JERSEY CITY, NJ - In a news story written just after his taking the oath as the 49th mayor of Jersey City, Steven Fulop’s parents claimed that in high school, he tended to pay more attention to soccer than he did his studies.
Yet in some ways, Fulop got a different, and perhaps more practical, education working part-time at their family deli in Newark than he quite realized – something that he came to better understand when he entered Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs program for one of his master’s degrees.
Recently, Fulop did a promotional video for the Columbia program, sharing how its emphasis on case study models and data translated into his strategy in governing Jersey City.
In the video, he said he uses data to make decisions in his role as Jersey City's chief executive.
Born in Edison, Fulop is the son of Romanian immigrants. His father grew up in Israel, but eventually moved to the United States and opened a delicatessen in Newark that he and his wife ran for more than 40 years. Fulop’s mother was the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Fulop’s grandparents were interned at Auschwitz during World War II.
Fulop attended a number of Jewish schools before eventually attending J. P. Stevens High School. He went to Harpur College at Binghamton University where he graduated in 1999.
In 2006 he completed both his Master of Business Administration at the New York University Stern School of Business and his Master of Public Administration at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (CIPA).
He said working in his parent’s deli became the foundation of a work ethic he carried into his career as a public servant – a service ethic.
Fulop and his brother worked weekends and summers at the Broad Street deli, sweeping floors and stocking shelves, while also waiting on customers.
While he graduated from Binghamton University with straight A’s and earned an MBA from New York University, it was a Master’s in Public Administration from the Ivy League University that tied his early life in the deli with his ethnic as a councilman and mayor in Jersey City.
The program seemed to connect the dots, he said, adding that he liked the Columbia brand and the international component of education.
This aspect of his education involved a case study approach to problems.
“That is not something abstract but something people can relate to because these are based on things that really happened,” Fulop told TAPinto Jersey City. “The hope is that if you’re ever faced with those sorts of problems you can respond in a reasonable sort of way based on what you’ve learned.”
Fulop said he found the program very helpful. One of the things he saw when at CIPA is that there was an emphasis on, and the results are based on, data. He tried to enact the same kind of philosophy in Jersey City
“The approach isn’t abstract,” he said. “They are not only conceptual and philosophical.”
This study came at a time when Fulop had already had a wealth of personal experiences. After graduating with his undergraduate degree, Fulop had taken up a job at Goldman Sachs.
He was in Manhattan when the attacks occurred on 9/11 and was one of the refugees ferried to New Jersey. It was an indelible experience that – even against the protests of his parents – caused him to leave the investment firm and join the U.S. Marines Reserves. His unit was activated and was among the first wave of Marines deployed to Iraq in 2003.
He picked up his life again with a vengeance when he returned from active duty, not just going back to his job at Goldman Sachs, but also simultaneously seeking masters at NYU and Columbia. “It was a crazy time,” he said. “I was working for Goldman Sachs and doing my masters and was still in the Marine Reserves.”
Mayor Glenn Cunningham later drafted him into politics, encouraging Fulop to run against then Rep. Robert Menendez – which gave Fulop a taste for politics and public service. Fulop said the Columbia program gave him a good foundation for government since the education focused on the practical side of public service, often bringing in guest lecturers who were at the time serving as mayors or deputy mayors of some of the most prominent cities in the country.
“We learned policy and the way it really affected people in the community,” he said. Some of the lessons he took away from hearing other mayors made him think about how operations took place in his own community and how he might make them better. “I had nuances about what had worked and not worked,” he said. “I’ve been able to leverage this in practical situations here in Jersey City.”
A number of big city mayors, including Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, have gone through the program, as did Jersey City Business Administrator Brian Platt.
“It’s a huge driver of progressive ideas.” Fulop said. “It gives you the nuts and bolts and allowed me to focus on day-to-day operations that improve the quality of life for our residents. The program focused on making decisions on real data.”
Fulop liked the program so much he recently brought on students from the program to study aspects of Jersey City and how to reform some the antiquated systems he inherited. A group of students is currently working with the city’s business administrator on an affordable housing initiative.
“They are giving us a lot of suggestions some of which we are looking to implement,” Fulop said.