By Thomas Albano
Although Steven Fulop is the current mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey, it was not something that he had planned to be after graduating from Binghamton University in 1999.
Fulop, who spoke in the Mercer Room on April 1 at an event presented by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, says his career as a politician, culminating in his becoming mayor of Jersey City, came on “accident.”
“If you asked me 11 years ago if I would be standing here today, if this was the trajectory I was heading to, I would have said there is literally no chance that this is where I would have ended up,” Fulop said.
After graduating, Fulop initially worked at Goldman Sachs and was two blocks away from the World Trade Center when he saw the attacks that took place on Sept. 11, 2001. Even though he was not yet involved in politics, or even registered to vote, Fulop joined the Marine Corps as soon as possible. Participating in the early weeks of the war in 2003, he felt his service was a “partial payment for citizenship.”
“I was thankful for what I had — what this country had given my family — and I viewed it as an opportunity to give a little bit back — or maybe give a lot back,” he said. “Whatever it was, I was willing to serve.”
Soon after his service, he received a phone call from then-Mayor of Jersey City Glenn Cunningham, who persuaded Fulop to run for Congress against Sen. Bob Menendez. Fulop decided he could not pass up the opportunity and accepted.
He was defeated, but was part of the process.
“He starts talking to me about how, generally, in the course of elected office, people lose before they win,” Fulop said. “Whether you’re John F. Kennedy, George Bush, Al Gore or Bill Clinton, you lose before you win. But it’s part of a process that people go through.”
Fulop eventually did win an elected position, serving as a councilman in Jersey City for eight years before becoming the City’s 49th mayor on May 14, 2013. With his new position, Fulop said he came in with a plan of setting lofty goals in hopes of making Jersey City an ideal place to live.
One of his ways of putting Jersey City on the map has been to set up a national model for a prisoner re-entry system, something that Fulop says can help solve a major issue in the country. This focuses on the addiction, housing and employment problems of the approximately 2,000 people that leave the jail system and re-enter Jersey City, according to Fulop.
“You have 5 percent of the world’s population, and you have 25 percent of the incarcerated people that live in this country,” Fulop said. “We have more African Americans in the jail system in this country right now than South Africa had blacks in the jail system at the height of apartheid. There is a problem in that, and you need to start to figure out how to correct that. So in Jersey City, we’re doing it differently.”
Fulop also helped Jersey City become the first city in the state and sixth city in the nation to legislate paid sick leave.
“It’s kind of something that the business community initially pushed back on,” Fulop said. “We actually had a report from Rutgers that did a survey to assess what happened to the business community. The premise of why we did that is pretty simple: To say that people should not have to be fearful that they will lose 20 percent of their weekly pay in case they have to care for a sick loved one.”
Fulop also addressed economic plans such as construction start-ups and taxes. He said that 17 of the 20 largest buildings in the state to be built in the next four years would be in Jersey City. Fulop also said that taxes have been flat in the city and will continue to be so.
“Next year, I can tell you taxes will be flat or lower because we have some visibility into that stuff,” he said. “If you look at our unemployment rate, it has dropped faster than the state, faster than the nation, faster than any city in the entire region.”
Looking back on his choices to enter the military and run for Congress, Fulop believed, even if not everyone agreed with him, that they were the right choices to make.
“Those two things — everybody virtually told me they weren’t the best decisions to make,” he said. “In hindsight, I followed what I thought were the best decisions, and it ultimately ended up being the right thing.”