It's 5 a.m. in Jersey City, and Steven Fulop is up and ready.
The 37-year old first-term mayor begins his typical day just like the rest of us — with about an hour of intensive triathlon training.
To be clear, Fulop does indeed compete in his fair share of triathlons and even completed one in May in South Jersey. But now, after a year in office, a new question presents itself: are triathlons all that Fulop is training for?
Presented with a question about his rising star in state politics, Fulop interjects.
“Is that the governor question?” he quips. “Is that what that one is?”
Indeed, many politicos around the state have already penciled him in for a hypothetical 2017 gubernatorial primary showdown with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford). But Fulop is careful not to show his hand, drawing a delicate balance between first-term mayoral rhetoric and ambitious politics.
He would prefer to talk about all of the economic development that has taken place in Jersey City — and will take place in Jersey City. But he knows that's not the future everyone wants to discuss.
“If I were to tell you today that I am not thinking about it and it's three years away, you wouldn't believe me,” Fulop said. “If I told you that I'm thinking about it and it's three years away, I'm doing a tremendous disservice to things we're trying to accomplish here. So there's no win for me in that question.”
The 'political fast track'
Take a look back at how Fulop, an Edison native, ended up with the big desk on Grove Street and it's easy to see why he's generating buzz.
A former Goldman Sachs staffer turned Iraq War veteran, Fulop first made waves in Jersey City by unseating incumbent Ward E Councilman Junior Maldonado in 2005. Then, last year, Fulop again ran a successful underdog campaign, defeating two-term Mayor Jerramiah Healy, who had high-profile support from the likes of President Barack Obama and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
Rutgers University political science professor David Redlawsk said Fulop's victory over Healy “put him immediately on the political fast track.”
That “fast track,” so to speak, has since included appearances for Fulop across the state and in Washington, and at a fundraiser held in his name attended by former President Bill Clinton. Add in The Washington Post recently naming him one of the top 40 politicians to watch under age 40 and MSNBC's Chuck Todd labeling him as a “rising star.”
“He is young and energetic, and a good media story,” Redlawsk said in an email. “So the fact that everyone is talking about him is no surprise. Whether it is warranted will depend at least somewhat on how things go in Jersey City. He hasn't been in office a year yet, so it's hard to tell if he will have the impact on the city that is expected.”
Though some comparisons between the rising stars of Fulop and Booker have already been made, Jonathan Wharton, an assistant political science and history professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, said “big differences” exist between the two.
Wharton, who recently penned a book about Booker's political career, is a Jersey City resident that has known Fulop for years through his role on the Historic Paulus Hook Association. He said that while Booker evolved into a public personality, especially through his use of social media, Fulop is more of a “technocrat” that prefers one-on-one negotiations.
But he won't run from a fight.
Fulop seemingly has brought his boxing gloves with him to City Hall. Earlier this year, in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, he publicly criticized Gov. Chris Christie's administration, claiming meetings he had scheduled with state officials were abruptly canceled following his decision not to endorse the governor in his re-election campaign.
The working relationship between the city and state is better now, Fulop said.
But the same can't be said for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, against which the city filed a $400 million lawsuit in May claiming outdated deals it has had with the bistate agency have led to the loss of hundreds of millions in revenue over the years.
“They've literally walked all over their host communities for decades,” Fulop said. “So we're trying our best to push back.”
He's all business
Jersey City's waterfront was there before Fulop took office, and it will be there after him.
Incentives from the state, put into overdrive by past programs and the still-fresh Economic Opportunity Act, have made that possible — and there's no indication that the well is drying up anytime soon. Just this past May, for example, the state Economic Development Authority approved more than $300 million in incentives to lure commitments from JP Morgan Chase and RBC Capital Markets to Jersey City, which are bringing some 1,900 new jobs to Jersey City.
While state-issued tax credits have recently come under fire in Trenton as budget woes loom, Fulop said that his city is simply taking advantage of what has been made available. Both sides agreed to incentive reform, so it's “hard for them to complain about it now.”
“My job is to advocate for Jersey City, so I look at it from a Jersey City standpoint,” Fulop said. “We're going to use every tool possible to us. When the rules are changed, we're going to adapt to those rules.”
But what gets Fulop really excited is what is taking place beyond downtown's borders.
Fulop has implemented a tax abatement strategy that breaks the city into four separate tiers, offering abatements of up to 30 years for projects in historically underdeveloped neighborhoods and as short as five years for work taking place in and around the already-established downtown.
According to Fulop, the policy has led to neighborhoods outside the downtown seeing roughly 50 percent of all approved abatements since last July.
Reinvigorating Journal Square is a major focus, Fulop said, pointing to plans for the Landmark Loew's Jersey Theatre and KRE Group's proposed 2.4 million-square-foot mixed-use residential and retail project, which looks to bring more than 1,800 residential units to the neighborhood.
“For the first time we have progress there,” Fulop said.
Al Koeppe, EDA board chairman, said that from what he's seen, Fulop appears to be “methodical” in his approach and “understands that economic development is more than just bricks and mortar.”
Fulop, Koeppe said, puts value in workforce development and job creation when eyeing particular projects. What's happening in Journal Square is an example of that, he said.
“It's not an insular approach to economic development,” Koeppe said.
To an extent, Fulop has been able to navigate through his first year in office with little adversity.
There was some criticism thrown his way in February when the city dropped the ball on snow-removal efforts, prompting Fulop to pledge to “do better” as a result.
“It was my first time dealing with that and I made some mistakes,” Fulop says. “I think that residents let me know I made some mistakes and we're going to look to improve upon that.”
Crime, especially in concentrated areas outside of downtown, also remains a pertinent issue. Fulop, however, notes that more police offers have been hired and points to stats showing that shootings are down so far this year and well below numbers seen in Newark, Trenton, Camden and Paterson.
And he pressed the issue a step further last week, announcing the removal of Police Chief Robert Cowan as part of an administration-led department restructuring. In a separation letter addressed to Cowan, Fulop first thanked the chief for his years of service, only to follow up with a sharp claim that Cowan was standing in the way of needed reforms and structural changes.
Among the lessons learned on the job in his first year, Fulop said he now understands why many find government to be “frustrating” at times.
“I've learned that government is slow,” Fulop said. “Slower than people would like and I think that progress is very fragile. It takes a lot of time and effort to see progress and it's disproportionally easier to do damage. That's something I'm always conscious of.”
Hudson County Freeholder Bill O'Dea, deputy executive director of the Elizabeth Development Co., and a former Jersey City councilman, said that while Fulop has “created an amazing amount of buzz and energy in his first year” and “has an amazingly bright future,” he expects there to be some bumps in the road to come.
“He'll stub his toe a few times along the way and I think that's actually a good thing,” O'Dea said. “That will make him a better mayor. That will make him a better executive for any higher office he might choose to seek.”
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Steven Fulop has accomplished a lot in his first year as mayor of Jersey City. But he’s just getting started. Here’s a look at just some of the things on the agenda for year two: