
“It was a cold chill, and people were not very friendly when I went in there,” said Fulop. “I would say it was borderline aggressive.”
Imagine: Jersey City, known for political machines, backroom politics and patronage positions — the city where Mayor Frank Hague left an indelible impression — instituting the strictest ethical standards for public officials in the state. That’s not a joke, says Fulop. But the council seemed to think so, and voted it down 6-1, with two abstentions. So Fulop has pledged to put it on the ballot as a referendum.
“People laugh at us in the state. So here’s an opportunity where Hudson County and Jersey City, which is the biggest part of Hudson County, would set the bar for the state,” said Fulop. “It would have been a great opportunity.”
To his critics, Fulop, the 30-year-old Vice-President of Algorithmic Trading at Citigroup, is less a reformer than a grandstander. He’s a publicity hungry politician who will introduce idealistic measures to build up his name and grab a few headlines. But Fulop, while not denying a craving for the mayor’s seat, also has the ambition to change the political culture in Jersey City.
“I totally anticipate that he’ll be a candidate (for mayor) in 2009, which he has every right to be,” said Mayor Jerramiah Healy. “Unfortunately, I’ve come to the conclusion over the last two and a half years that everything Steve does is aimed at that goal, and I have to call it posturing and grandstanding.”
Healy and Fulop have been at odds for most of their terms in office. To Fulop, Healy is a status quo mayor who, he charges, works four hour days, hires cronies for patronage positions and shies away from accountability.
“We’re at a point today where I could say ‘the sky is blue,’ and Jerry Healy would say ‘no, it’s red.’,” said Fulop. “That’s where our relationship is today, and I’m comfortable with it.”
Healy counters that Fulop has the worst attendance record of any city council member, and refuses to consider him so much as a thorn in his side.
“A thorn usually bothers you, hurts you or annoys you. To tell you the truth, he doesn’t bother me. When I see him he says ‘Hello Mayor,’ and I say ‘Hi Steve.’ Then I pick up the paper and he’s said something new about me.”
A mysterious cyber prankster has even set up a mirror site to Steve Fulop’s, mimicking the original site almost exactly but putting a picture of Alfred E. Newman in place of Fulop. The site’s registration is protected, but Fulop suspects that it was set up by a member of the Hudson County Democratic Organization.
It’s no secret that Fulop, perhaps the second most headlined political figure in Jersey City, is ambitious. He’s by far the most high profile member of the council, and recently brought Hillary Clinton to the city’s Newport development for a fundraiser (Healy supports Obama). The question is whether he’s ambitious to remake city government, or to land himself in a higher office.
According to Fulop, it’s both.
“Where I am today, I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity,” said Fulop. “It’s flattering that my name is thrown around for a lot of these huge posts, but what I can tell you as it specifically relates to Jerry Healy, if his popularity stayed the way it is today, I would certainly consider it.”
There’s also been speculation that Healy would want to avoid a mayoral fight with Fulop by tapping him to mount a primary challenge against freshman U.S. Rep. Albio Sires, who threw his lot in with rival political boss Brian Stack. But Fulop, while not explicitly ruling it out, downplayed the possibility.
“Is it something down the road that would interest me? Sure it is. But if you look at the dialogue, it’s not because they’re so enamored with me, but because they’re trying to get rid of me,” said Fulop. “The flip side is you’re trusting people that don’t like me or anything I’m about, so that’s certainly a difficult thing to do.”
Healy, for his part, called the idea “preposterous.”
Fulop’s star has risen with extraordinary speed. He grew up in Edison, the son of Jewish Hungarian immigrants who survived the holocaust, and moved to a rapidly gentrifying downtown Jersey City about eight years ago. He settled in the city’s most posh neighborhood, Paulus Hook, and worked for Goldman Sachs across the river. Then the towers came down, and out of a sense of patriotism (not political calculation, Fulop insists), he joined the Marine reserves and served seven months in Iraq during the initial stages of the invasion, seeing some combat.
It was this military service that brought him to the attention of the man who would become his short-lived political mentor: the late Jersey City Mayor Glen Cunningham. The two met after Fulop received a commendation from the city for his military service. Cunningham, mired in a dispute with then-U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez, ultimately decided to tap Fulop to run a kamikaze campaign against him. While helping Fulop campaign, he died after suffering a heart attack while on a Fulop bicycle publicity tour.
Fulop’s ward is made up primarily of the city’s downtown, the most gentrified part of the city, and many of his constituents fit his own profile – young, wealthy New York City commuters who grew up somewhere else. But the ward also has three major housing projects and the largest Hispanic population in the city — not constituents that Fulop can afford to ignore.
“From a demographic and diversity standpoint, I would tell you that we’re not just a bedroom community for New York,” said Fulop.
Despite Cunningham launching his political career, when his wife, Sandra Bolden Cunningham, ran for Senate, Fulop backed Lou Manzo against her in the primary.
“I supported the person who was the best for the job. It may not be the best for me politically,” said Fulop. “At the end of the day is my relationship with Sandy Cunningham strained? It is — the same way it’s strained with the HCDO. So I’m out there on a limb.”
It’s not that it was such an unusual move in the world of Hudson County politics, where alliances change faster than the city’s skyline. But one thing that Fulop hasn’t been very good at during his time as a councilman is forging alliances, something necessary in this ultra-diverse city. Contrast this to Healy, who managed to broker a slate that included Sandra Bolden Cunningham and two of her husband’s old enemies: L. Harvey Smith and Tom DeGise.
But Fulop said that Healy had to practically “mortgage the house” to broker the deal, and that on the council he has a relatively good working relationship with two of the members: Marie Spinello in Ward B and Viola Richardson in Ward F.
Fulop argues that in his own ward, he’s renovated parks, paved the streets and has made overall improvements to constituent services.
“I think relative to the rest of the city we’ve done great,” said Fulop.