Checking in with Steve Fulop
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Checking in with Steve Fulop

Jersey City mayor reflects on his six years in office

Steven Fulop became the mayor of Jersey City — New Jersey’s second biggest city, home to almost 266,000 people as well as the Statue of Liberty (New York City claims it, but her feet are planted in Jersey City’s waters), the most ethnically diverse city in the country and among the most ethnically diverse cities in the world — when he was 35 years old.

That was seven years ago. He’s now more than halfway through his second term.

Six years ago, we wrote about Mr. Fulop. It seems to be just about time to check back in with him now, to see how he’s changed and what’s bedrock.

Steve and Jaclyn Fulop. (Courtesy Steve Fulop)

Mr. Fulop, we learned in 2014, is both quintessentially American and quintessentially Jewish — the grandson of four Transylvanians, who each survived the war differently. One grandfather was sent to a transit camp, and one grandmother was shipped to Auschwitz, where she survived but the infant Mengele decreed be pulled from her arms did not. The other set of grandparents survived in their small, remote town, so far from any place anyone had ever heard of that the Germans did not get there. Steve’s father, Arthur Fulop, grew up in Israel, was a sniper in the Golani Brigade during the Six Day War, and left the IDF — and eventually Israel — changed and saddened by the experience.

Carmen and Arthur Fulop and their three sons moved to Edison; Arthur owned a deli in Newark, and Carmen ran a service bureau for immigrants close by. The three boys, Daniel, Steven, and Richard, went to the Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva, and then to the Solomon Schechter School of Union and Essex; today Dan’s two daughters go to school there, although it’s been renamed the Golda Och Academy. The family went to shul at Congregation Neve Shalom, the Conservative synagogue that still flourishes in nearby Metuchen.

Steve Fulop went to Binghamton University, did junior year abroad at Oxford, and then, after he graduated, went to Chicago and got a job at Goldman Sachs. In 2000, Goldman moved him back to New York; he bought a condo in Jersey City and worked in downtown Manhattan. Not only was he not politically active, but he was so politically inert that he did not even register to vote. But he owned real estate, he was close to his parents physically as well as emotionally, he was young and healthy, and he had a good job.

Note the year and the place, however. Soon after his good life was set in place, the attacks of September 11, 2001, happened. He worked at 1 New York Plaza; “I felt the building shake when the planes hit,” he said in 2014. That shook him out of his happy complacency. Far out of it. He joined the Marines. So at 25, which is young by most standards but nearly senescent by new-recruit ones, he found himself in boot camp on Parris Island.

It terrified his parents, but it was their values that drove him to that decision, he said in 2014.

Mr. Fulop was deployed to Baghdad; he was there for about seven months, and then sent back to Kuwait. After a year, he was out of the Marines and back at Goldman. “I feel that I got more out of the Marine Corps as a person and as a human being than it got from me,” he said.

Mr. Fulop came back to Jersey City changed; the city, mired in decades of corruption, had not. It was a highly charged, politically crazy, machine-run place. He entered politics — the story of his rise is long and complicated, and we told it in 2014. The most compelling part of the story, as pure story, is the opponent against whom he ran and won. It was Jerramiah T. Healy, who at one point was discovered — and photographed — naked and drunk on his sister’s porch. His story explaining that was unconvincing. The FBI raid the day before that ended with 44 arrests for corruption in his city didn’t help.

So when Steve Fulop took over Jersey City, he was entrusted with a city that pretty much had become a joke, or at least a punchline.

That was then. Now the city is different. And so is Mr. Fulop.

Steve Fulop’s parents, Carmen and Arthur, and his wife, Jaclyn, look on as the mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka, swears Steve in.

Under his watch, the city’s been able to attract businesses, and as more employees move in, so does housing construction. The city’s growing bigger. “We are a leader in public policy statewide and nationally,” Mr. Fulop said. “We instituted paid sick leave and raised the minimum wage first, and eventually the state adopted them. We’re leaders on environmental issues, ranging from solar panels on municipal buildings to banning plastic bags to revamping the parks.

“Crime is down, and the police department has gone from 769 officers to 950. More importantly, it had been 65 percent white, and now it is 46 percent white. Violent crime by all metrics has plummeted, including shootings and homicides.

“We are the single most diverse city in the entire country, and we affirmed Jersey City as a sanctuary city. We have been vocal and are providing help to the immigrant community. We set up an immigrant affairs commission to be a better liaison to the communities that are most impacted by federal policies, to help them understand their rights better.

“We do our best to have an impact on the local level.”

That diversity — where do people come from? “A lot from South America, Pakistan, Egypt. We have the world’s largest Coptic community. There are so many Copts that their pope came here.” (The Copts are an ancient Egyptian Christian community; its head, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, went to Jersey City last September.)

An initiative that makes Mr. Fulop proud is the city’s adoption of United Rescue, an Israeli technology that gets emergency help to people very quickly. Jersey City was the first American city to use it; it’s called United Hatzalah in Israel.

“We now have the fastest response times,” Mr. Fulop says.

This is how it works.

Above and below, Mr. Fulop’s job includes a lot of ribbon-cuttings for new business; Jersey City is thriving.

When a 911 call comes in, an ambulance is dispatched, just like always, but also the GPS-based technology figures out which volunteer is closest, and calls that person. The volunteer — someone trained and certified by United Rescue — rushes there, and stays with the patient until the ambulance arrives.

“Say that I am a licensed medical doctor or nurse or some other healthcare provider, and I’m in an office, and somebody three offices down has a heart attack or is choking,” Mr. Fulop said. “They call 911, and an ambulance will be routed, but I’m there first. It will alert me on the phone.” And if the person who is closest is not available, the call goes to the next closest volunteer.

“Imagine having to wait for an elevator in a high rise if you are trying to get to someone on the 12th floor who had a heart attack,” Mr. Fulop said.

The volunteers come with their own kit of supplies, “everything that an ambulance would have, except for a stretcher,” he continued. “The amazing thing to me was that when we started the program, if you had told me that 50 people would volunteer to go through the 60-hour course that you need to be certified, I would have been ecstatic. We had 1,000 people register.

“We have had hundreds go through the process, because we could do only so many trainings at a time.

“They touch every demographic in the city. It is really working, and it has been a really great thing.”

The mayor was just one of many enthusiastic participants in Ride Your Bike to Work Week in May.

As the city has changed, so has Mr. Fulop. He got married to Jaclyn Thompson, a physical therapist, in 2016. He sold his condo and they bought a house. They suffered through a miscarriage, but now they have a 16-month old boy, Jackson.

And then, seven months ago, his older brother, Daniel, died.

Dan Fulop, who lived in West Orange, worked for Related Companies. “He had been the primary point person for fundraising for Hudson Yards, and he spent a lot of time in Asia raising money,” Steve said; first he went to China, and then branched out to Thailand and Vietnam. Daniel had felt a little not-quite-right before his trip last September, and had seen a cardiologist, but had been tested and reassured. That month, on a trip to Vietnam, he had a heart attack and died. He was 44.

Steve Fulop, left, and his older brother, Dan.

“Literally, from one minute to the next, everything changes,” Steve Fulop said. “Dan just went on a trip, he looked and felt relatively healthy — and then he never came back.”

The family had to fight to get Dan’s body back home. Most of the time, when Americans die overseas, their bodies are cremated and the ashes are returned, and it’s relatively easy. But the Fulops, as Jews, wanted to have a funeral. “Vietnam had no sense of urgency about returning the body,” Mr. Fulop said. “It’s not a close ally of the United States. We had Schumer” — Senator Charles Schumer of New York — “Menendez” — Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey — “Booker” — Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey — “and Albion Sire” — the member of Congress who represents New Jersey’s eighth district — “all helping, but it was a nightmare.

“The Israeli embassy in Vietnam was tremendously helpful in educating the Vietnamese about proper burial procedure for Jews.”

And then there was Chabad.

“Chabad in Ho Chi Minh City sent a shomer” — the watchman, the person who, according to the demands of Jewish law, sits with a dead body until it is buried — “and the shomer stayed with him for like a week.

“It was a crazy, crazy time.

“The last time I saw my brother was in Livingston, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when we went to shul together. I am so really thankful that we did that.

“I had never in my life lost someone close to me, and it’s been brutal. The only thing that makes my parents happy is my son and my brother’s daughters.”

Jackson’s middle name is Joseph, because Daniel’s Hebrew name had been Yosef.

So these last few years have been intensely emotional for Steve Fulop.

Baby Jaxon looks surprised as his proud father carries him around.

“I think that in the last six years I have evolved and matured and changed,” he said. “I have become more emotional and more sensitive. That is because the ups and downs in life have made me a better mayor. I think I understand a little more because of my challenges; at 35, I didn’t have as much life experience as I do now, at 42.

“I’ve been growing up in front of Jersey City.”

Certainly the military is a life experience, isn’t it?

“Yes, the military is an emotional experience, but it’s professional, and it’s different,” he said. “Yesterday I spent some time with a family that lost their son to gun violence last week. That becomes very personal. When someone is talking to you about losing their son, and you think about the failures in the system, you can’t help but feel a little responsible for it.

“The more experiences you go through, the more it affects the way you do your job. It doesn’t make you a harder person, but a softer, more emotional, more mellow person.”

There are many emotionally loaded parts of his job, and he reacts to them both as a professional and as a person, Mr. Fulop said. “I can’t tell you how many times I have been to a fire, and the house is demolished, and everything in it is destroyed, and they have no insurance. They have no nothing. I have seen a person’s life destroyed. Before this job, I had no first-hand appreciation of what that would feel like.”

He’s had quite a few experiences that he could not have imagined having had, and he still marvels at them.

In 2017, Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City hosted the President’s Cup tournament. “We hosted a small lunch for it, 15 people — including Obama, Bush, and Clinton” — as in former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton — “and Jack Nicklaus, the owner of the club, my wife, and two or three other people.

“When it came to policies, obviously I was a big supporter of Obama, but out of the whole bunch, the super likeable guy was Bush.

“We talked about my military experience. I told him that I was deployed under him.

“At the time, I believed that if the president and the country were saying that it was the right thing to do, it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t at a point where I could question it. That changed over time.”

Despite his feelings about the wisdom of his deployment, and of the war in Iraq, “Bush came across as a decent person. I thought he really cared. He asked me about my deployment — when and where about my time in Iraq. He asked questions. He listened. Even though he made mistakes that changed my life, I felt that he was sincere.

“I felt that he asked me because he cared.”

After all, he added, why would Mr. Bush bother to pretend to care if he didn’t? And if he didn’t care, he did it well. “I really appreciate it,” Mr. Fulop said.

At the end of the meal, the three former presidents, who are fond of each other and whose extraordinary experiences make them part of a tiny club but whose schedules rarely have them in the same place at the same time, gathered to take a photo together. “And then Bush was like, ‘Mayor, come up here and take a picture with us.’”

So he did.

Jaclyn and Steve Fulop had lunch with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. (The little boy is related to one of the lunch guests.)

There are two issues confronting Jersey City that have Jewish components, Mr. Fulop said.

“I am in litigation with the Kushners,” he said. That’s the Kushner Companies, run by the family of President Donald J. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. That includes Jared’s father, Charles, who famously went to prison for illegal campaign contributions, witness tampering, and tax evasion; among the crimes for which he was convicted, witness tampering involved his entrapping a brother-in-law with a prostitute and then sending the video of the encounter to his sister, the one married to that brother-in-law. It’s a complicated family dynamic.

“The history of this lawsuit is that they have a project in Journal Square, and there was a state subsidy for it. They lost the state subsidy — it wasn’t built — and they wanted the city to replace those lost dollars. They thought that it would make the project viable again.

“Our position was that the market has changed in the last five years, since they initially proposed it, and we can’t do that.”

What made it even more poisonous is that Charles’s brother, Murray — there are two brothers and two sisters, and they seem to have divided into two sister-and-brother teams, Mr. Fulop said — already had built in Journal Square, using the state subsidy. “The projects were across the street from each other,” he explained. “Murray’s was the first project in Journal Square, six years ago, so they got a deep subsidy for it. Charlie’s position was that he needed an equal or greater subsidy, and my position is that when Murray built, it was riskier. Now there’s less risk, so any incentive should be less — if any.

“And they also took the approach that we were biased against them because they were the president’s family,” Mr. Fulop continued. The result of that was a lawsuit against him personally.

Jared Kushner’s sister, Nicole Kushner Meyer, was taped in Beijing, a broadly seen video, as she asked Chinese investors to invest in the Journal Square project. If they paid enough, she said, they’d be eligible for a visa that would fast-track them toward American citizenship.

At the same time, Charles Kushner accused Jersey City officials of discriminating against the family because they disliked Mr. Trump.

“And then I made a comment publicly, which I still believe to be true, that the Kushners leverage the president when it suits them and they play victim when it suits them.

“They sued me personally for that, and they sent me a letter about how I need to apologize to them and retract it.

“I threw it out,” Mr. Fulop said.

The other potential challenge the city might face, Mr. Fulop said, is that chasidim from Brooklyn — particularly Satmar chasidim from Williamsburg — are moving into a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the city’s south side. The housing stock looks like Brooklyn, it’s far more affordable than most of Brooklyn, and it’s right across the Hudson from lower Manhattan, so it’s desirable.

The chasidim have been aggressive in their quest for housing, often knocking on the doors of people who have shown no interest in moving out, and expressing their willingness to move to the neighborhood in ways that make others feel bullied. In response, the city council is considering an ordinance that would forbid such knocking without any prior interest expressed. That might become a tricky issue, Mr. Fulop said.

The Jewish presence in the city is increasing, he added. Chabad is moving into the north side, and Temple Beth El, the Reform synagogue to which he and his wife and son belong, “is growing,” he said. “There are lots of young families, and they have a Hebrew school that is growing significantly. It’s a good sign. They’re all good signs.”

What about his own future? Steve Fulop isn’t entirely sure.

He knows that he plans to run for re-election one more time. “And then I will see what the landscape is,” he said. “Then I’ll see what’s next in store.”

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