Steven Fulop wants to be the first Jewish governor of New Jersey

The Jersey City mayor faces the likelihood of a heated Democratic primary in 2025 to succeed the term-limited Gov. Phil Murphy

Steven Fulop, the popular three-term mayor of Jersey City who launched an early campaign for governor in April, has long embraced his Jewish background as a key part of his biography.

The 46-year-old Democrat was raised in a secular household in Edison, N.J., but studied at an Orthodox Jewish day school until the eighth grade, an experience he credits with strongly influencing his “moral compass” and commitment to “service.” 

In 2019, Fulop was among the first state officials to publicly describe a deadly shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City as an antisemitic hate crime, a conclusion he drew while invoking his personal history as the grandson of Holocaust survivors. “I know enough to call it what this is,” he said at the time.

The mayor literally wears his Jewish identity on his sleeve: His son’s Hebrew name, Yosef, the same as Fulop’s late brother, is tattooed on his right forearm — a testament to “the circle of life,” he has written.

Now that he is running for the Garden State’s top job, Fulop recognizes that his Judaism may carry broader significance — if elected, he would become New Jersey’s first Jewish governor. 

In an interview with Jewish Insider last month, Fulop said he was surprised to learn recently that New Jersey has never elected a Jewish chief executive, given its long history and sizable Jewish population. “But there’s always room for a first,” he reasoned, sounding a note of optimism. “That’s the good thing.”

“Having a very, very strong Judaic foundation has been a moral compass for me — about service, about how to treat people, about right and wrong,” said Fulop. “I’m not running as a Jewish candidate, but it is intertwined. It’s who I am.”

“My grandparents came here after losing their children and most of their immediate family at Auschwitz, and then were able to try to dream of putting a life together again in this country,” Fulop, the son of Romanian-born immigrants, elaborated to JI at Beechwood Cafe in Downtown Jersey City. “Having their grandchild have the opportunity to be on the ballot to run for governor and be the chief executive for a state here really speaks to a lot of what this country espouses to be about.”

Still, even as he could set a historic precedent, Fulop, who continues to emphasize his Jewish background on his campaign site, stressed that he is not necessarily running as a Jewish candidate. Instead, Fulop sees himself as “a candidate who happens to be Jewish,” he said, noting that the difference is “nuanced” but informs his approach to the race.

“Having a very, very strong Judaic foundation has been a moral compass for me — about service, about how to treat people, about right and wrong,” said Fulop, a former investment banker who joined the Marines shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and served in Iraq before seeking public office. “I’m not running as a Jewish candidate, but it is intertwined. It’s who I am.”

For months, Fulop has been running unopposed in the primary to succeed Gov. Phil Murphy, a term-limited Democrat who will leave office in January 2026. Fulop’s entrance in the race, more than two years before the primary, raised some eyebrows when he announced his candidacy this past spring. But he insists that his effort is going as planned. “So far, it’s an election with one candidate in it, so I guess I’m winning,” he joked.

Fulop explained that he spent the initial months of his campaign raising money, conscripting volunteers, courting endorsements and holding conversations with party brokers across the state. He is now in the process of highlighting a series of policy proposals that he will be rolling out in the coming months on such issues as housing, public safety, taxes and education. The first plan, released in mid-August, was focused on transportation, and notably broke with Murphy in voicing support for congestion pricing.

“There are obviously political risks with being detailed,” Fulop told JI. “But we think voters and residents deserve that.”

“One thing that I’m trying to do in this campaign is be thoughtful on policy, detailed on policy and honest on policy,” added Fulop, a parent of two who is expecting his third child in November. “I want the state to be a great place for them in 20 years, and I sincerely feel that it won’t be.”

Dan Cassino, a political scientist and polling expert at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said Fulop “has a solid strategy for getting the nomination: jump in early, line up support and hope that scares off some potential challengers.”

“Contested primaries in New Jersey are something of a rarity, so if someone looks like they have things sewn up, candidates are often content to stay out of the race and wait their turn,” Cassino explained in an email to JI. “Jumping in early is also important for Fulop because he’s not well known statewide yet: he has a lot of work to do to introduce himself to voters outside of Jersey City.”

The Democratic field is likely to grow in the coming months, as other potential rivals are expected to consider campaigns. Among those rumored to be eyeing the race are Reps. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) and Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), who is also Jewish, as well as former Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. In the Republican primary, Jack Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman who narrowly lost to Murphy in 2021, is for now the only candidate seeking the nomination.

During the last campaign, Murphy narrowly won reelection weeks after landing a crucial endorsement from the Lakewood Vaad, an influential council of Orthodox Jewish leaders in New Jersey. For his part, Fulop said he has built “good relationships” with Jewish leaders in Lakewood, which is home to a booming Hasidic community, even if he suspects they are not fully aligned on every policy. He has also worked, he said, to build bridges between the growing population of Orthodox Jews who are settling in Jersey City and its Black residents.

“I’m not coming in there pandering to them on ‘I did XYZ around the Jewish community,’ because I don’t feel that that’s the starting point,” Fulop said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find another candidate who knows how to put on tefillin and knows what an eruv is.”

Fulop believes that his familiarity with Jewish tradition has allowed him to connect with Orthodox voters on a more personal level as he runs for governor. He recalled, for instance, a recent campaign event in Deal, an affluent New Jersey beach town home to a significant population of Syrian Jews, where the discussion revolved around funding for Jewish day schools.

“I can understand the hardship around that because my parents experienced that,” said Fulop, who grew up working behind the counter at his father’s deli in Newark. “They struggled to put me into school, so I certainly understand the challenges. I also understand the vantage point of what the responsibilities that I have to public education are.”

The conversation with Jewish voters in Deal was “very, very different than I would suppose that they would have with most other potential candidates,” Fulop told JI. “I’m not coming in there pandering to them on ‘I did XYZ around the Jewish community,’ because I don’t feel that that’s the starting point. You’d be hard-pressed to find another candidate who knows how to put on tefillin and knows what an eruv is.”

“What I’m trying to do is tell you that I have an understanding of the community that’s different than most. I’m accessible. The starting point is an appreciation for the culture and the religion,” he explained. “I think that is a better starting point than they could say they could expect anywhere else.”

Fulop, who ran a failed campaign for Congress in 2004, was first elected to the Jersey City Council the following year, when, at 28, he became the youngest member of the legislative body by a wide margin. He assumed office as the mayor of Jersey City in 2013 and has since won two bids for reelection.

While there are still several projects he wants to finish before his third term is over, Fulop said he is proud of his achievements as mayor. He argued that Jersey City has “been a model” to the rest of the state on a range of issues including the decriminalization of cannabis and raising the minimum wage. “I think the fact that people are moving here at the rate that they are moving here, that we are growing and the demand is very, very high,” he said, “speaks to the fact that the last 10 years has been a great renaissance story.”

Fulop has weathered some controversies that potential rivals could bring up during the campaign. Earlier in his tenure, for instance, the mayor’s office faced scrutiny after a former top aide was caught on tape in an apparent effort to rig the bidding process for a city contract. A super PAC connected to Fulop has also drawn multiple complaints from ethics watchdogs.

Still, Fulop, who rose to prominence as a sharp critic of the Hudson County Democratic machine, believes that one of his assets as he runs for governor is that he is “not an insider from Trenton” or a federal official who spends much of the week in Washington. “I come at it from a municipal standpoint on what works and doesn’t work with our interaction with state government,” he said. 

Last year, Fulop signed a sister city agreement between Jersey City and Beit Shemesh, a fast-growing city outside Jerusalem. He said he hopes to visit the city one day but acknowledges that he hasn’t been back to Israel in more than a decade because his job has kept him busy at home. 

In his bid to become New Jersey’s first Jewish governor, meanwhile, he said he feels no particular rush to make a campaign stop in Israel, where his father served in an elite IDF infantry bridge during the Six-Day War before immigrating to the U.S. 

“I don’t feel like the fact that I take a flight over there and take a picture, like a lot of politicians, in front of the wall, adds more credibility or makes you more genuine,” Fulop said. “I think in some ways it’s disingenuous and silly that every politician just does that and it’s kind of like checking the box. For me, the fact that Judaism is intertwined in who I am is more important.”

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