Jersey City Boy

Jersey City Boy

Mayor Steven Fulop tells his story - and his immigrant parents schep naches

Steven Fulop strides up to the flag-bedecked podium outside City Hall on his inauguration day.

The story of the new mayor of Jersey City is a goulash – a rich, highly seasoned, aromatic stew, full of disparate ingredients that somehow blend together.

This variant is kosher.

And for added authenticity, it’s Hungarian.

Steven Fulop’s story is both as deeply American and as fully Jewish as one person’s story could be – it is our own 21st-century version of the great American dream.

Cooking alongside it is the story of Jersey City, the state’s second largest, with a century-long history of corruption and bossism that Mr. Fulop is well positioned to turn around.

Mr. Fulop’s story starts with his grandparents. All four were born in Transylvania, the heavily wooded, mountainous, lushly beautiful region that has changed hands between Hungary and Romania. As this story begins, it still was part of Hungary. World War II came late there; his mother’s parents, the Kohns, were taken from the ghetto toward its end. His grandfather, Alexander, went to a transit camp, and his grandmother, Rosa, was on one of the last transports to Auschwitz in April 1944.

Her story is so painful that when her son-in-law, Arthur Fulop, tells it, his eyes fill, even though it is a story he has been telling for decades.

“There were two lines at Auschwitz when she got there,” he said. “One was for the very young and the very old; the other was for people who could work.” In between them, making selections, decreeing death, was Josef Mengele, radiating evil.

Mrs. Kohn clutched her 20-month-old baby, Eva, who was about to be sent to the other line. “What happens to them?” she asked a guard, the story goes; he pointed up to the black smoke fouling the sky. “They are turned into that,” he said. She screamed and tried to run, and a guard hit her on the head with a rifle, knocking her out. She survived, and so did her husband. The rest of the family, including Eva, did not; Rosa Kohn went on to give birth to Carmen Kohn Fulop, who was born in Romania in 1954.

The family had been comfortable in Transylvania, but under Nicolae CeauÈ™escu Romania went Communist, the family lost what it had been able to reclaim, and Mrs. Fulop’s father was badly beaten as goons searched for gold coins they believed him to have hidden.

In 1967, the family managed to flee Romania for Brooklyn, “where my parents left everything they knew to better their children,” Carmen Fulop said.

Arthur Fulop’s family lived in Tg-Mures, a small town about 120 miles from his future wife’s home, in a place so remote that war never fully touched it. He was born in 1947, right after its end.

In 1964, the Fulops, who had applied for a passport, were given one – and told that it would be operational for just one week. They left immediately, with almost nothing. After a stop in a transit camp in Rome, they decided to go to Israel. “We had family in the United States, but I said, ‘No. I want to go to my country,'” Arthur Fulop said, and so they all headed east.

The family’s time in Israel was not a success. The nation was in a tough economic bind, and it was not particularly welcoming to newcomers – the chadashim, whom the old-timers, the vatikim, thought of as competition, the Fulops said. Arthur Fulop’s father, Bentsi, bought a truck, but the loads that he hoped to haul rarely materialized. After three years, he, his wife, Elizabeth, and their younger son gave up and moved to the United States, where their lives finally grew roots.

Arthur, though, was 18, and had been drafted into the Israel Defense Forces like everyone else his age. Toward the end of his stint, the Six-Day War broke out; he was a sniper in the elite Golani Brigade during that time.

When he talks about it now, the normally exuberant Mr. Fulop does not become less vocal but the energy that propels his words becomes almost visibly darker. It was a very hard time; he saw things that he wishes he had not seen but cannot unsee. It left him with the strong feeling that war comes from demonizing your opponents rather than allowing yourself to see them as human, and that very little is worth the devastation that such hatred causes.

The Fulops live in a seemingly middle-size house in Edison that opens up on both sides to reveal many immaculately kept rooms once you’re safely inside. That is where they brought up their three sons, Daniel, Steven, and Richard. Arthur Fulop owns a deli in Newark, down the street from the courthouse. He took it over from his parents (“They bought it in 1968, right after the riots, when real estate there became affordable,” Steven said). Carmen Fulop runs a service bureau for immigrants next door.

They both work hard, they hold dear the values of the country in which they could live free and prosperous lives, and they are deeply connected to their Jewish roots. They passed on these beliefs to their sons.

Steven Fulop, like his brothers, went to the Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, and then to the Solomon Schechter School of Union and Essex, as today’s Golda Och Academy in West Orange then was named. He left it in 11th grade for public school, where he could play soccer more seriously. The family belonged to the local Conservative shul, Neve Shalom, and the boys went to Jewish summer camps and USY.

After high school, Steven Fulop went to Binghamton University, part of New York State’s public college network. He spent his junior year abroad at Oxford University, studying finance at New College. When he got back, he took a job at Goldman Sachs in Chicago, where his older brother already worked. “I was hired into asset management with mutual funds, then moved into equity trading,” he said.

Goldman moved him back to the New York office in 2000, and Mr. Fulop bought a condo in Jersey City. He was not politically active – “I hadn’t even registered to vote,” he said – but Jersey City was perfect. It was back in New Jersey, close to his parents, right across the river from his job, and booming, so that any real estate deal there was likely to be advantageous. Life was good.

Mr. Fulop was at work at 1 New York Plaza in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. “I felt the building shake when the planes hit,” he said. It shook something inside him too. “Soon I started talking to recruiters,” he said.

That’s as in armed forces recruiters.

“I didn’t know anything when I started,” he said. “I was trying to do the research, to understand the different branches. Do I have to shave my head? Can we figure out some other way so that I don’t have to do it? When I asked the recruiters, they said no, it doesn’t work that way.”

“I went to the enlisted side,” he continued. “I didn’t have to – I could have been an officer in the reserves, but I didn’t want to commit to what might possibly become four years of active duty, and I was willing to serve right away.”

After considering his options, Steven Fulop enlisted in the Marines, and soon he found himself in South Carolina, in boot camp on Parris Island.

He was 25 years old.

“I always thought that military service was important,” he said. “But in the ’90s, it didn’t seem relevant. I would always say to myself that if it ever were necessary for me to do it, I would do it.

“And then 9/11, and I thought OK. Here we are. It’s the crossroads.

“I was young enough. I didn’t have kids. I was in good shape.”

So he enlisted.

“My parents were distraught,” he said. “I was making good money, having a good life. And they were scared.”

But it was their values that attracted him to service. “I had and have a lot of appreciation for this country,” he said. “It’s my family’s sweat equity. I view my service as a minor down payment on that.”

It was very complicated emotionally, his parents agree. “When Steven first told me that he wanted to join the Marines, I said ‘no,'” Arthur Fulop said. “But then I said ‘Steven, you have to follow your heart.

“‘If your heart tells you this is what you must do, then you must do it.'”

His Jewishness accompanied Steven Fulop to boot camp.

Parris Island – which is notorious for its toughness, and the toughness of the Marines it turns out – “is very structured,” he said. “Every second of every minute of every day.” The only respite from that is religion, and the Marine Corps honors other religions beyond the basic Christian denominations. “It goes above and beyond to make sure that you can practice,” he said. “The only time that isn’t structured is on Sundays, when you have religious services.” (OK, so they haven’t gotten this whole Jewish thing down exactly right yet…) That’s also the time when recruits are allowed to write letters.

There is no Jewish presence on Parris Island, but “they bring in a rabbi from Buford, South Carolina,” Mr. Fulop said. “I was the only one there. It was the only time the drill instructors leave you alone.

“We could have a conversation. The rabbi asked how I was doing, and I said that I was starving. He asked what I wanted, and I said dessert. So he brought in dessert every week.

“I would come back to say to people, ‘Look, I have a good thing going on.’ So some of these kids would come with me. They’re not Jewish – but they wanted the food. We ended up with about nine or 10 kids coming. The drill sergeants wanted to know what was going on – but they couldn’t do a thing about it.”

As for calling the other enlisted men “kids” – they were, at least relatively speaking. “I was old for boot camp,” Mr. Fulop said. “Everyone else was 18 or 19 years old.

“It really gives you a perspective on who is in our armed forces.”

Boot camp was 13 weeks long. “My parents were at my graduation. It was the first time they really got to see that culture,” Mr. Fulop said. “It was incredibly foreign.” His parents agree, but they say as well that they felt extraordinary pride.

After Parris Island, Mr. Fulop got to experience culture shock in the other direction, as he reentered Goldman Sachs.

“They put me on their homepage,” he said. The firm didn’t know exactly what to make of Mr. Fulop, but they did know that he presented them with a public relations bonanza; of course, given that the firm had just suffered through the terrors of 9/11, he also was given real emotional support there. Later, other employees enlisted or joined the reserves, but he was the first. There was no model yet for how to handle the situation.

Three months later, in January 2003, he went to Quantico, Virginia, for reserve duty, “and the commanding officers are going around, asking for all sorts of personal information.

“You could see where it was going.

“They got us all together on Saturday night and said, ‘You are dismissed for the weekend. Come back on Tuesday with your powers of attorney and your wills.

“‘You are being deployed.’

“You’re in shock,” he said. “You know it’s coming, but….”

Carmen and Arthur Fulop had “a modest house in the Poconos,” their son said, and he went there on his way home from Quantico. “It must have been 2 a.m., but they heard me come in,” he said.

“As soon as my mom saw me, she started crying. She knew.'”

Remember, Mrs. Fulop said, the reason for the American invasion of Iraq was Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. We know now that the arsenal was a figment of overheated imagination, but then we did not. As far as she knew, Carmen Fulop was saying goodbye to a son who might be gassed just as surely as the baby sister she never had the chance to meet had been.

Early that Monday morning, Mr. Fulop went to his office. “I go to my desk, and I write an email to everyone I had ever met in my life,” he said. “Friends, family, co-workers, everyone. I say that I am leaving on Tuesday, being deployed, and I want to thank people for being part of my life.

“I have my jacket on already before I hit ‘send.’ I start walking out, and some people see me and start clapping for me, and I was crying, and they were crying.

“So I got my power of attorney, and my will, and on Tuesday we flew from Delaware to Camp Pendleton in California – we got our gas masks there – and waited for three weeks for our equipment. From there, we flew to Kuwait.” President George W. Bush declared his “Shock and Awe” campaign on March 17, and on March 18 Steven Fulop and his companions crossed into Iraq.

He was in the 6th Engineer Support Battalion, attached to the 1st Marine Division; the battalion’s responsibility was building bridges, purifying water, and generally working on infrastructure.

Mr. Fulop was in Iraq for Passover. “The rabbi had a camouflage tallis,” he recalled.

He told a story that he said demonstrates the lengths to which the U.S. military will go to respect religion.

“We were living in tents,” he said. “We didn’t shower for months. There was no internet, no phones, not much of anything. And I saw a note in our chow hall that there was a religious service on an Army base. I said that I wanted to go, and of course they let me.

“They gave me an escort and security. No other country would go to those lengths to make sure that someone could get to a seder.”

Mr. Fulop’s time on active duty was short but intense.

“We went all the way up to Baghdad,” he said. “We were deployed six or seven months, then went back to Kuwait, back to Pendleton, and then back home. And then I was back at Goldman – all within one year.

“I look back and 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 added.

Mr. Fulop stayed at Goldman for a few years and then moved on, pursuing what would have looked like a normal upward career path, the journey someone clearly smart and ambitious would be expected to take. He continued to live in Jersey City, active in his condo association but not involved in politics.

But remember that goulash? There was that other dish stewing alongside it, this one made up of the rather less appetizing congealed mess that was local Jersey politics. Soon, they would come together on Steven Fulop’s plate, but first, let’s look at the ingredients.

When he came back to Jersey City, Mr. Fulop said, Robert Menendez, the Democrat who is now the state’s senior U.S. senator, was his congressman. He also was chair of the House Democratic caucus, the most senior Hispanic federal legislator in the country, and the state’s most senior House member.

New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg, then a U.S. senator, resigned in 2001 – he ran again and took the state’s other seat in 2003 – and everyone assumed that Mr. Menendez would replace him. “But Jon Corzine came in out of the woodwork and bought the seat,” Mr. Fulop said. “Menendez decided to get more involved in local politics in Hudson County. He helped get Glenn Cunningham elected mayor here – Cunningham was the first African-American mayor in the city.

“The mayor of Jersey City always has been a very powerful position, ever since the days of Frank Hague,” he added.

(Frank Hague was mayor from 1917 until 1947. He was an old-style machine politician; he strong-armed, threatened, blustered, and controlled. He was corrupt, and he also was efficient. Potholes were filled, snow was removed; the city worked.)

The friendship between Mr. Menendez and Mr. Cunningham fizzled, though, and soon “they became nasty enemies,” Mr. Fulop said.

Soon afterward, Mr. Fulop was invited to City Hall so he could be honored with a proclamation acclaiming his war service. “That proclamation is hanging outside my door now,” Mr. Fulop said. “It changed my life.”

Mr. Cunningham also was a war veteran. He asked Mr. Fulop many questions about his service, and about how he juggled it with his work on Wall Street. “He asked me a lot of questions about the deployment, but I didn’t think anything of it,” Mr. Fulop said. “People always asked.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Fulop was working on an M.B.A. from NYU and an M.P.A. – a masters in public administration – from Columbia. The work at his condo association took some time, he had a full-time job, and he still had a commitment to reserve duty. He did not have spare time he was trying to fill; he did not have any spare time to breathe.

“And then, about four months later – and I hadn’t spoken to the mayor since then – I get a phone call from the deputy mayor of Jersey City. He said, ‘The mayor would like to talk to you.’ I think it’s strange. And then he gets on the phone and says, ‘I’d like you to come in tomorrow. I have a few things I’d like to talk about.’

“I had called the office to complain about parking. I thanked him – I was surprised that he’d handle it himself, and so soon! But he didn’t know what I was talking about. He said I really should come in tomorrow, and I said OK, I would, after the markets close.

“We went into that office, and we sat there, it’s me and him and some of his political supporters and assembly people, and he starts talking about getting involved in politics when you’re young, in your 20s. Sometimes you lose before you can win, he said, no matter what you’re running for.

“I was 26.

“I had no idea what he was talking about.”

Then, Mr. Fulop said, Mr. Cunningham started talking about his sour relationship with Mr. Menendez. As it turned out, Mr. Menendez planned on running a full slate of officially approved candidates for local offices, and Mr. Cunningham wanted a slate to oppose it.

Even when Mr. Fulop grasped that he was being asked to run, he assumed, logically enough, that he was being solicited for a council seat, low on the slate.

But no. Mr. Cunningham said, “I know it won’t be a winning proposal, but I will help you. “I want you to run for Congress.”

“It was the weirdest conversation I ever had.”

The more he thought about it, though, the more Mr. Fulop was intrigued. He discussed it with his family and friends, and “on Monday I called back and said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.'”

(Although he now has what he calls a “great relationship” with Mr. Menendez, it took a long time, Mr. Fulop acknowledges. “I didn’t know anything,” he said. “Menendez now tells me that it was youthful ignorance.”)

Mr. Fulop, many of his friends, and his family began an old-fashioned, active campaign, meeting people, making connections, ringing doorbells, shaking hands, working hard. “We knew nothing,” he said. “We had this whole cockamamie idea – we actually convinced ourselves that we could win. We had no idea how it worked.”

He and Mr. Cunningham grew close as they strategized together, but one day, about two weeks before the election, “I left him at 9 o’clock and at 9:30 he had a massive heart attack. He died the following week.”

Mr. Fulop lost the election resoundingly, but he did not lose his interest in politics. “I realize that I like meeting people, and I like the whole process of running.”

Mr. Cunningham was replaced by Jerramiah Healy, who won both a special election and then a regular one. Mr. Fulop ran for City Council off the party line. That is a notoriously difficult way to win a seat, particularly in a city as machine-ruled as Jersey City was then, but he did it. “By this point we had figured out some of this stuff” – this stuff being the stuff of politics – Mr. Fulop said. “We were really focused on constituent services, and we slowly built a constituent base.”

In 2012, Mr. Healy ran again.

It was an odd race. Inside the city, the incumbent was the head of a strong organization dedicated to keeping him in power and the organization in control, but outside he was a laughingstock. Mr. Healy had been photographed lying drunk and naked on a porch; he came up with odd explanations about being overcome by young Hispanic women. The FBI visited him the day before a raid that culminated in 44 arrests for corruption. In general, he appears to have been Jersey City’s own homegrown Rob Ford; he seems to represent the decadent, played-out last gasp of the party machine.

Mr. Fulop said that he thinks machine politics in Jersey City lasted as long as they did at least in part because New Jersey lacks its own media – it has newspapers, of course, but no big broadcasts that focus on local issues. “Something has to be really outrageous before it breaks onto the news from New York or Philadelphia,” he suggested.

Because he was the institutional candidate, Mr. Healy was supported by prominent Democrats, including President Obama, Senator Lautenberg, and Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, and by New York City’s partyless but powerful Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The ads ran on television. Mr. Fulop had been up in the polls, but his numbers plummeted.

But still he won.

“It was a volunteer’s race,” he said. “It literally took me years to build the support; I was running with small donors.” Mr. Healy had big ones.

“I think we ran a better campaign,” Mr. Fulop said. “We ended up winning in every community. It put us in a great place.”

Mr. Fulop is a progressive in a blindingly multicultural city.

Down the street from City Hall, a shul whose cornerstone reads 1920 stands padlocked and shuttered. It had been a mosque, but it seems abandoned now. In the blocks all around it, small businesses bustle; it is lively but does not look gentrified. Signs look more homemade than artisinal.

City Hall is an imposing structure, begun in 1894, finished two years later, not particularly well maintained in the years since. It has high ceilings, marble floors, arched ceilings, spiral staircases, extensive woodwork, and painted detail. Its offices have the pebbled windows that evoke images of black-and-white movies. The transoms high above them are not glass, as they must have been years ago, but painted plywood.

The city clearly is in transition, and Steven Fulop emits the kind of energy – and charm – that can move it along.

“One of the things that is so hard about this job is that it is such a diverse community,” he said. “It is one of our greatest assets – and also it is one of our greatest challenges. We are one of the only growing urban areas in the state; the school district is growing quickly, but at the same time other parts of the city feel as if they are being displaced or left behind.”

In other words, he is grappling with the problems posed by gentrification.

“There is an old-time political guy in Hudson County who told me eight years ago what to do to get elected,” back when Mr. Fulop still was a city councilman, “and he told me the same thing again just last week. Unfortunately, there is some wisdom in it.

“He said, ‘Listen very closely.’ I listened closely. He said, ‘What you have to do is do nothing.’

“The reality of the situation is that if you do nothing, people won’t be upset with you. When they go to the voting booth, they’ll think, ‘Oh, Fulop, he wasn’t so bad,’ and they’ll pull the lever.”

Needless to say, that is not a course that Mr. Fulop will follow. “I like a challenge, and I think that we have hit the ground running. We have been very aggressive,” he said. “We are changing some things, and that bothers people.”

For example, he said, he is trying to sell the landmarked Loew’s Theatre, a movie palace fallen on hard times. He also is trying to fund pre-kindergarten classes. It is a balance between oldtimers and newcomers, “between the vocal and the nonvocal,” he said.

It’s a hard job – “Trust is very fragile. You can do the right thing 99 percent of the time, and it’s the other one percent that people remember. There is very little wiggle room.”

Still, he loves the job. “I literally come to work every day being excited about being here,” he said. “Every day is entirely different from the day before.”

“He is a special person,” Carmen Fulop said of her middle son. “He has a big heart, and he is determined to do good.

“When he enlisted, he said he didn’t want to be middle-aged and sit at a desk and regret that he had done nothing but been a paper-pusher.”

Both Carmen and Arthur Fulop acknowledged that Jersey City has had its problems, but “there were a lot of good people around,” Arthur said. “But a handful of bad people were running it.

“Steve was able to mobilize and energize the volunteers who all believe, as he does, that you can make a change if you work for it.”

Carmen looked back at her life. When he came to America, her father worked in a factory; to her own astonishment, she went to Barnard on a full scholarship. “When I finished, I felt that it was a tremendous accomplishment, and I felt a great deal of pride,” she said.

“When my children got jobs at Goldman Sachs, when I understood what that meant, I had a feeling of awe.

“I had that pride and awe very much when Steven graduated from the Marine Corps. It was very impressive and touching.”

She felt overwhelming joy when her other two sons got married, and when Steven came home from Iraq, she added. She is fiercely proud of Daniel, who still is in finance, and Richard, who is an entrepreneur about to launch his first venture.

“But on the day of Steven’s inauguration, I felt like I was walking on a cloud,” she said. “I couldn’t believe this achievement. I just kept thinking that I couldn’t believe that it was my child.

“My boys didn’t grow up with connections. They have no money behind them. We just gave them good values and a good education, and let them go out into the world.”

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