Steven Fulop spent his first three years as Mayor of Jersey City essentially running for Governor. When he suddenly dropped out of the race, he shifted back to his local politics lane and won a re-election. But governing New Jersey’s second largest city this time around is more challenging: he’s dealing with an unpopular tax revaluation, a controversy over a legal services contract for open public records requests – and today, a strike by public school teachers.
Second terms for executives are often perilous – ask the most recent former Governor of New Jersey – and it’s possible that Fulop is looking for a way to avoid watching his approvals take a hit over the next three years. If Fulop still has higher aspirations – no one around him believes he does not – the next few years in local office could ruin him.
There are rumors that Fulop wants to replace Tom DeGise as Hudson County Executive. Since the job is exponentially less important than the one he has now – and one that has been a political dead-end for the other 21 people who have held the job in five New Jersey counties – it’s unlikely that Fulop actually wants that.
The other speculation is that Fulop wants Albio Sires’s seat in Congress – and that he wants it this year. That’s not as far-fetched, even if he were to deny it.
A seat in the U.S. House of Representatives would offer Fulop a vehicle to rehabilitate his statewide aspirations. Some say being a congressman is not as powerful as being the Mayor of Jersey City, but it’s apples and oranges. Fulop might view Democrats as having a shot at winning the House, but either way he would have a forum to pick and choose his issues without the encumbrances of the day to day decisions that can move people from liking you to hating you in a matter of minutes.
From Washington, the 41-year-old Fulop can either wait for the next statewide opportunity – Bob Menendez is twenty years older and Phil Murphy is term limited if he wins re-election. Or he can look to accumulate seniority, maybe someday chair a committee or even the DCCC.
So what if that’s his move? The price for keeping the Hudson County warette from becoming a war is to send Fulop to Congress. Jersey City gets to pick a new mayor in a November 2019 special election (with no runoff) and Brian Stack and Nick Sacco both get Fulop out of their daily lives. And Fulop gets an early ticket out of a job without having to worry about running again for mayor in 2021.
Fulop, who won re-election last year with 78%, has a Super PAC with a couple million dollars ready to go – and he could raise enough money to withstand any primary challenge. Sires had $297,000 cash-on-hand as of the end of 2017. The general election in New Jersey’s 8th district is safe, safe, safe Democratic.
Few people predicted Sires’ meteoric rise to power. He was a gadfly Republican and perennial candidate before toppling Anthony DeFino’s political machine in West New York. Two years after endorsing Christine Todd Whitman for governor, he beat an incumbent Assemblyman by more than 9,000 votes in a Democratic primary; two years after that, with the help of Gov.-elect Jim McGreevey, he edged out Joe Doria to become Assembly Speaker.
Now Sires is 67, and after twelve years in Congress, he reportedly understands that his political career is coming to an end. Some say that he’s good with that – he prefers spending time playing golf and wintering in Florida to spending weekends worrying about public appearances and constituent services. Still, sources say, he comes around every two years begging for just one more term. In a way, Sires has become the new Frank Guarini.
Over the past week, Sires has shown a little more energy than usual. He quickly endorsed DeGise for re-election and helped deliver three of the five West New York Commissioners to DeGise when Mayor Felix Roque joined Fulop and Stack in pushing for a new county executive. It could be loyalty to an old friend, or simply an act of political self-preservation.
One problem for Fulop is redistricting. Let’s say he wins in 2018 and again in 2020. Now he’s a white two-term congressman from a district that now elects the only Hispanic member of the New Jersey House delegation. Mapmakers would not feel the same obligation to protect Fulop as they would a minority Member of Congress. But that’s a fight that could be four years away.
The question for Fulop, if he even wants to be a congressman: does he take it now, when he can leverage the current uncertainty of Hudson County politics, or does he wait two years, when he might not be as popular in Jersey City as he is right now – and when political alliances around him might change?