JERSEY CITY, N.J. — A young, energetic urban mayor reshapes the political landscape and spurs talk of higher office. Six or seven years ago in New Jersey, that description would have applied to Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Now it describes Steven Fulop, the ex-Marine and ex-Wall Streeter who has shaken up the status quo in Jersey City and fueled speculation about larger ambitions.
The comparisons between Fulop and Booker, New Jersey's junior U.S. senator, can run to the fanciful. Booker was dubbed a "rock star" mayor for his national media profile; Fulop was portrayed as a rock star in a New York Observer piece that featured a drawing of him as Bruce Springsteen from the "Born In The USA" album cover. (A framed print hangs in Fulop's conference room.)
"They're both young, kind of hip but also kind of dorky in a cute way," said Montclair University political scientist Brigid Harrison. "Stylistically they are a bit different; I think of Steve being very comfortable in one-on-one situations, almost like a Bill Clinton-esque policy wonk, in tune with what's going on on the ground. I haven't seen him engage in the lofty rhetoric we've heard from Booker."
Perhaps tellingly, the Clintons have played a role in Fulop's ascension. Fulop supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2008, and Bill Clinton headlined a Fulop fundraiser last December. The downside: President Barack Obama made a rare foray into local politics last year and supported two-term Mayor Jerramiah Healy, an old-school machine politician.
Fulop had made a name for himself as a thorn in Healy's side on the City Council. He defeated him soundly last year to take over a city of 250,000 that has been called "New York's sixth borough" for its proximity to lower Manhattan and concentration of young urban professionals. Wall Street firms, including Fulop's former employer — Goldman Sachs — have offices in shiny, new buildings on the banks of the Hudson River.
Fulop says that during Healy's two terms, philanthropic money gravitated toward Newark and Booker's star power. With Booker in Washington, that pendulum may be starting to swing the other way.
"Because of Cory, Jersey City was a no-fly zone, meaning it was Newark and New York and everybody kind of bypassed us," he said. "I think there's a good opportunity now to leverage the private sector to do some good things for the city."
Like Booker during his seven-plus years as mayor, Fulop has drawn criticism from people who feel he has one eye on governing and one eye on his next job. He is frequently mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate, a fact that he has accepted along with the inevitable questions that he parries with a practiced ease.
"If I told you that I don't think about anything other than this job, you won't believe me," he said. "If I told you I think about it sometimes, all the time, some derivative of that, I'm doing a disservice to my job. That's a no-win answer for me and I think people can appreciate that. That said, a lot of this stuff is based on timing and circumstances, so it's really hard to predict."
Fulop's first year as mayor has been anything but uneventful. He has demoted the city's police chief, sued the powerful Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for $400 million in what he claims are unpaid property taxes, and changed tax rules to shift development from the more affluent waterfront to the Journal Square area.
He has also jousted with the board of education over leasing space for new pre-K centers and challenged the gun lobby with new rules for gun manufacturers seeking city contracts.
Not everyone has been thrilled. Councilman Richard Boggiano said Fulop has paid too much attention to large-scale development projects at the expense of more mundane issues such as dirty streets, potholes and snow removal. He also criticized Fulop's push to consolidate the city's authorities.
"I would like to see a stop to the antagonizing of the Department of Public Works, the Jersey City Incinerator Authority, the parking authority," he said. "These are all people who live in the city and work here. You can't change everything overnight. You have four years, but unfortunately it seems like he's already running for governor."
Fulop seems unconcerned at the possibility that his reach may occasionally exceed his grasp.
"The nature of public office today is that mayors have an opportunity to shape the dialogue more than they have in the last 20 years," he said. "Jersey City being part of that conversation, which I think we have been, we're punching above our weight, which I think is a good thing for the city."