Mayor served in US Army - now he serves people of Jersey City

By Jason Stein

MAYOR Steven Fulop appears to tick all the boxes required of a 21st century, Democratic American politician.

An exemplary record of military service, links to Wall Street from his time with Goldman Sachs, a bi-partisan philosophy and seemingly close bond with Democratic royalty, the Kennedy family, all point to what could be a stratospheric career for the grandson of Holocaust survivors.

On the face of it, the 45th mayor of Jersey City has the political landscape at his mercy.

The governorship of his home state New Jersey will be up for grabs come 2017 and Mr Fulop will undoubtedly be a front-runner should his tenure in New Jersey's second city go to plan.

And from there? Who knows how far he could travel.

Yet, now more than three months into his first term as mayor of Jersey City, after defeating Jerramiah Healy by 15 percentage points, 36-year-old Mr Fulop is focused solely on the task-in-hand.

"Jersey City is unlike any other urban area in that we have so much natural resources," he told me. We have an opportunity to be a destination city.

"We are right in the shadow of New York - the biggest media market in the world with tremendous history and infrastructure.

"There is a huge desire to attract people across the river from New York to Jersey City and we are embarking on a massive marketing campaign to make people recognise that moving to Jersey City from New York is not as big a leap as some think."

Mr Fulop has emphasised from day one that helping out the poor is key to everything he wants to achieve.

"The poor are struggling more and more and I find that troubling," the former Marine Corp said.

"There is only so much one person can do and we are doing the best because everything I want to achieve starts with poverty.

"The key question is how do you break that cycle? And we are doing a lot to attract job growth and help people out.

"One of the biggest challenges is staying proactive and not getting bogged down and mired with other issues."

That the mayor is alive is testament to the strength of his grandparents, Roza and Alexander Kohn, who survived the Holocaust and escaped communist Romania for Brooklyn in 1967.

Roza's 20-month-old sister was killed in Auschwitz.

Mr Fulop and his brothers Daniel and Richard worked in the deli of their parents - Carmen and Arthur Fulop - immigrants from Romania and Israel.

"I grew up in Edison going to an Orthodox Jewish day school," the mayor revealed.

"It was important for me to learn about Judaism and, while I am not particularly observant, my roots are part of who I am and those foundations are rooted in me."

Mr Fulop added that his learning of the Mishna and Gemmorra make it "difficult to separate who I am from my religion" and "my decision-making process".

What is clear is that religion played a key role in his life long before the idea of a career in public service did.

His flirtation with politics didn't begin until 2004, following his return from Marine Corps service in Iraq.

The-then mayor of Jersey City, Glenn Cunningham, was also a Marine and encouraged Mr Fulop to run against Bob Menendez in the 2004 primaries for his seat in Congress.

His run would ultimately end in failure, but Mr Fulop insisted he harbours no regrets.

"It was a tremendous learning experience," he recalled. "I wasn't even registered to vote when I started, but it opened my eyes to this world of politics.

"Plenty of people lose before they win. For example, there are plenty of former presidents who lost their first run for office.

"Had I not been given that opportunity, then who knows what would have happened later on in my life. It's a connect-the-dots sort of thing."

With so much going on in his life, it is scarcely believable that Mr Fulop still has time to keep tabs on his favourite sport - soccer.

"I used to play as a midfielder in high-school and college," he recalled.

"I actually played against (Everton goalkeeper) Tim Howard in high school when he was still trying to make it as a striker.

"I follow Tottenham and Fulham because they have had some really great American players over the years.

"I love the Premier League and I can only hope that Major League Soccer one day grows to that level."

And he thinks his country could be one of the dark horses at the Brazil World Cup in June.

"I think the US team is going to perform really well under Jurgen Klinsmann," he said.

"I'm not saying we are going to reach a certain stage or anything, but I think fans will be pleasantly surprised.

But football had to take a backseat for Mr Fulop, who owns an MBA from New York University and a Masters in public administration from Columbia University, when he was among the first strand of Marines stationed in Iraq in 2003.

Some of his duties included building fuel lines between Kuwait and Iraq and it won't surprise anyone with a Jewish mother to learn that Mrs Fulop was horrified at the notion of her boy heading off for war.

"It was a pretty scary situation," he admitted. "I left a job with Goldman Sachs because I felt service is truly important and the partial price of citizenship."

It is widely accepted that military service is vital for politicians looking at higher office.

Only four of the 43 men to hold the presidency - Barack Obama being one - lack any form of service.

But Mr Fulop insisted that his decision to enlist was nothing to do with future ambitions.

"The military is not the only factor when it comes to an elected official," he said. "It is an important factor, no question, but not the only one.

"I think where it becomes hugely vital is when decisions to engage in war are being made.

"If the commander-in-chief has experience of combat then he perhaps better understands the risks.

"But when you put your uniform on you must have total respect for the role of the president.

"Regardless of whether you agree with the decision to go to war.

"I signed up and I respected his (George W Bush) decision."

Mr Fulop was present in Iraq for a little over six months and in Kuwait for the rest of his tour of service.

"My job was combat engineer," he recalled, with his main focus on creating a pipeline to provide clean water to Iraqis.

He added: "My service instilled certain character traits - the reliance on a team infrastructure; understanding of different types of people and seeing parts of the world that you never would have in ordinary circumstances.

"Because I served, I have a different amount of appreciation for the sacrifices that families make.

"I was there and I wasn't married with kids, whereas a lot of people in my battalion company were."

The path that Mr Fulop has travelled is already varied and accomplished, but where does he see himself ending up?

"There is so much political chatter," he said. "But I am honestly just focusing on what I have now.

"If people want to speculate about the governorship, the Senate and beyond, then fine, but I am not going to do that.

"I want to remain a bi-partisan leader because more than ever before, the public are looking for an adult in the room.

"So many elected leaders are not acting like that at all.

"That notion, the turmoil in the Republican party, bodes well for us (the Democrats) in the 2016 (presidential) election.

"I have a lot of respect for what President Obama is doing. The Affordable Healthcare Act will be something that people will look back on with pride.

"And the manner in which he has diplomatically wound down two wars while governing when the country is polarised has been incredibly challenging."

When addressing his communications with the Kennedy family, Mr Fulop is happy to have a "good relationship" with Joseph P Kennedy III, the grandson of former Attorney General, Senator Robert Kennedy.

"I have hosted fundraisers for him and we get on well," he added. "We are younger people, starting at the base of politics."

And his campaign for re-election in four years has got off to a good start as Bill Clinton announced he will headline a fundraiser for him.

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph