JERSEY CITY – In the city that spawned the ultimate political boss, the guy who made Franklin Delano Roosevelt kick off his presidential election run from the backyard of his Sea Girt beach house, Frank Hague hatchling Steve Fulop, now running for reelection as mayor of Jersey City one-hundred years after Hague first secured the mayoralty in 1917 – defined himself early and often as one unafraid – even arguably strangely wired – to go after whatever political boss stood atop the pyramid of power.
Fulop, a United States Marine, ran unsuccessfully against Bob Menendez in 2004, his Glenn Cunningham-blessed induction into the maelstrom of Hudson County, and in his ill-fated feel-out for governor, again – maybe instinctively – went toe-to-toe with the toughest guy in the room, this time a statewide strongman otherwise known as George Norcross III of South Jersey, who vowed to upend Fulop, and – for the moment, beyond Jersey City, at least – did.
If Frank “I am the Law” Hague as mayor of Jersey City showed himself in the succeeding years of his inaugural election to be a muscle-flexing power player of politics, whose influence as an organizer and leader of the Irish American experience stretched his influence to the White House itself, Fulop now thrives on the centennial of Hague’s rise to power as that technocratic, mouse pad-friendly and ultimately fairly sedate intellectual un-boss, arguably still ambitious for higher office, yet reluctant to play the role of perpetual egocentric enforcer.
Of course, it is Hudson County, after all, and a patronage playground still attached to the world Hague conceived and amplified – and it remains New Jersey, which prompted InsiderNJ on the occasion of the hundred year anniversary of Hague’s election to sit down with Fulop in a local burger joint in the recognizable downtown environs of his Ward E Council days as the mayor’s underlings harvested petitions toward his November reelection.
“I think we are still unfortunately in an age of bossism,” he said. “They’re around New Jersey. When we were elected, our team, we were very deliberate about changing the paradigm in Hudson – and [Nick] Sacco will tell you this and so will Brian [Stack] – about trying to work with them instead of trying to dictate. You had a time when Jersey City – 48% of the county – whether it was Hague or Gerry McCann or Glenn – would battle with Menendez or other mayors. We were pretty deliberate about not trying to engage in that stuff. I don’t think we’re looking to go back to the time when you have one person dictating. In the case of Cunningham it wasn’t him dictating it was him being dictated to, so he pushed back against that. We’re not past that but we’ve been deliberate about moving the city.”
To what extent, InsiderNJ wanted to know, has Norcross assumed the Hague role from a new perch, playing an odd juxtaposition on the mayor who still sits in the office where Hague dialed up Roosevelt when he wanted FDR to kiss the ring?
“I think it’s going to be less and less for anybody,” the mayor said. “The reason being it’s a different world of how people get their information. Social media. Internet. 24-hour news cycles. All of that has decreased the influence of a small, select group of people, and that’s going to continue. That gives the more informed voter – and in some cases uninformed – more access to information, and that ultimately makes, I think, the [party] lines less relevant, except in some select cases, and ultimately bosses less relevant. So, you’re going to have people who are still going to be in positions of influence, but you’re going to have to work more with people as opposed to dictating. This is my vision of where it’s going. Look at the [Phil] Murphy election. The lines carried 46-47%. He outspent everyone significantly. So the point is that 53% of the people found other mechanisms. You go back 20 years, that wasn’t the case. It just wouldn’t be possible. And you go back to the time of Frank Hague, where you had very limited access to information, even less. So I think you’re gradually moving in an area where you have more access to information different media, which ultimately, I think, makes government better. people are more informed.”
Over the last 100 years, starting with Hague, a handful of Jersey City mayors stand out as transformational, in the view of retired State Senator Bernie Kenny, Fulop among them. In Kenny’s view, Fulop represents the last transformational piece in the city’s history. Hague harnessed the growing Irish population; John V. Kenny organized the burgeoning ethnic American WWII generation; McCann grabbed the baby boomers, and now the sitting mayor has galvanized the yuppies as the city explodes with the development growth first envisioned by McCann. InsiderNJ asked Fulop about Kenny’s read of history.
“I think over the last four years, Jersey City has more and more gotten its own identity, not only in the state but nationally, recognized for a lot of things politically and governmentally that we’ve done,’ the mayor said. “I think prior to 2013 there were a lot of things moving in the right direction but a lot of communities felt neglected. I felt the city’s identity was wrapped into the metropolis of New York. We still are, but I think we’ve also been able to create a little more of a distinct brand nationally governmentally. Paid sick leave. Transgender care. Homeless veterans on the policy front. Recognized as one of the most walkable cities, one of the most environmentally friendly cities. Number one on equality. Some of that is because of demographic changes. We’re growing and attracting a lot of new people. You’re going to see that further change in the next four years as we become formally recognized as the biggest city in the state of New Jersey. The brand of Jersey City will continue to grow and evolve.”
Is he a boss, though, new fangled, but in an evolved tradition set by the Hague template?
“No. Arguably I picked a lot of fights, and I was on the right side of the arguments – here and statewide,” he said. “Look, in the 90s, you had people like Joe Ferriero and Ray Lesniak, who were more like bosses in the traditional sense. But that has changed over time. When Hague was here he controlled everything. We’re not interested in running government that way, and I think Hudson County is better for it. Most mayors get in the seat and they say, ‘We’ve got to partner with one municipality and we can take over the entire county.’ In the history of Jersey City you have seen the mayor partner with Union City – Bruce Walter, or Bayonne – and just dictate. When we got in a lot of the county was uncertain how we’d approach things, and we generally have had a pretty good relationship. People in the north of Hudson [Stack and Sacco] are getting along relatively better than they have for ten years prior. In the days of Hague, they would have come in and taken the approach of running over everybody else.”
Embattled U.S. Senator Bob Menendez once had that reputation, of being able to keep the mayors of the county mounted like pacified lions on chairs. But that too has changed, as Menendez faces corruption charges in federal court.
I” started my career running against Bob,” Fulop said. “Had I known a fraction of what I know today maybe I would have made a different decision at the time, but it ended up being a very good experience. We ended up building a pretty good relationship. He is one of the most effective legislators, probably in the history of the state of New Jersey. He is a person who understands a lot of different components of the job. If you were to ask him the name of a board of education member in Bridgewater, he’d probably tell you. There are not a lot of people who have that depth of understanding of New Jersey. My relationship with him over the last four years has been very good. He has gotten a lot of resources. He made a choice in 2013, counter to everyone else in New Jersey politics, maybe with exception of Stack, not to engage in the Jersey City election, and after that we worked hard to build that bridge. He delivered SAFER grants, open space, police officers; just really effective. I sent out a statement when this all started. I think he has been a good ambassador for the Latino community and New Jersey. I don’t wish this on anybody. This will run its course.”
As the mayor spoke, his team sealed the deal on his November reelection campaign.
“We filed 7000 petitions today and we have another 3000 on deck. When we did that press conference [in 2016, endorsing Murphy for Governor], everybody was questioning whether we could it put it back together here, and here we are, in a good position structure-wise. It speaks to our work. We restructured the entire county committee, and we replaced 250 workers and the workers are out on the pavement everyday. We have deliberately stayed out of statewide firefights with an eye on being the best mayor for the next four years.”
InsiderNJ asked the mayor what Jersey City can teach the country at a time when President Donald J. Trump rides a nativist base.
“Even in Jersey City, a lot of people are running on an anti-Trump banner. That’s their core issue , and it’s impacting local elections. Donald trump has singled out Jersey City, when he said people were dancing in streets on 911; the Kushners are here. They applied for an abatement and we said no. So it’s a different dynamic than someone in some random town railing against Trump. There’s a direct connection. Moreover, it’s a progressive city. Every single day I am energized. I just turned 40 and I have been in elected office for 14 years, in a place like Jersey City, approaching five years as mayor. It’s been a great run and we have left our imprint on the city, where we have been at the forefront of veterans issues and development. This job affords a lot of opportunities and a lot of challenges. It’s a very different community from one side of the city to the other, but as Jersey City has gotten more recognition it has created a better platform than just being that space between Bloomberg on one side and Booker on the other. We are leading, on taxes, open space, progressive issues , and we’re still fired up about it and we love it. The Democratic Committee is stronger than it’s ever been; the people who are out there – it’s really good. Our numbers in the last primary were very good and we are fine-tuning it. No one has focused on it. Glenn passed away and Jerry Healy wasn’t interested in it [reinvigorating the county party committee].”
In Hague’s day the city stood for immigrants, as it does today. Is that the narrative that outlasted them all, and how is Jersey City’s story relevant to the rest of the country right now?
“We’re the golden door of America,” Fulop said, “the home of Ellis Island. A lot of immigrant communities came here, thrived here, stayed here. It’s the most diverse community in the entire country. The only difference from the days of when Hague was here is that it’s no longer the Irish and the Italian and Polish. Today it’s the Ghanese and the Indians and the Pakistani communities that are still coming here and when you look at the structure of the city, it’s a city that celebrates all the different cultures, all the different countries. We do it together, and it’s a good model of showing what this country’s about. All these different communities living together – we don’t just talk about tolerance. People actually enjoy one another and the richness of one another. Look, my family is an immigrant family, holocaust survivors. The immigrant mentality has contributed a lot to the country. The political pendulum swings. At the end of the Trump presidency, the country will be looking for an alternative and it will be someone who is more measured and thoughtful, progressive and policy driven and that will be a good ending.”