For three years, his hand-picked candidates have swept the Board of Education elections. He is generally perceived as a bright, energetic, and hard working City Council member who is responsive to the needs of constituents, both in the ward he represents and elsewhere in the city. He has a network of 300 volunteers spread across the city, who are willing to work on his 2013 mayoral campaign.
And still, Councilman Steven Fulop is perceived as something of an underdog in his bid to unseat Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy. Still there are questions regarding whether he can amass enough votes, in enough communities, to topple his opponent.
Deli worker’s son or Wall Street suit?
Raised in Edison, Fulop’s father owns a deli across the street from Newark City Hall. In casual conversation the councilman sometimes recalls unglamorous summer days spent working behind the counter at dad’s corner store.
“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” he said last week.
But, as is often the case in politics, the politician and his critics tend to highlight portions of a bio that suit their purposes. For example, while Fulop talks about his deli days, his detractors point to his years spent as a Wall Street stockbroker and say his public policies as mayor are more likely to reflect the values of the business world rather than the working class.
‘He needs to get out there and meet people other than hand-picked supporters and their friends.’
A Healy supporter, this voter said he fears he could be laid off if Fulop is elected mayor.
“His politics got nothing in it for me and my family.”
One longtime political observer said, “He helps perpetuate the myth of city workers as lazy and corrupt. Whether or not that’s his personal feeling or not, he and some of his supporters help to perpetuate that. In Jersey City, as in any large urban area, whether you like it or not, working class people, poor people, and many minorities depend on government for many things. From jobs to transportation, housing, and health care, to welfare.”
Fulop’s push to downsize and shrink government to keep taxes low threatens to destabilize many of the city’s low- and moderate-income residents, this observer maintained. This point was repeated by three others who were interviewed, who all pointed to Fulop’s proposal to eliminate the Jersey City Incinerator Authority as an example.
But Jersey City native and Heights resident John Lynch countered, “Healy comes across as a regular guy, and that may appeal to blue collar workers. But that doesn’t show his work ethic. Steve is a hard worker and I think he appreciates and respects other people who work hard.”
The ‘newcomer’ label
“There is a cultural difference between newcomers and longtime residents of the city,” said one political observer, who said that some of Fulop’s signature issues – pay-to-play, rooting out corruption in government, ending patronage – don’t resonate with longtime residents. “Newcomers tend to relate better to a reform agenda or an anti-corruption crusader, which is what Steve Fulop paints himself as. Those are things that resonate with newcomers, who have a different concept of the city.”
Several people interviewed over the last week claimed that Jersey City natives and newcomers see the city – and its potential – very differently.
“Those who have recently arrived to the city love it for different reasons than those who have lived here a long time,” said one man in Ward C. “Newcomers who live downtown, where Fulop’s core is based, like all the high rise development, the bars, and restaurants. Longtime residents are skeptical of that wave of new development because we know there were people, families, that were pushed out, or priced out, of downtown to make way for that development. We’re scared of where that gentrification will come next because next time it could be us or some family member that’s pushed out.”
“They see gentrification as a good thing for the city, because they get to participate in a post-gentrified Jersey City,” said West Side resident Maya Bentacourt. “I see gentrification and it makes me nervous because it might not include me or my kids. I’m for renewal, too. But not if it means I lose my home or I get pushed out to make way for some luxury development I can’t afford to live in.”
Fulop himself shrugs off the newcomer label, noting that many of Jersey City’s leaders were born and raised elsewhere but made their greatest contributions here.
In addition, bread and butter issues cut across all classes and income levels said resident Mia Scanga who hosts “Talking Politics,” a local public access TV show.
“Things are worse now than they’ve ever been,” said Scanga, who said people still call her a newcomer, even though she has lived in the city for more than 20 years. “People’s taxes are higher. There’s more unemployment now. There’s less of a sense of security. People are less confident than they were in the early 1990s. If Fulop can provide reasonable policy recommendations to address any of these issues, I think that will be half the battle getting votes.”
And while many people argue that his base of support comes from the waterfront, Fulop said, “We’ve tried to penetrate the high rise developments on the waterfront and they don’t vote. It’s very hard to get them to participate.”
Since he hasn’t been able to count on these residents for votes, Fulop said his supporters, even in Ward E, live inland, away from the waterfront.
Lynch, who lives in the section of the Jersey City Heights that falls in Ward C, believes too much is made of the supposed division between natives and newcomers.
“I think there are a lot of people who aren’t supporting Steve Fulop who want to keep walls up,” he said. “They like the idea of all the wards being separated. They don’t seem to want to have unity. But over the last couple years, people in this city have broken through that.”
A racial divide?
“He has a Hispanic gap and a black gap,” said one political observer quoted earlier. “To bridge that gap, Fulop is going to have to get out more, spend more time outside of Ward E if he hopes to win those votes.”
Two African-American Ward A residents, who have supported Fulop’s Board of Education candidates in the past, agreed.
“I like him. I like what he stands for. But I don’t see him on the streets of Ward A enough. He needs to be out there a lot more than he is, and I’m going to say something to him about that.”
While Ward F has long been home to the largest community of black voters, Ward A is quickly also becoming a predominantly African-American ward.
Fulop said he is currently meeting residents throughout the city in small meet and greets in people’s homes, in what he calls “a sort of listening tour.” Later this year he has vowed to walk the streets of every ward to meet more residents.
But R.J. Harper, who lives in Ward F, said, the candidate has made several visits to Ward F.
“Steve Fulop has been here in Ward F on numerous occasions. He actually comes more often than I would have expected him to be here,” said Harper.
He added that Fulop has given support – including personal financial support – to a program that sends low income kids from Jersey City to camp each year, something Fulop does but doesn’t necessarily publicize.
Harper and another resident who live near the old PPG factory site that is now being remediated, also credit Fulop with being honest about details regarding the company’s settlement with the city.
“I really respected him for that because he was the only member of the council who was honest with us and told us why this settlement was being made,” said Harper.
He added that the mayoral candidate has held several meetings with Ward F residents, although, again, they tend to be under the radar.
“I think that’s done on purpose for strategic reasons,” said Harper, “because he suspects there are people at these meetings who are reporting back to the Healy campaign.
Lynch echoed this point, stating that Jersey City Democratic Committee people who Fulop helped get elected, “have done a lot of small things, small accomplishments that I think go unnoticed. Before Fulop’s people were elected to the committee, I never even knew who our committee people were. But the Fulop people have held meet and greets…and they’ve taken care of some things that needed to be done. There was an area over by the Reservoir that had a lot of weeds and they got that taken care of. They don’t necessarily want attention for this.”
But one activist said this strategy is problematic.
“He needs to get out there and meet people other than hand-picked supporters and their friends,” he said. “He needs to be out there meeting people who are maybe going to ask tougher questions of him and force him to think harder about his policies.”
Fulop: ‘Heard it all before’
Fulop said last week that his detractors are saying the same things this year about his mayoral campaign that they said when he first ran for City Council in 2005. That year he was the only candidate to defeat a Healy-backed candidate and his victory over that candidate, Junior Maldonado, was an upset.
“Afterwards, all the political people said, ‘Well, Fulop was running against a weak candidate.’ Four years later when I ran for re-election, they said, ‘Well, it’s just the waterfront towers that voted for me,’ even though I won 23 out of 23 districts in the ward. And that included three public housing sites – Booker, Montgomery, and Holland Gardens. It included the Hispanic community. It included the senior buildings. All of those sub-communities are part of Ward E, which is actually a microcosm of the city as a whole.”
Shifting demographics throughout the city, he said, mean that all six wards are more diverse and complex that most people want to admit.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.