Another Political Mistake by Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop

Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop’s attempt to take over the school board may prove a political disaster, even if it isn’t much of a surprise. The election defeat and most recent indictments of Sudhan Thomas leaves Fulop without an important ally on the school board. But alienating the teachers’ union which has finally taken a firm grip may be another political misstep, and perhaps a politically fatal mistake by Fulop.

Fulop may well be frustrated by the fact that the election loss of Sudhan Thomas in November left the mayor without an important voice on the board.

Fulop’s inability to influence the board was also made evident when he called for the resignation of Trustee Joan Terrell Paige and she refused to resign.

A number of people, including Fulop, consider Paige’s statements after the Dec. 10 shooting at a Jewish grocery store to be antisemitic.

The inability of the mayor of what is soon-to-be the largest city in the state to get the resignation of a trustee showed just how ineffective Fulop is in controlling the board despite his support of teacher’s union candidates.

His call for a referendum to go to an appointed board is yet another of many reversals made by Fulop since his becoming mayor. But it may will prove to be his biggest political mistake yet.  Over the last year the teacher’s union has proved to be a valuable ally and helped Fulop overcome some serious challenges especially in regard to the Airbnb referendum.

Since becoming a councilman more than a decade ago and more so since becoming mayor in 2013, Fulop has been engaged in an interesting romance with the school board, an on-again off-again affair that has allowed some of his political opponents to label him “Flip Flop Fulop.”

Early in his political career, Fulop supported a progressive slate of candidates who ultimately took control of the school board and managed to appoint Dr. Marcia Lyles – a progressive – as superintendent.

But the progressive board proved incredibly uncooperative, especially regarding the city’s abatement program that allowed developers to build bigger projects if they included pre-school accommodations in their projects.

The supposedly progressive school board balked when it discovered the cost of renting these facilities exceeded other similar accommodations and refused to go along with Fulop’s plans.

At that point, Fulop switched sides, assuming candidates supported by the teachers’ union might be more cooperative. Fulop, then looking to run for governor, sought union support statewide.

Thomas – who won with union support and later became board president – became Fulop’s advocate on the board, an inside player who had aspirations of his own for higher office – possibly a future candidate for council on a Fulop slate, and maybe even being elevated to council president.

Thomas served as a Fulop ally in other aspects as well, after Fulop named him to the city’s job program, where he eventually became president of that board as well, and where former Gov. Jim McGreevey served as executive director.

For a time, McGreevey was also a Fulop ally, someone Fulop apparently needed to help him navigate the complexities of state politics in order for Fulop to run for governor.

McGreevy had reinvented himself as a jobs and drug counselor person working his way first through Integrity House then into the county and then finally into the city where he became executive director of The Job Program.

McGreevy had used apparently his influence with Freeholder Bill O’Dea, who was extremely close to Fulop. The assumption was that if Fulop successfully became governor then O’Dea would get his own dream job as mayor of Jersey City.

McGreevey, who also runs a statewide reentry program for former ex-offenders, proved more independent then the school board did.

It is not completely clear what caused the falling out between Fulop and McGreevey, but it was a bitter and lingering divorce, particularly after Fulop withdrew his bid for governor in what some have compared to the surrender of Gen Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant.

Some Fulop critic compare the firing of McGreevey from the jobs program to the concluding scenes of the classic film “The Godfather,” since it coincided with the removal of Lyles as superintendent of schools in early 2019.

Both terminations were orchestrated by Thomas apparently on Fulop’s behalf.

Fulop had backed union-supported candidates for the school board, giving them the necessary votes to remove Lyles. At the same time, Fulop had replaced members of the jobs program board giving Thomas the majority that allowed for the McGreevey firing.

At the time, Thomas claimed to have an audit that showed that McGreevey had allegedly absconded with city funding for the jobs program commingling it with money used for McGreevey’s Statewide ex-offender program.

McGreevey not only denied these charges, but produced audits of his own showing that his books balanced, and if anything, his statewide program had made up for funding to the jobs program the city had cut.

Thomas initially did not make his audit public, but finally produced it last week only after Thomas was indicted twice, once for allegedly taking bribes and a second more serious offense allegedly absconding with $45,000 in jobs programs money himself.

Although McGreevey declined to respond to the latest charges brought up against him by Thomas this week, last June McGreevey said that this was all political, because McGreevey had fired as key Fulop operative from the jobs program earlier.

Thomas alienated some of his potential allies in the Fulop administration when he apparently sought to replace McGreevey as the executive director by applying for the job himself. Critics claim he appointed as president of the board a majority of the selection committee for picking the next executive director.  Thomas eventually withdrew his name from consideration and eventually also resigned as the president of the board.  Unfortunately for Thomas and the scandal-ridden jobs program Thomas was also accused of improperly cashing checks to cash from the jobs program – something Thomas admitted to doing but said was not legal.

The indictments against Thomas both came after he lost his bid to retain his seat on the school board.

Thomas claims the charges are part of political plot against him – and others believe this might be an attempt to get Thomas to cooperate on a more extensive investigation possibly aimed at Fulop.

Since the two indictments against Thomas are from two levels of government, state and federal, a plot against him is unlikely – yet possible since the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey and the State Attorney General have a very close relationship.

Also, Fulop made an enemy of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez by seeking to fill Menendez’ senate seat while Menendez faced a federal trial of his own.

In the past people such as former Union City Mayor Rudy Garcia, former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski and more recently former West New York Mayor Felix Roque mysteriously faced criminal charges of one sort or another after offending Menendez.

The list of Fulop’s political enemies is extensive. Not only have a number of key insiders gone against him, Fulop’s support of a payroll tax alienated a number of major of developers in Jersey City. His part in a plot to remove Tom DeGise as County Executive made a lifelong political enemy of DeGise as well as possibly State Senator and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco. Rumors of Fulop’s plans to unseat Rep. Albio Sires might well turn much of North Hudson against him as well.

Although there are no real figures to challenge Fulop in the 2021 mayoral election, at some point many of his enemies may come together and find one.

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