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Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham with unknown also-ran congressional candidate Steve Fulop in 2004. (Photo: Steve Fulop via Twitter).

A brief electoral history of Steve Fulop

Charting Fulop’s rise from no-hope congressional candidate to powerful three-term mayor

By Joey Fox, April 14 2023 11:24 am

And so it begins.

Earlier this week, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop announced that he will seek the Democratic nomination for governor of New Jersey in 2025. He’s not the first to say he’s running – that distinction belongs to Jack Ciattarelli and Steve Sweeney – but he’s the first to officially launch a campaign.

Fulop’s entrance marks the true start of the 2025 gubernatorial campaign, which will undoubtedly soon dominate the state’s politics. It also marks the culmination of Fulop’s own political rise, having ascended from a blip-on-the-radar congressional candidate to the mayor of New Jersey’s second-largest city.

At just 46, the son of immigrant deli-owning parents has been a Goldman Sachs analyst, a U.S. Marine stationed in Iraq, a two-term city councilman, and now a prominent three-term mayor. In fact, this is already his second time as a gubernatorial candidate, if you count his all-but-certain 2017 campaign that he unexpectedly abandoned after years of speculation.

Each of his six official campaigns had its own fascinating dynamics and backstory – and each gives insight into the man who, if things go his way, might be New Jersey’s next governor.

U.S. Congress – 2004

Long before he was mayor – long before anyone knew he was someone worth paying attention to – Fulop was a lonely off-the-line candidate against a giant of Hudson County politics, Bob Menendez.

Menendez was at that point serving his sixth term in the 13th congressional district, the first Latino to ever represent New Jersey in Congress. Though he had huge influence throughout Hudson County and was the county Democratic chairman at the time, Menendez’s relationship with Jersey City Mayor/State Sen. Glenn Cunningham was not good, and Cunningham wanted a challenger to run against the congressman in the 2004 Democratic primary.

Fulop as a U.S. Marine. (Photo: Steve Fulop via Facebook).

He found one in Fulop, who had just recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. By Fulop’s own admission, the campaign was a “suicide mission,” and one that he was hardly prepared for.

“At the time, I wasn’t registered to vote, not politically active, [and] knew nothing,” Fulop said in a Twitter retrospective in 2019. “I was just someone who chose to leave Goldman Sachs to enlist in the Marines after 9/11. I did it [because] I thought at the time that running for office was something I would one day tell my grandkids that I did ONCE.”

As expected, Fulop, who raised only $15,000 for his entire campaign, got trounced. Menendez won 87%-13%, re-establishing his dominance in Hudson County and setting himself up for a successful U.S. Senate campaign two years later.

But as poorly as Fulop did in much of the district – he got 2.6% of the vote in North Bergen and 3.2% in West New York – his performance in Jersey City itself wasn’t bad. He got 2,717 votes in the parts of the city that were in the 13th congressional district, good for 35% of the vote.

And more importantly, Fulop caught the political bug. Less than a year later, he was back, this time running for a seat on the Jersey City Council.

Jersey City Council – 2005, 2009

Sadly, Cunningham, who had become a political mentor for Fulop, died in May 2004 of a heart attack. Former municipal court judge Jerramiah Healy won a crowded, chaotic, and extremely negative November 2004 special election to succeed him with 28% of the vote, besting several candidates who had been among Cunningham’s top allies.

Healy had to immediately turn around and win a full term in the 2005 elections, this time with an entire council slate running alongside him. In Ward E, Healy backed incumbent Councilman Junior Maldonado, who was facing an intriguing young challenger in his bid for a second term. (You can guess who that challenger was.)

An early Fulop ad. (Photo: Fulop for Council).

Facing weak opposition, Healy himself won in a landslide, and most of his council running mates were also successful. But driven by the changing demographics of Ward E – the downtown ward was growing quickly and drifting away from its Hispanic roots – Fulop was able to pull off an upset, defeating Maldonado by 363 votes, 55%-45%.

(Like many former rivals, the two have since made up; Maldonado supported Fulop’s 2013 mayoral campaign, and later became a freeholder and is now the Hudson County Clerk.)

Despite Healy’s support for his opponent, Fulop told the Hudson Reporter after his victory that he didn’t see the need for bad blood: “I respect Mayor Healy and I voted for him.” 

That was not to be the case, however. As a councilman, Fulop became a leading critic of the Hudson Democratic organization’s machinations and the frequent corruption scandals that plagued its foot soldiers, making him a thorn in the side of Healy and other Democratic leaders.

When the 2009 elections came around, Fulop, who had considered a mayoral campaign but decided to run for re-election instead, faced another Healy-backed opponent. This time, it was Guy Catrillo, a Republican city employee best known for renting the wrong birds at a 9/11 memorial.

The results were something of a repeat of 2005. Healy won big, as did most of his running mates – but once again, he was unable to dislodge Fulop from the gentrifying, high-turnout Ward E. Fulop beat Catrillo with 63% of the vote, the largest plurality of any candidate in the city.

And once again, Fulop played nice, saying that after four tough years, his relations with Healy were on the upswing.

“Yes, our relationship is much better, but I am sure we will disagree when I feel he is wrong and agree when I think he is right,” he told Politicker NJ’s Matt Friedman. “I definitely won’t be the rubber stamp, as that is not who I am, but our working relationship going forward has improved.”

But chatter was already beginning that after indirectly sparring in both 2005 and 2009, the two men were destined for a head-to-head battle.

Jersey City Mayor – 2013, 2017, 2021

Healy’s second full term was not a smooth one. Right after he won re-election in 2009, a number of Healy allies – including Catrillo, Fulop’s erstwhile council foe – were ensnared in “Operation Bid Rig,” a massive FBI sting operation that felled more than 40 New Jersey politicians. The arrests underscored a point Fulop had already been making for years: that the Hudson Democratic organization needed a major reset.

Healy was also haunted by a strange pair of scandals relating to his personal life. During the 2004 campaign, he was photographed naked on his front stoop at 2 a.m.; he of course won that race anyways, but found himself in the headlines again in 2006 after he was arrested outside a bar for disorderly conduct.

With two terms on the council under his belt, and a track record of defying the Hudson Democratic organization, Fulop at last announced his run for mayor in October 2011, more than a year and a half before the election. (The man clearly likes early announcements.)

Fulop at his 2013 victory party. (Photo: Steve Fulop via Facebook).

From the earliest days of his campaign, Fulop trained his fire vigorously on Healy, ratcheting up the issues that had already been boiling beneath the surface in Jersey City for years. Fulop highlighted Healy’s many scandals and called for systemic change; the mayor responded in kind that Fulop was nothing more than a pampered Wall Street stooge who couldn’t win outside his gentrified home base.

Other prominent candidates stayed out of the fray, leaving it a brutal two-man race. That included State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City), the wife of the late mayor, who was rumored to be considering a campaign but chose to remain in the legislature instead.

With hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by each side, Healy called in all the assistance he could get. Nearly all of the Hudson Democratic organization was in Healy’s corner, as was Barack Obama, who issued a rare endorsement a few months before the election – perhaps because Healy was an Obama supporter in 2008, while Fulop backed Hillary Clinton.

It wasn’t enough. Fulop beat Healy in the first round 53%-38%, with most of the remainder going to future County Commissioner Jerry Walker.

Importantly, Fulop’s support wasn’t just confined to downtown Jersey City. Ward E went for Fulop by a ridiculous 58-point margin, but four of the city’s other five wards also voted for him; the final ward, Ward F, only supported Healy by 58 votes.

The results were rightly regarded as a political earthquake. Suddenly, the man who had been Hudson Democrats’ most prominent critic was also their standard-bearer in the county’s largest city.

The ten years since then have witnessed the steady reconciliation of those two identities.

Fulop has built up a local organization similar to the one Healy led when he was mayor, backing council candidates and amassing a solid pro-Fulop council majority. His efforts have mostly been successful; seven of the city council’s nine current members ran on Team Fulop in 2021.

In some cases, he’s flipped councilmembers who were once his enemies. Ward C Councilman Rich Boggiano won two terms on the council against candidates backed by Fulop, but in 2021, Fulop added him to his slate, saying that the two could do much more “by working together instead of opposing each other.”

(Fittingly, one of the two remaining dissenters is James Solomon, who has twice won Fulop’s old Ward E seat against the mayor’s preferred candidate – essentially serving the exact same role that Fulop did under Healy.)

Despite his longtime political identity as a reformer, Fulop’s administration has also been clouded with some ethical woes. As Politico NJ has chronicled, there remain questions about donations to a pro-Fulop super PAC in 2015, and his former chief of staff was caught on tape in 2014 discussing how to award a city contract to a favored company.

None of that stopped Fulop from being viewed as a top-tier candidate for governor when Gov. Chris Christie was term-limited in 2017. Along with then-Senate President Steve Sweeney and a well-funded newcomer named Phil Murphy, Fulop was one of the three people considered most likely to be New Jersey’s next governor.

But in September 2016, Fulop threw everyone for a loop when he announced that he wouldn’t run for governor after all, and would instead back Murphy, who was occupying a similarly progressive lane in the Democratic primary.

“I certainly thought about it, and I’ve certainly spent a lot of time building relationships elsewhere,” Fulop said at a press conference with Murphy in Jersey City. “[But] I don’t see any winners in a very, very bloody primary. The hope today is to ultimately unite people in a common cause.”

With a gubernatorial campaign deferred, the 2017 mayoral election – which Fulop had successfully pushed to move from May to November, in part to provide a safety net if he lost the gubernatorial primary – was little more than an afterthought.

Fulop’s opponent was a throwback to the Healy years: Bill Matsikoudis, a top Healy advisor and the former Jersey City corporation counsel. By that point, Fulop had become very popular throughout the city, and he marshaled Hudson Democrats behind him to win by a dominating 78%-22% margin.

Early in his second term, Fulop was at the forefront of a different sort of leadership fight, this time over the Hudson Democratic organization – that great frenemy of Fulop’s political career.

Allying with Union City Mayor/State Sen. Brian Stack and several other local Democrats, Fulop pushed to oust incumbent County Executive Tom DeGise, an effort that revolved around Stack winning the position of county Democratic chair in 2018. Running against Stack for Team DeGise was, well, DeGise: Amy DeGise, that is, the county executive’s daughter and a Jersey City school board member.

The younger DeGise emerged victorious, beating Stack by a county committee vote of 452 to 360. Critical to DeGise’s victory was that she was able to run nearly even with Stack in Jersey City, even though Fulop’s involvement in the race was supposed to give Stack a big boost in his home city.

“This was not Brian Stack’s loss,” one Democrat told the New Jersey Globe after the results came in. “This was Steve Fulop’s fault.”

Since then, Fulop’s relationship with the county party has improved in fits and starts. In 2021, Fulop put none other than Amy DeGise on his slate for an at-large council seat (a political alliance that later caused a significant headache for Fulop when DeGise hit-and-run a cyclist).

That same year, Fulop won re-election once again in a race that was more reminiscent of 2017 than 2013. Though anti-Fulop forces disappointed in the mayor’s administration found a challenger in Lewis Spears, they were never able to turn the contest into a real race, and Fulop won 67%-32%.

That resounding victory included landslide wins in five of the city’s wards, but Ward F – the lone ward that had supported Healy in 2013 – went for Spears by ten votes. Ward F was also one of two wards to reject Fulop’s preferred candidate, electing Frank Educational Gilmore over incumbent Councilman Jermaine Robinson.

Which brings us, approximately, to the present day. 

Steve Fulop has now been mayor of Jersey City for nine years, nine months, and 11 days. With his promise to forgo re-election in 2025, he’ll be mayor for another two years, eight months, and 18 days. After that, who can say?

Just yesterday, Fulop announced that he’s already secured the Hudson Democratic line for governor, a development that is both wholly unsurprising – Hudson Democrats basically promised him as much last year – and a monumental turn of fortune for someone who once built an entire brand out of bashing the Hudson Democratic machine.

As he campaigns for governor these next two years, Fulop will need to find his footing in a context outside of the Jersey City base he’s cultivated for the last twenty years.

After a decade as mayor, will his image as a reformer still ring true? Can he convince New Jersey voters, who haven’t elected a Hudson County politician as governor since A. Harry Moore won his final term in 1937, that a Jersey City guy deserves to go to Drumthwacket?

For someone who got his political start taking hopeless potshots at Bob Menendez, Fulop has certainly come a long way. He’ll soon find out if he can go even farther.

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