Between the lines

Power struggle in Jersey City

A number of people are comparing Sudhan Thomas to Jesse James, although he might be seen more like Wyatt Earp, a gunslinger wearing a silver star hired by the Fulop Administration to help clean the town of political enemies – real or imagined.

In a little more than a week, Thomas has managed to help get rid of Jersey City Schools Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles and former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who until Jan. 7 served as executive director of the Jersey City Employment and Training Program (JCETP).

McGreevey was escorted out of the JCETP headquarters that he helped construct without explanation as to why he was being fired.

But the handwriting was on the wall, since last spring when Mayor Steven Fulop began replacing members of the JCETP board loyal to McGreevey with political operatives connected to the mayor’s political organization.

While there are no innocents in politics, McGreevey’s bushwhacking clearly showed miscalculation by the Fulop political machine. His administration has been haunted by blunders since he became mayor in 2013, and continues to be, despite his overwhelming reelection victory in 2017.

In 2013, Fulop was seen as a rising star in the Hudson County political establishment. His inauguration saw a who’s who of the most powerful leaders in the county and state including state senators, and sitting U.S. Senators, and even an opposing politico, GOP Gov. Christopher Christie.

Insiders claim Fulop at the time was contemplating endorsing Christie’s reelection but drew back his endorsement on the advice of McGreevey, who told him it would be political suicide for the Democratic mayor of the second largest city in the state to support a Republican candidate for governor.

This was sage advice, but came too late, since Christie expected the endorsement. The lack of it started a feud between Christie and Fulop and led to further mistakes.

Fulop agreed to testify against Christie in hearings concerning Christie’s penchant for political retaliation, popularly labeled Bridgegate. Close associates of Christie’s reelection campaign, who were later convicted on federal charges, ordered the closing of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 to create traffic problems in Fort Lee, because Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor declined to endorse the governor.

Fulop was expected to testify that Christie had withheld aid to Jersey City for similar reasons.

In 2016, Fulop was seeking to run for governor himself but faced a stiff primary challenge from Phil Murphy, who found a way to get the upper hand over the popular mayor.

That advantage emanated from a power struggle over control of the Jersey City Police Department. Fulop demoted then Police Chief Robert Cowan who subsequently resigned from the department. Cowan had been a key player in the Fulop election, but more important he kept a record of orders he was given to perform certain duties.

According to insiders, Cowan had an audio tape of Fulop’s then chief of staff, Muhammed Akil, allegedly ordering Cowan to shut down lanes near the Holland Tunnel in retaliation against the Port Authority and Christie.

On the eve of Fulop’s potential testimony regarding Bridgegate, Cowan allegedly took his tape to Murphy.

The Murphy campaign then put together a series of advertisements they intended to run exposing the Holland Tunnel caper, and informed Fulop – telling him to withdraw from the campaign for governor or else they would run them simultaneously with his testimony on Bridgegate.

In a moment that rivals almost anything Shakespeare could have concocted, Fulop found himself facing a tough choice, and largely alone. Although later blasted by his allies in Hudson County for not warning them, Fulop talked to only two of his closest associates about his plan to withdraw – one of these was McGreevey.

Versions of what happened next vary. Some say McGreevey left his meeting with Fulop and drove south to Murphy’s campaign headquarters to broker a personal deal with Murphy (McGreevey if nothing else is a political survivor), but others say he went to help smooth the way for Fulop to withdraw gracefully.

Fulop apparently saw the move as a political betrayal, and ceased speaking with McGreevey in 2016, but allowed McGreevey to serve as the director of JCETP.

Earlier this year, however, McGreevey fired Eugene McKnight – one of the most important of Fulop’s political operatives.

McKnight worked for the city in the 1980s and was convicted of stealing from programs designed to help the poor, serving jail time. McGreevey, who also runs programs for prisoner reentry, hired him at the JCETP in 2013.

But in March, McGreevey found that McKnight had formed a political club that allegedly charged those who got job placement through the JCETP $40 a week to join, a matter that is currently being investigated by the FBI, McGreevey said.

Since McKnight’s firing, Fulop began replacing JCETP board members with the ultimate aim – McGreevey believes – of removing him from his position as political retribution for firing McKnight.

The McGreevey removal, however, may well shine a floodlight on the shadowy behind-the-scenes political world in which the Fulop reelection operation works. Many of the key people who helped get Fulop reelected in 2013 claim Fulop has resorted to hired guns and tough political operatives like Sudhan Thomas, as the more legitimate supporters in his past quit or were excommunicated — former supporters such as Jim McGreevey.

To comment on this story on-line, go to our website, www.hudsonreporter.com. Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com

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