Those who complacently kissed the rings on the lily pads of power could not finally hold back the local bicycles, chalkboards, school board candidacies, power walks, electrified bullhorns and Ward E soldiering that broke through (and ultimately reconfigured) a gnarled Hudson County Democratic Organization.
Look for a statewide campaign this time that more substantially and significantly combines grassroots and establishment support, says Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who yesterday formally launched his candidacy for governor, and relishes a chance at public debate and discourse, regardless of how many people get in the 2025 contest.
Look for a campaign that more properly reflects the principal’s political roots.
By starting early, the mayor intends to build multi-disciplinary political structures that show depth – and connectivity to real people and organizations – not merely the bosses and their handfuls of slack-jawed underlings in a display of the kind of campaigning he undertook to great effect in his home city.
“I am committed to doing this and building a proper organization,” Fulop told InsiderNJ. Specifically, the mayor – three times elected mayor of Jersey City – addressed how he will do it differently from 2017, when he lost the pre-Democratic Primary contest to Phil Murphy.
“My hope is to get everyone on board,” Fulop said. By everyone, he means the political organizations; that is to say, the county party committees. If he can’t land all 21 counties (as Murphy did in 2017 and 2021), Fulop said he expects Jersey City-style grassroots galvanizing will significantly contribute to that chunk of establishment support he expects to land, starting with his own county of Hudson, where the Democratic Party chair already backs his 2025 candidacy.
Fulop said he recognizes some of the mistakes he made in 2016, when he placed his focus almost entirely on trying to get the backing of county chairs, even though his own political formation came about in defiance of those kinds of organizations. “When I ran for mayor [in 2013], the entire organization was person by person; I built a structure here,” he said.
That year, President Barack Obama issued an endorsement of Fulop’s opponent, incumbent Mayor Jerry Healy.
Fulop still blew out Healy.
“That’s because we built the organization,” said Fulop. “When I became the mayor and ran for governor [in the lead-up to 2017], I made a strategic mistake by focusing [only] on the traditional party infrastructure. By announcing my candidacy early, the advanced party time allows me to not solely rely on that [establishment party infrastructure]. That’s already reflected in what we’re doing. Outside of the announcement, a huge number of people engaged – volunteers. How do you circumvent the traditional party organizations? You build what we’re building now.”
Hopefully, that kind organizing will persuade the organizations to pick him.
He’s not looking to run against them.
He wants all parties aligned.
“My goal – to be clear – is to have a big tent,” he said. “It’s just that I am not comfortable with ten people getting in a room and deciding the fate of the Democratic Party. Nobody should feel comfortable with that.”
To the extent that Fulop prioritizes grassroots progressive support, he may find himself fighting in a lane also occupied by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who evidently wants to run without bothering even to seek the backing of the party organizations.
Fulop said he doesn’t worry about Baraka.
On the contrary, he insists.
“It’s a big state,” said the mayor. “There are a lot of opportunities. We still have a good relationship. The presence of more candidates increases the opportunity for discourse and is a benefit to everyone.”
The mayor said he looks forward to making his argument as the contest intensifies.
“Jersey City has been an undeniable success story – a leader in affordable housing, paid sick leave and transparency, and the economic engine of New Jersey,” Fulop said. “We are the only ones with a track record, and with a real story to tell in areas that include transportation, building new schools without state money, and social policies.”
That said, New Jersey voters have not elected too many mayors to the office of governor. James McGreevey was the last in 2001. Democrats, moreover, favored two Goldman Sachs millionaires as their gubernatorial candidates going back to 2005.
“They will give mayors a shot with an effective message,” Fulop said, arguing the benefits of having a statewide leader adept at functional municipal government.
For his part, two-term sitting Governor Phil Murphy has done a good job, the mayor added. “I think he had a very tough six years between COVID taking up his time here and his agenda. There is more that can be done around transportation and more around affordability and property tax relief and environmental policy.”
He highlighted Jersey City’s ride-share and bike-share programs as the gold standard, and transferrable in some fashion to the state as a whole, for example; and underscored his own commitment to breaking transit deserts and implementing best practices in moving people around the state. He wants to also dive into housing affordability and what he and his administration did in Jersey City as a model for New Jersey.
“That is one area where we’ve differed [Fulop and Murphy],” said the mayor, who broke company with the siting governor on the widening of the New Jersey Turnpike, which Fulop opposes on environmental grounds.
“Part of the reason we’re organizing so early is it gives us the time and runway to build a campaign based on ideas, where people feel invested. Anybody who knows me not bashful or shy about work.”
In his campaign video launch yesterday, Fulop emphasized his own commitment to public service, starting with the decision he made to join the United States Marine Corps and go to Iraq following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. 2001.
“I was working at Goldman Sachs two blocks from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11th, and I was on the ferry back to Jersey City about 200 yards into the Hudson River when the first building collapsed,” he said. “That day changed my belief and showed me that there was a more meaningful calling than finance.
“That was probably one of the best professional decisions I made,” the mayor said of his enlistment in the Marines. “I saw it as partial payment for citizenship. My family comes from Holocaust survivors who came to this country. I viewed that as a moment to serve, and it effected me in countless ways. It made me a better team player and exposed me to different people.”
Fulop’s military occupational specialty was bulk fuel engineering. He deployed into Iraq with the first wave that marched across the desert into Baghdad.
What about that Goldman Sachs connection, though?
Jon Corzine. Phil Murphy. Steve Fulop.
They all worked there.
“Skeptics are going to be skeptics,” said Fulop. “Governor Murphy and Corzine were senior partners. I was in an analysts’ program that was a very distinguished program for college graduates, and at a very different compensation level. At that point in time, Goldman Sachs was a very prestigious place to work. My dad and mom owned a deli and I was very proud to work at Goldman. That said, I made the decision to give that all up when I went to Iraq.”
If Baraka arguably poses a grassroots threat to his candidacy perhaps U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5) – himself eyeballing a 2025 gubernatorial run – offers a fundraising threat.
Fulop doesn’t see it that way.
“Everybody will go into public matching funds,” he said.
There won’t be a Corzine in the race.
The Edison native did concede the particular influence of Middlesex County in a Democratic Primary.
“Kevin McCabe is the most important chair today,” said Fulop. “They’re all important in their
own way. But Kevin McCabe has effectively built coalitions without being heavy-handed.
“I do hope to get Kevin’s support,” added the gubernatorial contender.
As for national politics, Fulop said he backs President Joe Biden. “He’s done a good job legislatively. He has a good track record. I understand that people are craving a new generation of leadership. But track records matter. Accomplishments matter.”
Fulop, 46 and in his political prime, trusts his own track record in Jersey, and his accomplishments, will connect with voters in a way that also satisfies that yearning for the next generation, one rooted in this case, in anti-establishment urban politics, and simultaneously pragmatic enough with the passage of time to build something simple or complex as needed.