Man With a Plan: Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop

Data-obsessed and bent on efficiency, new mayor Steven Fulop moves aggressively to implement his vision for Jersey City.

Suited for the Job: Steven Fulop was not intent on a career in public service, but he got the political bug after a Quixotic run for Congress at age 25.
Photo by Matt Rainey

Becoming the mayor of Jersey City was a walk in the park for Steven Fulop. All he had to do was defeat Jerramiah Healy, a longtime incumbent with strong ties to the powerful Hudson County Democratic machine and endorsements from such brand-name influencers as Cory Booker, Frank Lautenberg and, oh yes, Barack Obama.

Despite the artillery Healy marshalled in the nonpartisan election last May, the 36-year-old Fulop, a former Wall Street equities trader who entered politics less than a decade ago, captured 53 percent of the vote and sent the incumbent packing.

Fulop—who, as a city councilman, earned a reputation as an effective reformer—based his mayoral campaign on creating a more responsive, more effective government, fighting crime, capitalizing on the city’s assets and improving the schools. Meanwhile, Healy had to live down a history of bizarre behavior and the taint his administration suffered in the federal sting operation of 2009, which targeted a number of Hudson County officials.

With his victory, Fulop became the hot new flavor for Jersey Democrats hoping to take back the state’s leadership in 2017. “He’s young, aggressive, willing to work,” says a local community leader, Dr. M. Rafiq Chaudhry. “He’s the prospect to be the future governor of the state of New Jersey.”

Fulop supporters say his mayoralty rejects the same-old-same-old. “He’s brought a brand of new politics and a real vision for how Jersey City can break from its history of political patronage,” says City Council President Rolando Lavarro.

Since taking office in July, Fulop has moved swiftly to implement key elements of his plan for the 15-square-mile city on Hudson County’s Gold Coast. He has redirected development away from the already bustling waterfront to historically neglected inner-city neighborhoods, consolidated the police and fire departments under a single public safety director, pushed through a controversial ordinance requiring private businesses to give their employees paid sick time, and initiated a prisoner reentry program he hopes will become a national model.

“I want to set expectations realistically and then, hopefully, overachieve,” Fulop says. His ambitious agenda should come as no surprise. “During the campaign, we were more specific than most in outlining what we were intending to do,” he says. “We are just following through.”

Fulop inherited a host of entrenched problems: a consistently high crime rate, underperforming schools, and longstanding ethnic and socioeconomic divisions, in addition to a grossly underfunded budget. But none seem to daunt the new mayor. “I love the job,” he says. “I am thankful every day that I have had the opportunity.”

Much like Cory Booker in Newark, Fulop has been disparaged by his critics as a yuppie, out of touch with the city’s history and essence. Indeed, Fulop moved to Jersey City only 14 years ago. He grew up in Edison, the middle son of Arthur and Carmen Fulop, Jews who had emigrated from Romania in the 1960s. His mother, whose sister and grandmother were killed in the Holocaust, insisted that her three boys have American names and speak English at home.

As a youth, the future mayor mopped the floors at his father’s deli in Newark; next door, his mother ran an immigration-services business. After graduating John P. Stevens High School, Fulop entered the State University of New York at Binghamton on a soccer scholarship. He studied political science, though he had no intention of entering public service. Instead, he followed his older brother into finance and landed his first job at Goldman Sachs.

At 24, Fulop was earning a good living at the financial giant’s lower-Manhattan location. Then came the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. While others wept, Fulop joined the Marines. “I would always say that if one day I had the opportunity or I was needed, I would do it,” he says. Despite their patriotism, his family was shocked. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Fulop was in the first wave of troops. He remained in the war zone for six months before returning stateside and settling back into his condo on Jersey City’s gentrified waterfront.

“At the time, I wasn’t involved in any of this local politics stuff,” Fulop says. But his military service caught the attention of Jersey City mayor Glenn D. Cunningham, a fellow Marine Corps veteran and the city’s first black mayor. Cunningham persauded Fulop to run in the 2004 Democratic congressional primary against his political enemy, Robert Menendez, who was seeking a seventh term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Though “at capacity” trying to restart his career and finish master’s degrees at New York University and Columbia University, Fulop accepted the challenge. Then, in a bizarre twist of fate, Cunningham died of a massive heart attack a week before the June election.

Fulop lost in a landslide, yet he gained a valuable introduction to campaigning. The following year, he entered the City Council race and won—the only triumphant candidate not on Mayor Healy’s ticket. Fulop was reelected to the part-time post in 2009.

Though representing Ward E, the city’s wealthy waterfront and downtown area, Fulop demonstrated an interest in the city’s less fortunate residents. He sponsored a controversial ordinance that required developers and businesses receiving municipal tax subsidies to pay low-level workers well over the federal minimum wage.

“I really wanted to make a difference,” Fulop says. “I wanted to be able to set the policy agenda and do some progressive stuff.” And so in 2012, Fulop, then 35, decided it was time for a career change. Leaving his job as a trader at Sanford Bernstein, he set out to unseat Healy.

While the city had made important strides under Healy, the mayor had become a political embarrassment. Several members of the Healy administration, including the deputy mayor and the City Council president, were among 44 people in New Jersey and New York arrested in the much-publicized 2009 federal investigation, Operation Bid Rig.

To boost his campaign, Fulop was hoping for endorsements from major Democratic organizations and labor unions. Yet the powerful Hudson County Democratic Organization, as well as the 4,000-member Jersey City Education Association and several other labor unions, stuck with the incumbent. Then came Healy’s endorsement from Obama. “I was nauseous,” Fulop says.

Obama’s support for Healy appeared to have had the greatest impact among black voters; however, Fulop says it was the ethnic communities that had never enjoyed much representation in Jersey City government—the Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis and Guyanese—that gave him the edge. “I am thankful for the way things worked out,” Fulop says, “because I don’t owe anything to anybody except for the residents that actually worked and volunteered and voted.”

This reporter first met Fulop last June at his no-frills campaign headquarters in a downscale neighborhood in the center of the city. Newly elected but not yet sworn in, Fulop was upbeat but fidgety—like a racehorse eager to break from the gate. Interviewed four months later in his corner office at City Hall, the newly minted mayor appeared more practiced—measured in his conversation, but still refreshingly candid and casual.

Despite holding his city’s top job, Fulop still thinks like an outsider. “The political establishment grossly underestimates what the population and the populace looks like today and what people are involved in; that you are not in the 1970s anymore,” he says. “I think that has been a problem with the Democratic Party overall.” He believes Jersey City residents are tired of political feuds and chicanery. “They don’t want to hear it; they don’t care about it,” he says, “but they know about it because there’s access to information today that’s immediate, so things that people used to be able to get away with, they can’t get away with anymore, and the old time politics hasn’t really adjusted so quickly.”

Residents say Fulop, who is single, has brought energy to City Hall, generating a sense of renewal and hope in New Jersey’s second largest city. “He’s created a buzz,” says Daniel DeAlmeida, who grew up in Jersey City and, a few months after the election, opened a restaurant on Newark Avenue. “Jersey City is changing. It’s about time it’s changed.”

In fact, Jersey City has been changing for the better since the 1980s, when real estate developers, most notably New York City tycoon Samuel LeFrak, saw the potential in its prime waterfront properties, then blighted with abandoned factories and warehouses. Jersey City had once been a busy port on the Hudson River and home to thriving companies like Colgate, Dixon Ticonderoga and Emerson Radio. But after World War II, many jobs and residents left for the suburbs. Despite an enduring arts scene, the city went into decline.

The real estate boom of the 1980s brought high-rise condos and shopping malls like the Newport Centre to the waterfront. Fortune 500 companies like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan opted for Jersey City addresses. Gentrification on the waterfront and in the adjacent downtown also nurtured a restaurant and boutique-shopping scene.

While development broadened the tax base, it also divided longtime residents—including many immigrants and children of immigrants—from the newcomers, mostly successful young professionals who have driven demand for the city’s growing supply of luxury condo developments. “It’s been a tale of two cities for a long time,” says Lavarro, who admits he at first doubted whether Fulop really understood Jersey City, where 52 percent of households speak a language other than English and 16 percent live below the poverty line.
But Fulop endeavored to connect with the various ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Two weeks into his tenure, during Ramadan, a young man being chased by a gunman ran into a Montgomery Street mosque filled with worshippers. The gunman riddled the facade of the mosque with bullets, inciting panic. The next day, the new mayor showed up at the mosque alongside his police chief and promised protection.

“We have never heard of that before,” says Dr. Chaudhry, who emigrated from Pakistan 42 years ago and has become a voice for the city’s growing Muslim population. He notes that Fulop fulfilled his pledge to increase police presence around mosques for the rest of the holy month. “He responded to the needs of the community.”

Unlike previous mayors, Fulop wants to lure development away from the waterfront. His new tax-abatement policy, put in place by executive order a month after he took office, offers increased incentives for building in inner-city districts, in particular Journal Square. “We’ve had things in for approval,” says Fulop, “but nothing has gone vertical.” He adds that finding developers willing to take a risk in an unproven market has been tough; however, one key project is underway. The Bridgewater-based Kushner Real Estate Group broke ground in December for a $660 million project that includes three residential towers near the corner of Summit and Pavonia avenues in Journal Square.

Though it appears Journal Square could well be the next frontier in Jersey City, not everyone agrees with the extent of Fulop’s 30-year tax-abatement policy for the district, which was once a thriving commercial center with quality retail stores and popular theaters. Though it is still a transportation hub, with one of the city’s three PATH stations, the area is now characterized by dollar stores and empty lots.

“The people in my neighborhood are tired of it,” says Richard Boggiano, who represents Journal Square on the City Council. “We want something done.” But Fulop’s plan, he says, gives away too much. “I don’t want to see the city give away these abatements like they did downtown,” says Boggiano, although he acknowledges that some incentives for developers might be needed to jumpstart improvement.

In line with Fulop’s tax-abatement policy, Kushner has pledged millions for infrastructure upgrades and the renovation of the city-owned Loew’s Theatre. “It’s the size of NJPAC,” Fulop says. “You could really book some legitimate acts.” Restoring the historic theater will cost up to $15 million, but Fulop says it’s worth the investment. “You could never build something like that today, short of hundreds of millions,” he says. If he can apply his Wall Street savvy to win the grants and pass the bonds needed to reincarnate the theatrical jewel, Fulop could wind up a hero.

To somewhat offset the gift of tax abatements, Fulop’s policy includes a good-faith clause requiring any developer or business receiving breaks to hire residents as workers and apprentices.

In another measure to benefit the working class, Fulop pushed through a paid sick leave ordinance requiring local businesses with 10 or more employees to give their workers one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to five days of sick time annually. “It’s a human-dignity issue,” the mayor says. “If you get sick or your child gets sick, you shouldn’t risk losing your job or losing 20 percent of your compensation for the week.” Local businesses, as well as the statewide New Jersey Business and Industry Association, blasted the measure, the first of its kind in New Jersey. “Small businesses cannot afford that,” says Raju Patel, president of the Jersey City Asian Merchant Association and owner of Travel World, a small business on Newark Avenue. “These kinds of things are the job of the state and federal government.” The ordinance, passed by the City Council 7 to 1, takes effect this month.

During the campaign, Fulop promised to streamline government by consolidating departments and bringing autonomous agencies back under the city’s purview. “That’s going to cut costs and improve accountability,” he says. Step one was to place the police and fire departments, as well as the office of emergency management and homeland security, under one new public safety director. Boggiano, a retired police detective, was the only councilmember who ultimately opposed the ordinance, which passed 8-1 upon a second reading in September. Boggiano points out that the city tried and failed to consolidate departmental leadership three previous times. Fulop says the city will save about $350,000 by cutting redundant management positions.

The mayor had inherited a fiscal mess. The $516 million municipal budget for 2013 had a revenue shortfall of about $20 million. The Healy administration had hoped to close the gap by selling a vacant lot at Liberty State Park. But there were no offers. “They put it into the budget, but it wasn’t real,” says Fulop. It was too late to procure that kind of cash from other places in the budget, says Fulop, so his administration was forced to raise taxes by 7.6 percent, taking advantage of exceptions to New Jersey’s 2 percent cap on municipal tax hikes. “That was brutal,” says Fulop, adding that he doesn’t expect to do it again any time soon.

He caught some flack for raising salaries in the mayor’s office by $100,000 and adding approximately $180,000 to the budget for his expanded Resident Response Team. But, he says, that increase brought in the talent needed to implement his plans for the city.

In the front passenger seat of the black SUV that whisks him around the city, Fulop, iPhone in hand, scrolls through his latest downloads of color-coded data. His administration seems to track everything: response time to resident complaints; kinds of books being borrowed from which libraries; and kinds of crimes being committed where and at what time of day, to name a few. The granular data, he says, provides a more accurate picture that helps him direct resources. “We get a better understanding of where we are performing and not performing,” Fulop says. The mayor also had GPS trackers installed on every municipal vehicle. If employees know their supervisors can check in on their whereabouts, “it changes the culture,” he says.

It’s all part of Fulop’s obsession with accountability and efficiency. Applying that to the city’s finances, he has combed through the budget line by line. He saved about $200,000 by laying off city workers whose job it had been to manage Urban Enterprise Zone funding the city no longer receives from the state. His administration also put the city’s emergency medical services contract out to bid, saving about $4 million annually. The fire department has been restructured to cut back on overtime pay. Seeking new revenue, the administration has gone after developers and businesses whose tax abatements have long expired; $5 million in back taxes was collected in Fulop’s first few weeks in office. In an unprecedented move, Fulop announced that the city plans to sue the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for $400 million in unpaid taxes and other payments related to properties the agency owns in Jersey City.

Then there is education. Fulop has been working to bridge the gap between city government and public schools. As a councilman, he ran the campaigns of several individuals who are now members of the Board of Education. He supported the city’s school superintendent, Marcia Lyles, a PhD who has been praised for restructuring school administration and honing in on principal and teacher training. “Schools impact employment issues, crime, taxes,” Fulop says.

Improving the public schools, he adds, is crucial to keeping young families in Jersey City. “Parents are willing to be partners with a city if they feel that the city is doing its share to move the schools forward,” he says.

His administration is seeking creative ways to invest in those schools, which serve 27,000 students. With space tight, his tax-abatement policy offers incentives to developers who build prekindergarten classrooms in residential buildings. Fulop also has worked with Jersey City’s Liberty Science Center and hip-hop music mogul Russell Simmons’s New York City-based Art for Life to bring new programs to the schools. His other initiatives include literacy classes for parents and working with local corporations to provide summer jobs for students. “All of that is happening because there is a better partnership between Dr. Lyles and me,” he says.

Violent crime may be Fulop’s biggest challenge. From January to October 2013, the police department reported 17 murders, 24 rapes, 182 aggravated assaults, 549 robberies and 545 car thefts. Compare that to Jersey City’s neighbor to the north—the gentrified, albeit much smaller, Hoboken—which reported no murders, six rapes, 46 aggravated assaults, 37 robberies and 59 car thefts. South of Jersey City, Bayonne reported no murders or rapes, 15 aggravated assaults, 36 robberies and 49 car thefts.

To attack the problem, the administration has shifted police resources to neighborhoods in greatest need, in particular the south end. “I think the better that area does, the better the whole city does,” Fulop says.

Creating the Ceasefire Unit—detectives who work citywide, investigating nonfatal shootings and gathering criminal intelligence—has borne fruit as well. “Of the last eight shootings, we’ve solved seven,” Fulop says. The previous solve rate in Jersey City was about 20 percent, he says. The unit works hard to convince witnesses to talk. “The hope,” says Fulop, “is that the residents start to take back their streets.”

Another piece of the puzzle is rehabilitation. In July, Fulop hired former governor Jim McGreevey to head a prisoner reentry program. “It was a controversial pick,” Fulop admits, “but his work product in the past 10 years in this field has been second to none.” Since reentering public life, McGreevey has counseled inmates at Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny and ex-addicts at Integrity House in Newark. His expertise, Fulop says, is desperately needed in a city where approximately 1,500 people return from prison every year. “We’re going to have the first model in the country on prisoner reentry that does housing, treatment and employment all under one roof,” the mayor says. The biggest weakness of the old program, he adds, was an inability to find work for people who had completed job training. Fulop says he has already gotten commitments from local developers and businesses to remedy that.

Prognosticators already have placed Fulop’s name on the Democrats’ short list of future gubernatorial candidates. “Everyone is talking about it,” says Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. But Fulop, she warns, has a long way to go. “He needs to stay grounded,” she says, “and not too quickly fly too close to the sun.”

In his office, Fulop leans forward in a short-back leather chair and props his elbows on the round table in front of him. He says he would be perfectly happy if he does nothing else in politics. As he points out, “I’ve got a big city to run.”

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