In other circumstances, it might seem unfriendly to tell a mayor you wouldn’t attend a basketball game in his city because of its crime rate — but when guests having breakfast with Steve Fulop, Jersey City’s head honcho, expressed such views, he took it in the spirit intended.
He nodded in understanding, and, meeting Aug. 7 with the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, began to describe his agenda. It includes bringing innovative strategies to a city dogged by stale perceptions and a legacy of corruption.
“I hope that what we’re doing in Jersey City will become a beacon for what is happening in this state,” said Fulop. “In four years’ time, people will be reading about it nationwide.”
At 36, Fulop, who took office in May, is one of the youngest political leaders in the state, and is attracting growing attention. The CRC invited him to the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany as part of an ongoing effort to get to know key players and share the Jewish community’s major concerns with them.
But there were other reasons for the invitation. CRC director Melanie Roth Gorelick described the Grater MetroWest community’s fight against human trafficking. With the Super Bowl scheduled for MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford in February 2014 — and with both teams scheduled to stay in his city — activists say the area will become a magnet for sex trafficking and prostitution.
“Will you issue a pre-Super Bowl proclamation about it?” Gorelick asked Fulop.
“Yes, we can do that,” he replied.
Then there was the other reason Fulop is of interest to the federation: He’s Jewish.
“I first got to hear about Steve Fulop about two years ago,” said Roger Jacobs, CRC Newark Advisory Council cochair and chair of the meeting. “We are always on the lookout for young Jewish candidates, and I didn’t know anything about him. I’ve since learned that he is a fine young man who holds the same ideals that many of us value, like service to one’s country and one’s community. He is a fellow who puts others ahead of himself.”
In 2003 Fulop put aside a promising career with Goldman Sachs to join the Marines. His unit, the 6th Engineer Support Battalion, went into Iraq a day after Operation Iraqi Freedom. They remained for six months, earning accolades for effectiveness. Serving was his way of expressing gratitude, he said, “for all the opportunities I’ve been given. If I hadn’t served, I’d have missed being exposed to a lot of different people.”
But for all that commitment to serve, he had no interest in politics. He didn’t register to vote, Fulop confessed, until he decided to run for office himself in 2004. Mayor Glenn Cunningham, who had honored him and others for their service in the Gulf, talked him into running against then Rep. Robert Menendez in the 13th district Democratic primary, as a kind of sacrificial lamb.
“I got slaughtered,” Fulop said with a grin. “But I learned a lot, and I got passionate about the issues.”
He also began to build up relationships with the ethnic groups that populate Jersey City. Among the most supportive have been the Pakistani and Indian communities.
“They know that I’m Jewish,” he said. “They share the same issues, like education and safety.”
Fulop grew up in Edison in a Romanian and Israeli Jewish family. His grandparents on his mother’s side were Holocaust survivors. His father ran a deli in Newark, where he helped out as a teenager. Though not observant, his parents sent to him an Orthodox yeshiva in Highland Park — not always a comfortable placement for him.
“When friends came over, I’d have to hide the bacon,” he declared with a mischievous gleam, knowingly playing his audience.
For his freshman and sophomore years, he transferred to what is now Golda Och Academy in West Orange, but for his last two years, he switched to a public high school. He entered SUNY Binghamton — “I wasn’t a great student, but I got a soccer scholarship” and, clearly doing better academically, spent time studying at Oxford University in England.
In 2006, Fulop got both a master’s in public administration from Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, and another in business from New York University’s Stern School of Business.
The previous year, when he was 28, with no support from the Democratic establishment, Fulop won election to Jersey City’s City Council. Four years later, he won a second term, and the mayoral buzz began. In May, Fulop beat incumbent Mayor Jeremiah Healy by 15 percentage points.
These days, he is on excellent terms with Sen. Menendez, he said, and has “a strong relationship with Cory Booker” — Newark’s mayor and Senate aspirant — who, Fulop said, “has been a tremendous resource.”
Returning to the topic of crime, Fulop mentioned his appointment of former New York Police Department deputy chief Jim Shea as his director of public safety. Even his more controversial moves seem to win approval. Fulop said he had put former NJ Gov. Jim McGreevey, who resigned in a sex scandal in 2004, in charge of a prisoner re-entry program he regards as crucial. “We’re getting tremendous value from him,” Fulop said. “He has meaningful relationships with so many people in the state and he has zero aspirations toward any public office.”
Fulop added, “I have an all-star team of people who are much more talented than I am.”