Five minutes into my interview with Steve Fulop, he gets a call on his cell phone. “Yes, senator,” he says, and disappears from the conference room into his office. A few minutes later, his press secretary appears to tell me he has to handle something “time sensitive” and he won’t be able to finish the interview today.
Was it something I said?
“This never happens,” she assures me.
She’s right. Fulop has been obsessed with scheduling and punctuality since he joined the Marine Corps in 2002, and nowadays, he rigorously blocks out his time from 5 a.m. until 11:30 at night. He has had to schedule himself even more carefully these days, as everyone wants a piece of him. In January, he was thrust into the national spotlight when he spoke out about Gov. Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal, giving quotes to media outlets about his own experiences with Christie’s suspected political retribution. But the young mayor had been in demand well before that. Over the last 50 years, since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, people have pined for a political hero—someone untainted—especially in this modern media age where everything is held up to scrutiny, and especially in storied Hudson County. In fact, in the last five years, other young, seemingly untarnished mayors have faltered shortly upon taking office: In nearby West New York, Mayor Felix Roque, a doctor and Army colonel, beat a machine candidate to assume the town’s top spot in 2011, only to get arrested on federal hacking charges 12 months and two weeks later (he was acquitted after a trial, but his son was not). In neighboring Hoboken in 2009, residents elected a clean-cut, handsome young lawyer from Passaic County, Peter Cammarano III, who was arrested a record-setting three weeks after taking office for accepting cash bribes during the campaign.
Into this maelstrom jogged a wiry Steve Fulop, only 37 years old and perhaps genuinely unsullied by New Jersey’s particular brand of soot. During his eight years on the Jersey City council, he fought for good-government measures like restrictions on politicians holding multiple government jobs. He also boasted a solid background in finance after a stint at Goldman Sachs. He won the mayoralty last May via a grassroots effort that trampled the local political machine. All those qualifications might be enough to make him a long-awaited political hero, but on top of that, there were super-heroics: He had joined the Marine Corps at age 24 after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, spending six months in Iraq. His political ads for mayor last year showed him swimming across the Hudson River. He goes for a jog every morning at sunup. He may just be the perfect candidate for higher office. Everyone wants to be a part of his rise.
But while many hope Fulop will be governor one day, and he’s been profiled in media outlets from the New York Observer to the Wall Street Journal, few have delved into the non-political quirks that may emerge on the statewide stage. A Baby Boomer’s baby caught between generations X and Y, he frequently uses Facebook and Twitter and makes jokes at his own expense. He has his office staff wearing plastic bracelets that record details about how physically active they’ve been all day. He hopes to start a family in the next few years, and he makes time to “binge watch” the TV show House of Cards.
So what really makes Steve Fulop run?
It took a week and a half for me to meet with him again after he disappeared into his office that afternoon. Just two days after our interrupted interview, Gov. Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal broke, and Fulop told the press Christie’s administration had canceled a slew of meetings with him after Fulop failed to endorse him. Once the media onslaught died down, Fulop was able to sit down and talk briefly about the scandal, but also about himself, his personal life, and of course, his political future.
Fulop came out of his office looking boyish, with a bit of an Alfred E. Newman “aw, shucks” attitude to match. He punctuated his sentences with “like” and “right?,” made jokes implying that he wasn’t hip in any way, and appeared to have a sense of humor about his job. He was wearing a suit and tie, and on his right wrist, the aforementioned plastic bracelet that records how active he is and sends the details to his cell phone.
Since he was deployed in the Marines, he’s been making the most of every moment, a quality he learned overseas. The focus on physical fitness is part of that—something he says was not a priority before he enlisted.
“We can all see each other,” he says, referring to the fact that most of his office staff sports the bracelets. “Right? Like, for Darlene, the receptionist, so she has one, she’s fairly active. Tony’s out there, he’s fairly active. When someone overtakes someone else, it buzzes. So it motivates them. It has biometrics, your heart rate. We have a lot of fun with it.”
If fitness was not a priority early on, neither was politics. Fulop was born in the middle- class suburb of Edison, N.J., in 1977, to parents who emigrated from Romania and Israel. His mother’s parents died in Auschwitz. His parents once owned a deli in Newark and still own Foto-Loft, an immigration services company not far from Newark City Hall. Fulop graduated from J.P. Stevens High School in Edison in 1995 and got his BA at Binghamton University in 1999. He went to work for Goldman Sachs in Chicago, then moved to Jersey City to work for Goldman in Manhattan and to be closer to his family in New Jersey. He knew nothing of Jersey City’s politics, or its growing arts scene. He just knew that Goldman was erecting a rather tall building there. At that point, Fulop had never registered to vote.
While working on the trading floor at 1 New York Plaza in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, the southernmost of all of the borough’s skyscrapers, he felt the ground shake.
The terrorist attacks inspired him to join the Marines, even though he couldn’t even list all the branches of the military. He was 24 years old.
“I knew the Marines were the first ones in; I knew their reputation,” he says. “I tried to figure out what the reserve commitment was, how to navigate it.”
His parents were “terrified and upset,” he says. “I was a first-generation American, and I was working for Goldman. They were Holocaust survivors. This is the land of opportunity and the American Dream, and giving their kids a better life than they had, and here I am throwing it all away. They saw it as an unnecessary risk.”
But, he says, “The Marine Corps gave me a lot. Some say it’s a risk and a sacrifice. I got more out of them than they got out of me.”
He met people from varied backgrounds, learned to show up on time, and learned to eat quickly so as not to waste valuable moments. He still eats quickly. “They drill it into your head, the punctuality, being places early, how you talk to people, how you eat, how you sleep,” he says. “Punctuality is basic respect, and so is how you address others: ‘No ma’am, yes ma’am, no sir.’”
The Marines turned his thought process upside down. “It changes your perspective on what’s important here,” he said, tapping the desk with two fingers to indicate home. “I took meticulous notes, who was emailing me, who was in contact. We got the mail once a week. One person got a sonogram of a baby. “
Now, he puts a premium on punctuality. When our photographers tried to meet him for his workout at 5 a.m. last November, he walked into the gym, didn’t see them, and left within five minutes. It took a week to reschedule.
In 2004, after Fulop returned from the Marine Corps, he used every minute for something productive: He simultaneously enrolled in full-time Master’s programs at Columbia and New York University, while still active with the Marines. “I was back at Goldman, and I was on reserve duty on weekends,” he says. “A normal, sane person would manage only one of them.”
It was around that time that the city of Jersey City issued proclamations to military members who were returning from duty. Then-Mayor Glenn Cunningham (now deceased), a Marine himself, noticed that Fulop had left Goldman to join up, and he was impressed. He asked Fulop to run against popular Rep. Bob Menendez in the 2004 Democratic primary for House of Representatives.
In the war that is New Jersey politics, the effort was a suicide mission, but Fulop was now aware he could serve the public in a new way. He got elected to Jersey City’s City Council and became active, representing the downtown area, which includes the waterfront, the financial district, and luxury high rises. He was 27. Last May, at 36, he beat incumbent mayor Jerramiah Healy to win the top spot in the state’s second-largest city.
Rising at dawn and staying up until 11:30 p.m., he’s got enough issues to fill the time—development, crime, the arts, a mediocre school district, and all those out-of-town politicians and journalists who want to interview him and speculate about where he’ll go next. But what serves as inspiration during those 18-hour days?
When my questions shifted from political history to how the mayor unwinds, I offered up a “Teen Beat” question, asking about his favorite music. Fulop looked sheepish, as many of us might—no one wants to be categorized based on that favorite Blue Oyster Cult tune. The mayor thought of a way to answer, looking at his cell phone. “Here’s my top 25 played,” he says. “Some electronic music like Avicii. Adele is on there. Calvin Harris. Some pop music. I downloaded a Miley Cyrus song. I don’t know why.”
No need to apologize, but we had to have specifics. “It’s this ‘Wrecking Ball’ song,” he says. “Cold Play, Jay Z, Eminem, Bush, another Eminem, Jay Z again, something from Les Mis.”
I asked what kind of other quirky things he may be into that most people don’t know about.
“I don’t think it’s quirky if I’ve experienced it,” he joked. He often pokes fun at himself. During an early January snowstorm that closed schools and shut down roads statewide, he posted on Facebook: “First I am such a wimp I had Robert stop at Dunkin Donuts for a coffee for the road. Secondly we are now getting our salt spreader refilled at the JCIA complex. They treat the salt with a new chemical so it is more effective as the temp drops. I am sharing this so everyone can share the work, manpower, and organizing we put into this.”
While working those long days, he rarely has time for TV, but he does make a priority of catching HBO on Sunday nights. “I binge-watch House of Cards,” he says, noting the political drama strikes a chord. He tried out Orange is the New Black but didn’t quite get into it. As for sports, he has always been a Devils fan, but doesn’t have as much time to worship now, and he roots for the Giants. (Quarterback Eli Manning lives just next door in Hoboken.)
Then there is that other question that inevitably dogs unmarried politicians when they cross into their mid-thirties. To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good political career must be in want of a wife. Fulop turned 37 in February, but has rarely spoken publicly of a love interest. I asked if he wants someday to marry and have children.
“I do,” he says. “I date. It’s hard to find somebody who wants to be part of this political life. The first time you have dinner at Puccini’s, it’s interesting to someone. The 40th time, it’s not as much fun. I’m constantly at events. It’s hard to find people willing to be a part of that. The short answer is, yes, it’s a priority in the next year.”
Is he so rigorously scheduled that he has penciled in a relationship for 2014?
“I don’t schedule it, but I think about it,” he says. “Most of my friends are on their second and third kid. It’s something I think about, I’m conscious about.”
Because of his longtime single status, rumors have flown on a local website about his sexual orientation, as they do about any political bachelor on the rise. His ally, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, 44 and unmarried, famously addressed his own sexual orientation in a Washington Post profile last summer. Booker said, in effect, that he is straight. On one Jersey City Internet bulletin board, a woman wrote of Fulop in 2007: “Gay? Straight? It doesn’t matter to me, although I would be a little disappointed, I was trying to snag a date with him. If he sticks to the topics of the ward and not to stoop to this [mud-slinging] level, it will already make him the better man.”
So how would Fulop respond if he ran for higher office and people asked about his sexual orientation?
“People are going to say what they want to say,” he says. “I don’t think it really matters one way or the other. It is what it is. I have plenty of gay friends and plenty of straight friends. It’s a mindset from 40 years ago.”
Among those associates is perhaps one of the most famous “gay Americans,” former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who was tapped by Fulop last year to run the city’s jobs commission.
If the media pressed him to clarify his sexual orientation, would he? “I never really thought about it,” he says, with only the slightest hint of pique.
So what are the chances of Fulop running for higher office, particularly if the governorship were to open up before his term as mayor ended? Would he step up to the plate?
“I don’t think so,” he says. “People talk about it. It’s very flattering. My job today is Jersey City. I’d be perfectly happy continuing. This is a big job.”
I ask if there are any skeletons in his closet, things no one knows that might scuttle a promising career and disappoint those who thought they’d finally found their political hero.
“I got into this business not motivated by money,” he says. “I would have stayed at Goldman. I have people under me. It’s always hard to control and know what everyone is doing. Sometimes people do stupid things. We try to put controls around that. We put the city before our personal agendas.”
He cites the huge number of volunteers who worked on his race, and all the idealistic believers who submitted resumes after he won office.
With a clean slate like that, there is always the possibility he could become the first Jewish president. “I’ve never thought about it and I don’t think so,” he says, smiling. “That dovetails with the personal life and family life. There are time constraints; people change. At some point I may want to go back to the private sector.”
That said, he wants to give the people around him the same opportunity to rise in politics that he has had. “I really, really try to get young people involved,” he stresses, pointing to his own political innocence when Cunningham found him. “It’s meaningful work to do. You never know where it will go.”
About 35 minutes into the interview, an aide appears waving a fluorescent Post-It note, which he hands to the mayor to read. “Are we going?” Fulop asks. It's clear that our time has come to an end.
Steve Fulop has myriad issues to tackle in Jersey City, some very grave. Last September, three hardboiled youths from his city, ages 13 and 14, were arrested after they took the train to Hoboken and allegedly killed a homeless man simply for sport. Even 18 hours a day may not be enough time to get to everything, particularly if he wants to leave room for House of Cards, pop songs, and long walks on the waterfront. But perhaps there’s a Stevie Wonder who can set a new standard for us to follow. Only time will tell.—JCM