The Fulop Q&A: On his business record in Jersey City, taxes, policy papers — and being truer to his vision this time around

8 months after jumping into gubernatorial race early, Jersey City mayor offer thoughts on how campaign is going (he’s pleased)

Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop isn’t afraid to balance the extremes in his bid for the Democratic nomination for governor — that’s why he is both pro-business and in favor of reinstating the 2.5% surcharge on the Corporate Business Tax, ideas many would feel directly oppose each other.

Fulop, however, is convinced he knows how to grow an economy. He feels he has proof of concept in all his ideas, going to his record as mayor of Jersey City, which has grown tremendously since he took office 10 years ago, promising numerous changes — everything from phasing out tax abatements to the direction of certain streets.

“People said they thought that we were going to move the city backward,” he said. “I said at the time, ‘Listen, we’re going to make changes; you may not like all of them, but, at the end of the day, you and the city will do better because of it.’ And it worked out that way.”

Fulop is promising the same bold thinking as governor. It’s why he already has had a series of events where he has laid out positions on transportation, housing and public safety since announcing his candidacy back in April. More are coming.

Fulop feels he already is having impact, pointing to the fact that his call to restore the CBT to pay for New Jersey Transit got traction after his announcement — and that his ideas on housing came out before bills similar to his thoughts recently were offered.

Fulop said his policies as governor will be bold and at the forefront of policy nationally — and that they won’t follow conventional wisdom.

“They are not going to be poll-tested; they are not going to be what’s politically easy,” he said “We’re going to lean into policies that we believe in. It’s the same way we operate in Jersey City.”

Fulop, who briefly ran for the gubernatorial nomination in 2015-16 before abruptly bowing out as then-little-known Phil Murphy cleared the field, said this campaign will operate differently this time.

That change starts here: The always outspoken Fulop said he’ll be even more transparent.

“The commitment that I made to myself when I declared was that I’m going to run a campaign that I’m proud of, a campaign that I will be able to look back on and know that I did everything the way I wanted to do it — that it felt like it was my voice, that it felt like it was sincere and true to who I am and what I believe,” he said.

“I feel my mistake in 2015 and 2016 was that I allowed myself to be steered in the direction of what others thought is the political process to being successful — whether it’s the county organization or not engaging in certain issues. It was a mistake. I knew at the time that it didn’t feel right — and I made a commitment that I’m not going to do that again.

“So, the first eight months this time, it’s been true to who I am.”

Fulop recently spent time with ROI-NJ. Here’s more from the conversation, edited for clarity and readability.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with your economic development efforts as mayor. You’ve had solid success in the city and, as you said, it came while phasing out tax abatements. Give us a big-picture look of your vision?

Steve Fulop: I believe that there’s a wholesale restructuring of how New Jersey approaches taxes in order to incentivize new business development and growth. I think part of it is how people feel. How they view the progress of government impacts a lot of people’s willingness to invest.

I think one success story in Jersey City is how we changed how people feel about the city and, in turn, how they’re willing to spend their money here. One thing led to another — and we were able to grow the economy.

I think there’s a lot of lessons here that can be replicated statewide. I think that Jersey City is very similar in many ways to the rest of the state. It speaks to diversity, it speaks to lots of different types of housing and lots of different types of interests.

So, when it comes to who is going to have the most experience on the economic development front, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find somebody that has more tangible experience than I do.

ROI: Let’s go to the position papers you’ve been pushing out. Many candidates in an election do not express their views with as many specifics as you have so far from election day — whether it’s using a CBT surcharge to pay for NJ Transit, doubling the affordable housing stock, reforming the public defender system or raising the minimum age for firearm purchases. These positions can be picked apart. Why be so open?

SF: I have views and opinions. The policy papers that we’re putting out are coming from somebody who has experience with these sorts of things, which I think is different than some of the other (potential) candidates.

When you talk about law enforcement and public safety — only a mayor would have the experience that I have had working directly with law enforcement. Somebody on the legislative side would be more abstract and not have the engagement with day-to-day changes on what works and what doesn’t work.

So, when I tell you, ‘Here’s the successes we’ve had and what we could replicate, here are the things I’ve learned from — my failures and the things that we could do better,’ it’s coming from a place of experience and it’s coming from my voice.

ROI: Your voice can be funny, too. Especially on social media, where you have been active for years. (He recently suggested to his nearly 47,000 followers that his son, just 5, may run for Senate, in a backhanded way to discuss family dynasties in New Jersey politics.) How is social media a part of your persona — and part of your campaign?

SF: I think some social media is a good platform to poke fun at people. You can throw a couple of jabs and have some fun. At the same time, I do feel like I’m moving the campaign forward by articulating the things that are really important. All joking aside, I think I’m getting at the substance of the campaign. I think I’m speaking to the base of the party.

Many of the things that we’re trying to amplify are things that I frankly think New Jersey should have done already and that I’m leaning into, even if it’s a little bit politically risky. I’m saying: ‘I believe this. If you elect me, I will do it.’

I’m putting my name to it right now and saying that this is where we’re headed. We’ll see what happens. It could be a foolish mistake. And that’s why people don’t put this much policy out there or engage in unscripted sort of back and forth in social media. But, we’ll see, we’ll talk in a year and a half and see if these were the right or wrong policy decisions.

ROI: Speaking of a timeline, you got out early in this race, announcing your candidacy in April, 31 months before the election. Was that the right move?

SF: I think that the first eight months since we announced have gone better than I could have imagined. If you had told me in April that this is where we would be in December, I would have taken it every day of the week.

Whether it’s public support from fellow mayors or labor leaders, whether it’s dollars raised, whether it’s policy initiatives, I think we’ve been punching above our weight in all of those.

(Editor’s note: Fulop has endorsements from more than two dozen mayors and labor leaders and he has raised more than $3 million in the first two quarters after announcing his candidacy, already qualifying him for the full matching funds distribution for the primary election.)

ROI: Last question: You’re starting to get some competition. Former state Senate President Steve Sweeney, who also briefly ran in 2015-16, has joined the race. Many think Newark Mayor Ras Baraka will announce in 2024. Others think U.S. Reps. Josh Gottheimer and Mikie Sherrill will announce — after their elections in November. How will that change how you campaign?

SF: It’s nice to have Sweeney in there. It will create a different phase of the campaign. And I’m looking forward to that.

To be able to have the platform to ourselves to talk about New Jersey’s future for the first eight months was a great asset that I didn’t anticipate, but I’m thankful for. It was an opportunity for me to really dominate the landscape because nobody else was there. And, so, politically, governmentally and policy-wise, I thought it was a mistake from some of the others that they didn’t engage earlier.