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In a special Mayoralty election in November 1970, a 30-year-old physician who specialized in drug abuse treatment, Dr. Paul Jordan, running under the slogan “Kick the Kenny Habit,” defeated the scandal-ridden Hudson County Democratic political machine that had ruled for decades under bosses Frank Hague and J.V. Kenny The election came about when the incumbent Mayor Thomas J. Whelan was convicted of extortion and conspiracy.
Jordan easily won re-election to a full four-year term in 1973 and in 1977 decided to challenge incumbent Brendan Byrne for Governor, who was at the time seen as “one term Byrne.”
The Jordan campaign assumed that Jordan would get a 50,000 vote plurality out of Hudson County, which represented one-eight of the 400,000 voters expected to vote in the Democratic primary statewide. This strategy went up in smoke when Jordan’s hand-picked surrogate for Mayor of Jersey City, William Macchi, was soundly defeated in May of 1977 by City Clerk Thomas F. X. Smith, an anti-Jordan candidate, who quickly endorsed Ralph De Rose of Orange for Governor.
Prior to the Macchi implosion, the Jordan campaign had planned to launch a statewide television effort in extolling Jordan’s reform credentials and his being a physician. According to The New York Times, “Dr. Jordan’s decision to use television in the primary election was based on the recommendations of Pat Caddell, the pollster who worked for President Carter last year and conducted a statewide interview poll for the Jordan campaign early this year. One purpose of the poll was to plumb the depths of anti-Hudson County sentiments among voters in other parts of New Jersey. The county’s political image as the home base of corrupt politicians dating to Mayor, Frank Hague showed up in the poll, but Caddell said it could be over by giving Dr. Jordan television exposure.”
We will never know whether Jordan could have overcome the statewide negative voter perception of the corrupt nature of Hudson County politics since he withdrew from the race soon after the Macchi defeat.
I believe there continues to be a negative feeling in New Jersey regarding Hudson County politics which is periodically reinforced when we read snippets in the local press over the years that highlight Hudson’s negative stereotypes – ongoing federal investigations of Senator Menendez, two different Hoboken mayors facing criminal charges, a political consultant pleading guilty to paying a hit man to kill a Jersey City politico and a Jersey City political consultant arrested in a massive federal corruption probe being found dead in his Jersey City apartment.
Will this perception preclude the current Jersey City Mayor, 45-year-old Steve Fulop, who has not been tainted by political corruption since winning the office on July 1, 2013, and has become the city’s first three-term mayor, from mounting a successful campaign for Governor?
Let’s begin with his compelling back story. Fulop, who is Jewish, was born in Edison of immigrant Romanian parents. He grew up working at his parent’s deli in Newark. He left a well-paying job as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs after the attack on 9/11 and joined the U.S. Marines Reserves. His unit was activated and was among the first wave of Marines deployed to Iraq.
Over the years, I’ve maintained various political connections in Hudson County and by and large they say pretty good things about Mayor Fulop. A graduate of my alma mater, Binghamton University with straight A’s who then went on to earn an MBA from New York University and Master’s in Public Administration from Columbia University, Fulop is said to be smart, articulate, hardworking, data-driven, results-oriented and understanding of the intricacies of government.
The economic revitalization of Jersey City during his tenure has been truly remarkable. It started with development of the waterfront but has expanded to include multiple projects in various other areas of the city.
Fulop has significantly expanded the police and fire departments during his tenure and crime has not been on the upswing. Thus he would appear to be immune to a charge that has not addressed the growing issue of crime in our cities. He has improved Jersey City’s credit rating and done a good job of expanding the arts and revitalizing various parks.
What are Steve Fulop’s major liabilities as he contemplates a run for Governor aside from the potential baggage that comes with being from Hudson County?
First, he’s not someone who is super comfortable pressing the flesh (to put in another way he is not really warm and fuzzy).
Second, he is considered somewhat thin-skinned by some and tends to dichotomize folks into camps of friends and enemies. He has tangled with a local newspaper that he viewed as lacking objectivity.
Third, he is open to criticism that he has been too pro-developers and has taken contributions from them and that he has not dramatically improved the across-the-board performance of the Jersey City school system.
Fourth, the Mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka, from Essex County may also decide to run for Governor (removing from Fulop the argument that he’s the sole candidate with an understanding of state the state’s urban problems.
Fifth, it does not appear that outside of Hudson County, he has developed a cadre of political leaders (county chairs and elected officials) who will endorse him or well-connected political influencers whose support will bring instant credibility to his candidacy.
If Fulop is not endorsed by Democratic Organizations in key counties, given his mix of positive and negatives, his best chance of emerging as the party’s nominee in a multi-candidate primary is for him to solidify his base in Hudson and come out of there with a very large plurality and implement a “campaign within a campaign” strategy that would seek to identify and mobilize targeted Fulop voters in each county – those who see him as someone who has a proven track record of making government work and who is fiscally responsible and socially conscious.
This strategy will require an expensive multi-media campaign to showcase his back story and his success in revitalizing Jersey City and the funds to put in place an alternative campaign infrastructure in counties with significant urban populations (Bergen, Hudson, Essex, Mercer, Middlesex, Union, Passaic and Ocean (specifically in Lakewood) to target his voters. It’s a long-shot strategy in a state in which securing the organizational line has for decades been the key to winning a statewide primary election.
The Mercer County Democratic Party and its rank-and-file leadership should carefully scrutinize Fulop’s background, experience, and where he stands on issues of importance to Mercer County. Hopefully, the party will be able to reunite after the battle for County Executive; and enthusiastically get behind a candidate for Governor, who if elected, will be very responsive to the needs of our county. At this point, I’d be leaning toward Steve Fulop. A Middlesex, Mercer, and Hudson County alliance could go a long way toward making Steve Fulop the Democratic nominee for Governor.
Irwin Stoolmacher is president of the Stoolmacher Consulting Group, a fundraising and strategic planning firm that works with nonprofit agencies that serve the truly needy among us. He can be reached at Stoolgroup@aol.com and 609-771-8500.
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