When Steven Fulop was running for mayor of Jersey City, N.J., earlier this year, he didn’t just try to persuade voters he’d do a better job of improving schools and reducing crime than the incumbent, Jerramiah Healy. The 36-year-old challenger set out to show he was manlier than his 62-year-old opponent. A campaign ad showed Fulop swimming the icy Hudson River from Jersey City to Manhattan and back, as he narrated his life story: working his way through college, a job at Goldman Sachs (GS), then enlisting in the Marines and a stint in Iraq.
Fulop, a Democrat, easily won the city’s nonpartisan election on May 14 with 53 percent of the vote to Healy’s 38 percent, even though Healy had President Obama’s endorsement. “It was entertaining,” Healy says now of the swimming ad. “I didn’t think it was very effective as far as showing how you’re going to run the city and that you’re qualified, but I guess I was wrong.”
Fulop’s prize is an economically sluggish city of 250,000 that had an unemployment rate of 10.8 percent in May, two percentage points higher than the New Jersey average. The school district is under partial state control because of poor results. In 2012 the high school graduation rate was 67 percent. The city has a history of attracting crooks. Mayor Thomas Whelan was convicted of extortion in 1971. Mayor Gerald McCann was convicted in a savings-and-loan scheme two decades later. In 2010 Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini was convicted of bribery. “There’s a stigma associated with Jersey City as it relates to crime and corruption,” Fulop says. “That’s what we’ve got to change.”
The question is whether he’ll stick around long enough to see it through. Presiding over a troubled city for a term or two is a popular way for young Democrats with larger ambitions to quickly build a résumé for higher office. Martin O’Malley was 36 when he was elected mayor of Baltimore in 1999. He barely concealed his desire to run for governor, and possibly president. Seven years later he became governor on his record of reducing Baltimore’s homicide rate and making modest progress on school test scores. Now in his second term, he’s weighing a 2016 White House run.
San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro was elected in 2009 at age 34. He delivered the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic convention and isn’t trying very hard to tamp down speculation that he’d like to be the country’s first Hispanic vice president. He recently retweeted a poll of Hispanics showing he’d have a “+43 effect on the Democratic ticket” in 2016.
Fulop is often compared to Cory Booker, the charismatic 44-year-old mayor of Newark (elected when he was 37) who’s now running for U.S. Senate. Booker earned the nickname Superman when he dashed into a burning building last year to rescue an elderly neighbor. In June, Fulop rappelled down the side of a 35-story office building in downtown Jersey City to raise money for charity.
None of these politicians sought the glamourless title of midsize city mayor because he needed the work. Booker (Stanford undergrad, Rhodes scholar, Yale Law), Castro (Stanford undergrad, Harvard Law), and Fulop (master’s degrees from Columbia and New York University Stern School of Business) could all be enjoying more lucrative careers in the private sector. For a striving public servant, though, leading a struggling city has upside: Expectations are low, so even small successes can be promoted as triumphs of leadership. Booker is running—and raising large sums from corporate donors around the country—as a reformer who controlled Newark’s crime and brought jobs to the city. This despite government data that show Newark’s murder rate is rising—there were 96 homicides in 2012—and unemployment is at 13.7 percent.
Fulop, who says politics wasn’t his early ambition, quickly got the hang of it. After college he landed a job as a trader at Goldman. He bought a home in Jersey City because the company was building a new office tower on the city’s waterfront, a part of town that’s thrived for 20 years as Wall Street firms have moved some of their operations there and developers built condominiums with Manhattan views. After Sept. 11 he left Wall Street to join the Marines. He says when he returned from Iraq a decorated veteran, Jersey City’s late Mayor Glenn Cunningham urged him to challenge Robert Menendez—then a New Jersey congressman and now a senator—in the Democratic primary. (Cunningham and Menendez didn’t get along.) The older politician told Fulop he couldn’t beat Menendez, but it would get him attention and set him up for a later run. “He said the rules are generally that you lose before you win,” Fulop recalls.
Fulop didn’t want to be Cunningham’s sacrificial lamb. “I was trying to get my career going back at Goldman. I was trying to repair my relationship with my girlfriend.” He ran anyway and lost, as expected. Fulop next set his sights lower, winning a seat on the city council in Jersey City, where he built his own organization to challenge its Democratic machine—backing reform candidates for the council and the school board. When Fulop launched his campaign for mayor, he vowed to clean up crime and corruption.
Soon after taking office on July 1, Fulop undertook what he describes as a “desk audit” to root out suspicious jobs on the city payroll. “We’re saying, ‘OK, what do you do?’ ” he says. “ ‘What is your job?’ ” When violent crime spiked in July he sent police into the city’s most dangerous areas to confiscate weapons and make dozens of arrests. Despite its problems, Jersey City has a solid business base and strong neighborhoods, making it much better off than Newark and Baltimore. Fulop wants to market the city, with its proximity to Manhattan, as a more affordable Brooklyn, offering tax breaks to small businesses and tech companies whose fashionable young employees will lure restaurants and clubs to the city. “We have a really strong arts community here and we don’t do anything to leverage it,” Fulop complains. “We’ve done nothing to attract that creative class, the hipsters, the entrepreneurs.”
Many new mayors enter office with grand designs only to get slapped back by entrenched interests. Booker has had difficulty achieving some of his most important goals, notably school reform, because of resistance from city leaders allied with former Mayor Sharpe James, his longtime political nemesis who was convicted in 2008 of illegally arranging the sale of city-owned real estate to his mistress. “The old guard in Newark is very much organized against him,” says Jonathan Wharton, a political scientist at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Fulop may have an easier time. He’s seeded the government with allies, helping to elect seven of the nine city council members and eight of the nine members of the board of education—a sophisticated bit of gamesmanship for a guy who professes to be an accidental politician.
Like any smart up-and-comer, Fulop insists he’s not given any consideration to higher office. “Look, I’m just thinking about this for the next four and eight years,” he says. “This job, it’s a big job.” His friends are less modest about his trajectory. “He’s someone people need to seriously keep their eye on as a candidate for governor,” says Vin Gopal, chairman of the Monmouth County Democrats. “I know he’s been mayor for a week or two, but people are chattering that this is someone who has a great future in four years, eight years, 12 years.”