By John Celock
Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop’s decision Wednesday to end his three year long quest for the New Jersey governorship will likely have little impact on the 39-year-old’s political career long term.
Fulop has spent the better part of the three years he’s been in City Hall pursuing the 2017 Democratic nomination for governor, a quest that has led him across the state and in to backrooms in an attempt to secure the backing of county leaders in the party. Fulop’s decision to not formalize his race and instead run for a second term next year does deliver him a temporary set back but does not impact him in the long term.
Fulop has a good shot of winning a second term as mayor of the state’s second largest (and likely soon to be largest city) and a platform to not only pursue his own initiatives but to be a leader within the Democratic Party. With mayors taking the lead in many initiatives around the country and experimenting with policies in their cities, Fulop has a platform to try out policies in many areas from economic development to housing to transportation to crime. Governing a city with a large base in the financial services sector and just across the river from Manhattan, Fulop’s platform is magnified more than many mayors.
Leading one of the state’s major cities – one that has seen continued growth since the 1990s – Fulop is automatically a statewide leader in urban affairs. Continuing to hold this platform will continue to position him for a future statewide run.
Yes, Fulop has had some missteps including criticism that he has been more focused on a gubernatorial race than City Hall, questions relating to work he did for a private client and traffic issues related to the Port Authority. Those could prove headaches in the future and should not be completely dismissed but Fulop still has a good platform. In addition, more time in City Hall would give Fulop a longer record that can be dissected by opponents and a misstep in City Hall could cost him reelection and a statewide campaign.
Fulop burst on to the New Jersey political scene in 2004 with a quixotic run for Congress in the Democratic primary, before becoming a reform minded city councilman on Jersey City’s waterfront. A Marine veteran in Iraq, Fulop also worked in the banking industry, a resume that will attract attention around the state and outside the state. He has also been a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and 2016 and is one of the few mayors to win office against the endorsed candidate of President Barack Obama.
Other young elected officials around the country have bounced back from defeats or taking passes on races. Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), another veteran who is the same age as Fulop, lost a very competitive U.S. Senate race in 2012 and came back two years later to win a second term as state treasurer, in a race where Democrats were looking to oust him. Mandel has embraced transparency issues – a weak spot in his 2012 race – and is positioning himself to run for the Senate again in 2018, when he’ll be term limited out of the treasurer’s office.
Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) had been an assistant federal health secretary, state health secretary and president of the University of Louisiana prior to his 2003 race for governor at the age of 32. Unsuccessful in that race, Jindal bounced back in 2004 to win a seat in Congress and was elected governor in 2007, serving eight years prior to his brief presidential run last year.
Former U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) had a meteoric rise in Mountain State politics, going from the state Legislature to secretary of state to 1972 Democratic gubernatorial nominee at the age of 35 in six years. Rockefeller was unsuccessful in his first bid for governor but came back in 1976 to win the first of two terms in the governor’s mansion and then a Senate seat in 1984.
Fulop did not actually lose a race for governor but rather pull a plug on a long planned campaign. In New Jersey it is almost tradition for a statewide candidate to run and lose to run and win. Former Govs. Jim McGreevey, Christine Todd Whitman, Jim Florio and Tom Kean also had unsuccessful statewide runs before becoming governor.
Fulop is well positioned to run for governor in four to eight years or for the U.S. Senate should Sens. Bob Menendez or Cory Booker not run again. Congress could be an option but it is likely that state Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D) will one day succeed U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D), who represents most of Jersey City. Wednesday’s announcement may have side tracked Fulop’s rise but it hasn’t blocked it.