The interview: Steve Fulop is one of the state’s big names and big personalities. And he’s got plenty to say

By Tom Bergeron
Jersey City | Jun 18, 2018 at 7:05 am
From our print edition

Perhaps it’s the peace of mind that comes with a second term — especially one in which you were elected by an overwhelming amount.

Or, maybe, it’s the confidence that comes from leading a city that is one of the state’s — and the country’s — biggest success stories.

Then again, maybe it’s just Steve Fulop: Always eager to express his views and opinions. And while he’s not always looking for a fight, he never runs from one.

Whatever it is, political observers have noticed a renewed energy in the 41-year-old mayor of Jersey City.

A mayor that seemingly has gotten over his failed attempt at being governor 20 months ago — and his failed attempt to make his candidate the next Hudson County Democratic chair just last week.

ROI-NJ spoke with Fulop on a number of topics over the past few weeks. Here’s a look at some of the conversation:

On his candidate for county Democratic Party chair, Union City Mayor Brian Stack, losing to Amy DeGise:

“I think, politically, I’m a realist. You win some and you lose some. You move on … I think it’s a missed opportunity for the county, but it is what it is.”

On whether losing the party chair — and going against some party leaders — will impact his ability to govern:

“It doesn’t (impact) the situation here. We won in November with 78 percent, with record turnout. … I never got elected with the help of these people. We were always against them. For me, it makes no difference.

“The city is doing great. That’s what’s important. I’m going to continue to work here and do a great job. Would I have preferred for the county political turnout to see Brian be successful? Yeah, I think it would have been the best thing, that’s why I was there supporting him. It is what it is.”

On being called “another political a-hole” by Jersey City developer Charles Kushner:

“He’s entitled to his opinion. Get in line. A lot of people feel that way, what can I tell you? The stuff kind of brushes off me. It doesn’t faze me anymore. He’s got an agenda. He’s trying to move his redevelopment plan forward, and it’s lagging. It’s been stagnant for five years. That’s where we are.”

On the economic growth of the city:

“The city is booming, and it’s going away from the waterfront for the first time in decades. This has been happening for a couple of years now. There’s still a lot of room to grow. I think the future is bright.”

On being progressive — and pro-business:

“A lot of the initiatives have to be funded in some sort of responsible way. So, when you think about paid sick leave and prevailing wage initiatives, when you think about transgender health care and environmental policies and Citi Bike, all of them are based on having resources to fund them and a thriving local economy, and that means that you can’t alienate businesses entirely, you have to find a way to work together. In Jersey City, we’ve tried to find that balance. Never perfect, but I think they work together and we’re a good demonstration to the rest of the country that those two things are not mutually exclusive.”

On the incentive programs that have helped him grow the city:

“We’ve started to curtail the abatement policy and move the local incentives away from the waterfront. I don’t think we’ve done a tax abatement in the city in the last nine months, which is probably the longest stretch in 20 years. … Some of those grants, truthfully, were really B.S. in the fact that they were just moving jobs from one municipality in New Jersey to another. A lot of that stuff I think you could just do away with. I think we’d still see most of those companies move.

“The grants I’m more concerned about (involve affordable housing). We were using some of the grants to subsidize some of the real estate on the 80-20 projects to get some more affordable housing in there. Those EDA grants have changed and made it more difficult for us to finance the affordable housing component, and that continues to be a challenge. If there is a way to see some of those grants still focused on the residential, that would be really helpful for us.”

On Bayfront, a transformative mixed-use proposal for the west side:

“That would be the most aggressive purchase that the city has every done. If we move ahead on that, it will be on the June 18 council agenda for an indicator on where the city wants to go. We are partners with Honeywell on this 100-acre site. There’s probably not another 100-acre site like that in this region. Our plan is to buy out Honeywell and be the sole owners, which would probably cost about $180 million. We can afford that because we’re government and our borrowing cost is lower — and we can carry it without the same market risks. That said, there is political risk and micro-risk.

“It is a big purchase, but it’s also a big opportunity for the city and the affordable housing front and the commercial front to make sure that you build something that really suits the next 100 years in the city. I’m hopeful that the council will support that. It’s a big vision, but it would have a big reward for residents.”

On why other urban areas haven’t been able to copy Jersey City:

“Let me start with the fact that I think leadership matters. Trenton has had a tough go of it. They had a one-term mayor that’s leaving, and they had a guy who went to jail right before that. Paterson has had a similar situation. I think you need some sort of stable leadership to start. There’s a big opportunity in Trenton (for new Mayor Reed Gusciora). And there’s a new mayor in Paterson. That’s kind of the starting point. Both of them have some pockets-of-crime issues. In order to attract business, they need to get that under control. We’ve made some progress here in Jersey City and have some more work to do, but trends are in a positive direction. There continues to be stigmas that plague Paterson and Trenton; I think they need to get past that. I think that, gradually, business will attract there. I think the first step is leadership.”

On his relationship with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka:

“I’ll talk to him about two times a week on a variety of things, whether it’s personal or government-related. This past week, we were going back and forth about the payroll tax; I’m trying to understand how it works in Newark. Jersey City had the opportunity in the late ’90s. They didn’t take it because (former Jersey City Mayor Bret) Schundler didn’t want to have anything with taxes whatsoever. He passed on it while (former Newark Mayor) Sharpe James pushed for it. It’s been really helpful to Newark, to the tune of $50 million. So, there’s consideration in Trenton to have that in Jersey City, to have that to help with our schools, the reduction of adjustment aid. I’m trying to understand what that looks like here, how it would work with the business community. You have different types of business communities between there and here. So, we’ve been going back and forth on that. So, it’s helpful. And it’s helpful both ways.”

On creating a pedestrian mall on Newark Avenue:

“We’re trying to make places for people to congregate. That has been a huge success, we’ve made it pedestrian-only, we’ve expanded it this year and we’re looking to expand it to other parts of the city. People love it. It has attracted people from all over the state to come to the city.”

On the need for more liquor licenses:

“I believe (the rules) need to be amended. You have municipalities where a liquor license costs a million dollars. In Jersey City, they are up to $400,000. It hinders small business. It should be like New York City, where you can buy a permit for a year and pay $10,000 and have beer and wine and it would be good for every municipality. We’re big supporters of that.

On celebrating Ramadan in the city:

“The reality is, we have a great Muslim community that’s part of the fabric of the broader community, and we do our best to highlight that in Ramadan by having more community dinners. We host one at city hall, where we have a couple hundred people in the community come. And it’s probably some people’s first experience to Ramadan and it’s been a huge success. I think one of the best things Jersey City has, is all these different communities. We try to highlight that as much as possible. People want to live in places that are interesting communities.”

On the future of Jersey City:

“I think the goal is just to convey the economic development. We have some big projects, from SciTech Scity, the (New Jersey City University) campus, Bayfront: There’s some big stuff going on. We’re off to a good start on the crime trend. Just continue to make the city a focal point where people want to live. I think we’re doing a good job, we’re growing astronomically and people are kind of expressing their approval for the direction of the city with their pocketbook by investing here.”

On being done in politics:

“I’d like to think I’m still a young guy. I was elected when I was 27 to the council and I did eight years on that and now we’re in five years on this. I just turned 41. And I’d like to think that I’ve got more time to be in this business and think about things I want to do and have an impact on the city. It’s interesting when people would count me out after the 2016 (pursuit of being governor). In the back of my head, I would think, ‘I’m 39 years old and the mayor of the soon-to-be biggest city in New Jersey, and I think we’re doing a decent job.’ And people are saying, ‘He’s finished.’ And I’m saying, ‘I don’t really see how that math works.’ So, we worked hard, and things in the last year have been good, but I still think we still have a lot more to do.”

On his future:

“I don’t know, to be honest with you. I’m focused on being here in the near term and the one thing I kind of realized in that whole flirting with the governor’s race is that you can plan all these things and it’s like that expression: Man plans and God laughs. You can’t predict things, especially in this business. You can’t tell how the landscape is going to shift in the next two, three, four years. For the time being, I’m here. I’ve made a commitment to a second term here and that’s what I’m going to do.”

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