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New York Times: The Young Lion - Steven Fulop, Who Served in Iraq, Is a New and Unexpected Force in Jersey City Politics

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Posted by GET NJ on July 04, 2005 at 17:27:06:

More About Steve Fulop – Jersey City Ward E Councilman

The Young Lion
Steven Fulop, Who Served in Iraq, Is a New and Unexpected Force in Jersey City Politics

By JOSH BENSON

New York Times
New Jersey Section
July 3, 2005

Steve Fulop, a newly-elected Jersey City councilman, quit his job at Goldman Sachs after Sept. 11 to join the Marines.

JERSEY CITY
STEVEN FULOP says that his mother cried a lot when, after Sept. 11, he quit his job as an analyst at Goldman Sachs to enlist in the Marines. But the worst, he recalled, was when he showed up unexpected at his parents' modest vacation home in the Poconos.

"She knew why I was there," he said. "It meant that I was getting sent to Iraq."

If that moment was the worst, then the best may have come on election night last month, when Mr. Fulop, 28, celebrated the completion of a very different sort of mission, standing with family, friends and several dozen volunteers in a shabby storefront on Christopher Columbus Drive here as a stream of returns showed him to be the upset winner of a council election in Jersey City's gritty Ward E.

"It was amazing," Mr. Fulop said. "When we saw the numbers, everyone just went nuts."

Mr. Fulop wasn't the only one shocked by an achievement as unusual as it was unlikely.

Aside from his exceptional narrative, Mr. Fulop is separated from his colleagues by his appearance - despite his combat hardening, he seems almost bookish - the fact that he is Jewish and his youth. Upon his swearing in on July 1, in fact, Mr. Fulop will be the youngest member of the nine-person council by more than 15 years.

But those are all minor details compared with the single biggest difference between Mr. Fulop and just about every other elected official in Jersey City, if not Hudson County: he won his election with virtually no establishment support, beating an incumbent with the backing of the powerful congressman Robert Menendez, Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy and the powerful Hudson County Democratic organization.

For Mr. Fulop, a studious overachiever who had to end an interview in his nearly-empty campaign office to go take one of his final exams in an M.B.A. program at New York University, this is a great point of pride. "I think we ran a campaign that was very different in a lot of ways," he said. "People were telling me I didn't have a chance running like this. But it was the right way."

In person, Mr. Fulop smiles a lot, apologizes frequently and hardly projects the sort of driving ambition that is a sure prerequisite for the sort of résumé he has compiled at such a young age.

The second of three sons born to Israeli immigrant owners of a delicatessen in Newark, Mr. Fulop grew up in Edison. Six years ago, after graduating college from the State University of New York at Binghamton - with a semester abroad at Oxford - Mr. Fulop moved to Jersey City and started working at Goldman Sachs. He was on what he described as "a great trajectory" on the trading desk at Goldman when he saw the planes hit the towers and, several days later, enlisted in the Marines.

"Everyone at Goldman was asking me if I was completely crazy," he said. "But they've been really supportive."

Within months of joining, after boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., and specia1ist engineer training, his unit was deployed with the 6th Engineer Support Battalion in the first wave of ground troops that led the way to Baghdad. "It was not fun," he said.

Some time after he returned to Jersey City in late 2003, Mr. Fulop was picked out of a proclamation ceremony honoring him and other troops by Mayor Glenn Cunningham, a fellow Marine who was intrigued by Mr. Fulop's story.

"He was really into being a Marine," Mr. Fulop said. "I think he really enjoyed asking me all these questions about how it was."

As it turned out, Mr. Cunningham, the city's first African-American mayor and a wily veteran of Jersey City politics, had more than nostalgia on his mind. "He called me afterward, and asked me if I could meet with him," Mr. Fulop said. "I was working with a neighborhood group at the time on some local issues, and I assumed he wanted to talk about that. But he told me he had something bigger to discuss."

Sure enough, Mr. Cunningham persuaded Mr. Fulop, who lives in the Paulus Hook section of the city, to plunge into Jersey City's bare-fisted, ethnically fraught politics to run in a congressional race last year against Mr. Menendez, a powerful figure in both Washington and Hudson County who was a bitter political rival of the mayor's.

Mr. Fulop lost that race, and suffered an even more serious setback in the process . when Mr. Cunningham suddenly died of a heart attack in the run-up to the election. (He had been campaigning by bicycle with his fellow Marine and protégé earlier in the day.) At once, Mr. Fulop had lost his greatest political mentor, patron and protector.

Just weeks ago, he plunged back into campaigning, this time for a Cunningham ally who was running against Mr. Healy, among others, in the mayor's race. It was during that contest that Mr. Fulop became acquainted with a couple of veteran Hudson County operatives who pledged to help him to run for council this year in a traditionally Hispanic-dominated council ward against a four-year incumbent, Junior Maldonado.

The rest is history. Mr. Fulop won the council race by going door to door with a platform of hiring more police officers, improving parking and managing the city's rapid development - and with support from the widow of the popular mayor. In the process, he racked up lopsided margins among the city's black voters in the projects and affluent young white residents by the water, negating Mr. Maldonado's presumed advantage among Latinos.

The campaign featured a number of tactical innovations. One was an interesting decision not to distribute campaign signs to supporters, Mr. Fulop said, to avoid making them targets of sudden curiosity by city inspectors. Another was the campaign's way of making up for a staffing disadvantage against the party-backed candidate by re-cruiting workers from a nearby homeless shelter, St. Lucy's. (One of the workers has since moved out and taken a job on Mr. Fulop's staff.)

But if Mr. Fulop has managed to make it look easy reaching this point, the real test is to come. Party insiders privately say that Mr. Fulop's new colleagues in Jersey City politics will be watching closely to see just how cooperative he is, or how far he will go to make a name for himself.

In a phone interview, Mr. Healy only sounded conciliatory toward the man who had worked against him in the mayor's race and then defeated his preferred candidate in the council race. "I met him several times, before the election and after the election," he said. "And now he's the people's choice. I look forward to working with him, and I think he feels the same way."

Asked what he thought about the leadership of President Bush, Mr. Fulop smiled broadly, but after an interesting moment of self-debate - and with the help of some dramatic, across-the-throat "cut" signs by a couple of campaign aides sitting in on the conversation - he restrained himself. "I have to be careful there," he said. "That's still my commander in chief."

Asked more broadly about his plans, Mr. Fulop wasn't sure. "I haven't even been sworn in yet," said the councilman-elect, with a convincing air of apology. "I honestly can't think that far ahead."

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