While Steven Fulop’s first election in 2004 ended with a definitive loss to then U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez (D-13), it helped jump start his career in Jersey City. Is a part two of sorts on the horizon with Rob Menendez, Jr. mulling a mayoral bid?
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
Menendez, currently New Jersey’s senior U.S. senator, served as the chair of the Hudson County Democratic Organization heading into 2004’s re-election campaign.
The Jersey City mayor at the time, the late Glenn Cunningham, was no fan of Menendez, and had lobbed bold accusations against his then-congressman, alleging voter suppression tactics back at a July 23rd, 2003 rally (h/t Real Garden State).
“Something is wrong with our Democratic Leadership here when one of the most powerful Democratic elected officials in the nation, Congressman Bob Menendez, uses his influence to prevent the express voting will of the people of Jersey City – to be thrown away like garbage on the street,” Cunningham said.
Also a state senator of the 31st Legislative District, Cunningham wasn’t willing to let Menendez high step into the end zone, nor was he going to risk losing valuable political capital.
Historically, it’s not unheard of in New Jersey, particularly Hudson County, to support a candidate that has essentially no chance against a strong incumbent simply to send a message.
Enter Fulop, a U.S. Marine who had just returned from Iraq, enlisting shortly after the September 11th, 2001 tragedy and had quickly become a Cunningham protege.
Despite having no political experience, Fulop decided to give it the old college try, likely out of respect for his mentor more than anything else.
Again, the end result was never in doubt, evidenced by Fulop raising just $15,585 to Menendez’s eye popping $3,420,246.60, according to 2004 filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Menendez won the June 8th, 2004 Democratic primary in a landslide: 34,807 votes to 5,099 for Fulop, a margin of about 87 percent to 13 percent, the FEC reported.
Sadly, Cunningham passed before the primary, dying suddenly of a heart attack on May 25th, 2004.
While the chips were way down, Fulop managed to mount a successful, unofficial off-the-line challenge the following May against incumbent Ward E Councilman E. Junior Maldonado, the current Hudson County clerk, in a non-partisan contest.
Maldonado enjoyed the support of Menendez, the HCDO, and Mayor Jerramiah Healy, but that somehow wasn’t enough to stave off Fulop, who won by nearly 10 percentage points, though that translated to less than 400 votes – 2,165 to 1,802, records show.
Long story short, Fulop won a second term on the city council and two terms as mayor, also pursuing a run for governor before ultimately backing Phil Murphy, in the past decade-and-a-half – the latter of which really strained his relationship with Menendez.
Still, their relationship appeared salvageable until 2018, when the senator was on trial for federal corruption charges. While it ended in a mistrial, whispers had gotten back to Menendez that Fulop would pursue his seat if he was convicted.
This led to Menendez’s infamous quote, “To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” which was also aimed at former U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli.
Now, with Fulop appearing to be firmly in the driver’s seat of a re-election bid in 2021, with HCDO Chair Amy DeGise as an at-large council candidate and U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8) already giving his endorsement, the x factor is Menendez, Jr.
The mayor has said, in pretty polite fashion, that he doesn’t believe a candidate can helicopter in and run for mayor without first putting in the community work.
“The great thing about our system is anyone can be mayor. We have a wonderful /diverse city and for anyone that wants to run I think the first step is getting involved in the community and building a track record of community improvement,” he wrote during a Reddit AMA last night when asked about a potential challenge from Menendez, Jr.
On Friday, following a Jersey Journal story that saw Fulop and Senator Menendez publicly spar for the first time, Rob Menendez took to Twitter to respond at length.
“I have been involved in Jersey City for years, working side-by-side with Jersey City officials and community leaders on various issues including in 2004 when I worked to successfully defeat @StevenFulop in his first election,” the 35-year-old attorney wrote.
“While I moved to Jersey City to grow my family’s roots in a vibrant and diverse urban community, I did not move here to do nothing while this administration turns a blind eye to the residents who are hurting the most … The mayor clearly wants to divert attention away from these critical issues and his administration’s own failures by resorting to false, personal attacks but that’s nothing new.”
A Fulop vs. Rob Menendez contest has all the makings of a 12 round Hudson County blood feud that insiders love to see, but whether or not it’s actually in the cards remains up in the air.