Viorica Dancila’s visit in the US represents a desperate attempt of some businessmen, former generals in the Securitate and Governmental officials to raise the chances of the PSD leader of entering the final tour of the presidential elections. Why do they do this? Because they want to have one more chance to extract, at least for a while, some public money, after the final tournament for Cotroceni. 

So far, nothing new. They acted similarly with the visits performed in America for Nastase and Iliescu, Ponta and Antonescu as well as Dragnea and Tariceanu. And it was in vain!

But Viorica Dancila’s visit in the US carries out something special. Something which, I personally view as shocking. Maybe you think I exaggerate, but if you are patient to read thoroughly this text you may finally agree with me.  

No, it is not about the meeting with the vice president of the US, Mike Pence. For this, the explanation is quite simple. Dancila, through the will of the majority of Romanians who voted in November 2016, is currently the Prime Minister of Romania that is of a country which carries on a strong partnership with the US. And unlike Dragnea, Dancila is shadowed only by the guillotine of suspicions of gross stupidity and not of solid indictments of corruption.

It seems quite shocking to me the first point on the agenda of her visit in the US. The meeting with Steve Fulop the Mayor of Jersey City, planned for today at 11.00 am. 

As far as I know I am the first Romanian journalist who has ever written about Steve Fulop. That was in July 2013. I came back to him during those dramatic days of November 2015, when the University Square was really boiling of mutiny. Now please, read who Steve Fulop is and you will understand how much unreal seems to be his connection with Viorica Dancila, a vivid landmark of deception.  

I just can believe that Fulop accepted this meeting only out of politeness. 

We, on the other hand, should be covered with shame to have made it possible!

 “Jersey City, a small town of about 300 000 inhabitants, separated from New York by the River Hudson has changed completely during the last years. Everything happened together with the relocation of many professionals who were working in the West part of Manhattan and who chose Jersey City for its acceptable rental expenses. Their money and sense of taste have attracted along time lots of investments within  residential projects, restaurants, hip bars and luxury shops.

The problems have arisen within the junction between the public and private space. Everything that could be solved through the entrepreneurs’ investments has been solved. Any opportunity to make profit form satisfying the needs and wishes of the new wave of “immigrants” beyond the river made the things go smoothly. But the city was not changing at all in that area in which the administration was responsible – that is roads, parks, public spaces, utility services, and public order.

But in a very short time, Jersey City has become a city of contrasts, typical for the developing countries. All through the shop windows and windows of the block of flats one could notice more and more the image of a polarized community, with an alarming rate of delinquency, poorly administered by incompetent and corrupt elite. 

Which were the reasons for all the poor public services? You can surely guess them already, they are of course universal. The city was led by a poisonous mixture of politicians and mafia, who were promoting firstly those office clerks eager to take bribe from the businessmen receiving public contracts. 

The seriousness of such a situation became obvious in 2009. Even more than 44 people were arrested under different allegations ranging from organization of a network of kidney trafficking from Eastern Europe, to bank frauds and gathering  bribe from the real estate developers for the electoral campaign of the mayor. Through the accused ones and later on convicted – the vice mayor of Jersey City, the president of the local council, one counselor and the chief of the dwelling authority of the city.  

 The prosecutors’ indictment revealed a political and administrative culture as if exactly copied from the scenery of the movie “Atlantic City” – maybe the most famous town from New Jersey. Thousands of documents, affidavits and recorded conversations with a hidden camera shocked America. The results of the operation “Big Rig” as it was later on called, added to some hundreds of condemnations of some local officials of all positions, federal representatives and even senators, sentenced within many other previous files from all corners of the New Jersey state.

All these together have demonstrated that things have changed only a bit in this part of America which many politicians and office clerks seem to operate with as compared with the prohibition times. And if there was any doubt, one of the officials involved in the corruption network was found dead in his flat, before  testifying in front of the court.

Though many members of his team were sent to prison, the Mayor of Jersey City, Jerramiah Healy, whose account received 20.000$ as a bribe got by the vice-mayor who was also the treasurer of his campaign, was not inquired and he didn’t even resigned from this position remaining here till the end of his mandate.  

The new dwellers arrived in Jersey City, bearing new standards, other desires, seemed to have understood that nothing would change if they  didn’t react. This was the beginning of several tenants’ associations from the most dynamic spots of the city who began a stronger and stronger fight with the city administration for different issues such as: parking areas, parks, tracks for cyclists, roads, offenses decrease, and homeless people.

For every change they acquired they had to bear a strong fight. Addresses, emails, pickets, demonstrations. Sometimes for several months some other times for years. But finally, when they persevered they succeeded, even partly in imposing their point of view. They have to be thanked for the first tracks for cyclists, creation of several parks and even the change of the policemen attitude.

But they got stuck in one single point: the public schools. All the pressures upon the administration produced almost no result. Jersey City continued to have an average educational system, with excessive bureaucracy, underfunded, with teachers lacking in motivation, an old fashioned curricula, and which was not connected with the subjects taught in the appreciated institutions. 

The parents’ efforts to bring a change in this field were blocked by the alliance of ignorance, helplessness and resistance to change which the local authorities and trade unions from the education set up. 

The tensions grew up constantly till they could not be ignored. When the number of parents with higher professional training, high salaries and who were working in very competitive environments reached a majority the solving of these educational issues has been brought number one on the civic agenda.

For such people who know that the education their children is being given  will be crucial for their future, the impossibility to find an adequate school is a good reason enough to move place. As long as the number of parents with such conception and interest for the education quality was reduced, the system was not determined to accept a change. And those with higher pretentions had no other choice than move and find what they wanted.

But from one point on, the young families from Jersey City who were victorious in the fight with the local administration for the city evolution felt that they would be obliged to start fresh in other places because of the poor schools. And instead of moving and abdicate, as many other families before them, they decided to fight.

Their success in this long term war was a minor one until the moment they managed to create a breach. That is, until they managed to impose the election of a person within the local council to represent their interests. This breach was called Steve Fulop. 

On 11 September 2001, Fulop was 24 and was working on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs. Shortly after he witnessed the terrorist attack he resigned and enrolled into the army to “marines”. In 2003, he was in the first wave of militaries to step in Baghdad. One year later, he came back in the country and re-started his activity within Goldman Sachs. 

Starting with 2004, Fulop became one of the most involved activists for the area in New Jersey he lived in, Paulus Hook to be better administered. He was the president of the Coalition of Tenants’ Association from his city when he was proposed to enter politics; And not just a simple one, but as a candidate for a seat within the Congress against one of the most powerful politicians in the region, Senator Bob Menendez.  

Fulop lost his first electoral competition getting only 10% of the ballots, but he didn’t give in. One year later, in 2005, he sat for local elections for a counselor seat. He was again ranking second as his enemy was the closest counselor of Jerremiah Healy, the mayor in office, who was sitting for a new mandate.

Out of the nine counselors elected in 2005, 8 were from Healy’s team. The ninth was Fulop. His victory was considered the great surprise, not only for defeating an experienced counselor and with a great political support, including from the senator Menenedez, but mostly because he had no support from any party or important politician.

Fulop’s victory in 2005 was the victory of an authentic independent one, who gathered his ballots walking every house, as New York Times was saying at the time. Having a budged smaller than even a half of his enemy, Fulop used volunteers even from the homeless people. To everyone’s surprise he was voted by the rich white people from the districts on the river bank as well as by the black ones from the notorious ones. The white people hoped to promote their projects of urbanization through him and the black ones voted as a negation for the mayor and his counselors who ignored them in the past.

Regarded from distance and mainly by the people with an idyllic view about the US, the victory of a young independent person who managed to become a counselor of a city with 300.000 tenants may appear relatively commonplace. And it is indeed. And it is such a commonplace as the story of every person who manages to defeat a SYSTEM. Especially for a country in which many people expect such victories to be quite often, owing to its democratic mechanisms, of an advanced political culture and a high level of involvement of the citizens within the local issues.  

Maybe the most relevant detail:  despite the fact that he fought a much stronger enemy, with higher chances and with a great political support, Fulop found it very difficult to obtain funds for his campaign because many companies from Jersey City were afraid of the mayor retaliations. The small number of business owners who were courageous to bet on him did it practically stealthily. One of the new tactics, noted New York Times, in 2005, “was a decision to not spread electoral posters through the supporters (which they were supposed to stick in their windows, a common practice in US –n.m.) in order to avoid for them to become the target of a sudden curiosity form the mayor inspectors.” 

His real battle started though after becoming a counselor. And it was a deeply unequal one. Nine – the other counselors and the mayor against one. The first objective was to prove his voters that he deserved their trust. That’s why he started to attack the base of the incompetence and inefficiency: corruption, privileges and gang ties of those who were practically leading everything in the town. 

During four years he constantly laid proposals which stirred the anger of his colleagues, of the chiefs of services coordinated by the hall and even of the trade unions: 

No person could have two jobs paid from public money.

The firms having public contracts cannot make donations for the electoral campaign of a certain candidate. 

The closure of the autonomous firms which serve exclusively for the reward of the political clientele of the mayor as well as his counselors and taking over the responsibilities by the hall. 

The employees having business cars should not go home with these vehicles after the working hours. 

The chiefs of the services of utilities should no longer be paid extended health insurances. 

The hall employees should not benefit from life pensions if they don’t have a minimum seniority of 25 years. 

The meetings of the local council to be live transmitted on the internet. 

Though they gave birth to vivid rumors and the public opinion and newspapers were clearly in their favor, all Fulop’s proposals were rejected, one after the other by the local council. Persevering, Fulop ignored the negative votes of the others and continued to place his proposals on the agenda again and again.

Infuriated by the fact that the public agenda concentrates exclusively on Fulop’s reformists proposals, his colleagues voted for a decision according to which a proposal once rejected cannot be replaced on the agenda of the Council, except after a while. Fulop reacted to this announcing that he wanted the tenants of the city to say if they were interested or not and that he would collect signatures to organize a referendum on two most important of his proposals. 

On the day in which he arrived with the lists with the necessary 1500 signatures in order to proceed with the referendum, the hall secretary announced him that the minimum number of signatures is actually 12.000. That is six times more than the necessary number for a person sit for the mayor function.

The cancellation of the referendum was done though too late for Fulop’s enemies. Through the stubbornness with which he revealed all the important issues around corruption and of privileges, he had already managed to catalyze all the energies of the civic movements, such becoming a reputable ally in the fight with the establishment.  

Therefore, as the public pressure couldn’t be tempered, the mayor and his counselors adopted, at last, some of the measures proposed by the nonconformist counselor.

But given the fact that they adopted them less restrictive, maintaining more of the privileges and opening the door to corruption as such, the elected ones led by the mayor Healy roused even more the anger of Fulop’s supporters, such contouring for Fulop an image of a lawman fighting alone with a group of incompetent politicians set on stealing.

The result: in just four years, when he wasn’t even 32, Fulop became a redoubtable voice in Jersey City especially when he renewed his mandate after the elections in 2004, with a solid score of 63%. His rival, another close person to Healy, got to prison two months later for corruption allegations.

The trust capital which he gathered during his first mandate allowed him, during the second mandate, to score important points for the most important issue of his supporters: the schools reformation.

In 2010, the elections for the management positions within the authority governing the public schools offered him an opportunity to promote several figures in line with his vision:  higher standards for the teachers, a system of classification and funding for schools based the students’ results in the tests and promotion of the “Charter” types of schools.

Out of all the objectives, the “charter” schools brought him the most conflicts with the teachers’ unions and implicitly with those politicians dependant on their votes. The reason for this? The old fashioned teachers’ fear of an authentic competition and the risk of losing their jobs.

The “charter” schools appeared in the US during the ‘90s being settled by the parents, civic organizations or companies unsatisfied by the quality of the educational process within the public schools. Although they fall under the state control, they are led and funded differently from the public ones. The curricula keeps a general line, but the schools management bears a large flexibility in order to decide over the subjects and the teaching methods so that they can maximize the students’ performance.

 Although funded from public money, a great part of these funds derives from private sources. Thus, the powerful companies and individual donors can support a certain community ensuring the parents with the quality education process for their children. The fundamental difference lays in the fact that the “charter” schools are free of charge. 

During his second mandate, the rising popularity helped the young counselor a lot; therefore almost all the candidates he sustained for high positions within the institutions connected with coordination of the educational system and promotion of the long awaited reforms were to become winners after elections.

The poll attendance beat all the records. Not because the parents were having a blind trust in Fulop; but because he chose his candidates together with the parents. A committee made up of 10 parents devised an extensive questionnaire for every possible candidate, and those with the best results were later on called for an interview. The winners automatically received the turn and support of the counselor for the following campaign.

Being convinced that finally they could count on professionals to solve the root problems which had made the schools in Jersey City to be among the poorest in the US, the parents who could not afford private schools but were ready to fight for the improvement of the public ones or at least to create new “charter” type schools, have become the most devoted supporters of the counselor.

The consistency with which he followed the projects already started in order to redirect a higher and higher percentage from the local budget to schools and also to collect almost a billion dollars from private donations, finally brought him a remarkable share of popularity attracting new political allies which he had never dreamt of during his first mandate.  In only seven years, Steve Fulop has become one of the most redoubtable politicians from New Jersey.

”He has created an army of volunteers who are yearning for a complete administration and better schools, and his supporters are controlling now the local council  as well as the committee for education” noted a local newspaper last year, a short time before Fulop to announce his next step: his application for the mayor of Jersey City.

Despite his glittering ascent, many people believed he was not strong enough to dethrone the Mayor Healy, his main rival. And that was not from a lack of arguments. Healy’s lack of involvement with the schools reformation and especially the allegations of corruption which were hovering over him even during the “Big Rig” investigation were unfortunately capital sins in the eyes of the educated and progressive voters. Healy was still having a lot of supporters among the ones who were not interested in the bike tracks or “charter” schools.

The most consistent support Fulop’s rival was relying on was given from two directions:  from the entrepreneurs who were doing business with the hall and from the politicians who were bound to return favors for him. Such a support was just on the point of making the difference.

To everyone’s surprise that were seeing in Healy the embodiment of moral decay and lack of vision, on 20th of March 2013, the President Barack Obama announced his support for Healy. This gesture couldn’t be seen as loyalty for the party as Healy was a member of the Democrat Party and was not competing against a republican. Fulop was also a democrat.

 The President’s gesture was the more surprising as it was his second support given for somebody sitting for a hall election since his mandate. “In order to push America forward, we need many leaders like my friend Healy” was written in the note from the White House. Needless to say that the President’s turn has become the main issue of the electoral campaign of the Mayor of Jersey City connected with another valuable one. The one received from the mayor Of New York, Michael Bloomberg. 

For a good while, Steve Fulop believed he had no chance any more. Many of those who promised financial support before the campaign stepped back after Healy received Obama’s blessing. When everything seemed lost Fulop remained only with the tenacity and support of those stirred even more by the US President’s attitude, to fight against a corrupted authority. But also the parents’ loyalty who considered that nothing was more important than the future of their children.

The reformist counselor had a decisive idea to produce a series of video clips in which Healy appeared recorded with a hidden camera during a meeting with his corrupted entrepreneur who attracted the 44 politicians and  businessmen arrested in 2009 and whose money helped Healy for his previous election. Almost every time the mayor appeared praising himself with Obama’s support  almost immediately there appeared like a shadow the remembrance of the fact that he should have been in jail together with the ones taking bribe for funding his campaign in 2009.

To everyone’s surprise from the political hubs of America, Fulop was the winner. And even from the first round. He beat Healy with 52% to 38%. Needless to say that during the following days almost all the elected councilors of the previous mayor stated their support for the initiatives for integrity and for reform of the winner.  

Within an interview from 4 July, Duane Butcher, the person in charge of US embassy business, stated that the Romanians are too critical of themselves. But the problem is not over there. Our weakness comes from our blind conviction that the size of the problems we face is unique, never seen before. We believe that nowhere in the world are there more evil politicians than here, corruption, rapacity, wickedness, carelessness for the common welfare like here. 

That everything is drawn to us from the extraordinary geographical, historical, religious and cultural context, which has honed this people until the lamentable profile of today. The crossing of empires, the Turks, Russians, communists, “a man’s hat in his hand never did him any harm” and so on. Hence the fatality! The belief that we have no chance to ever defeat this evil which is eating our guts as it has been perfected along thousands of years and forged by the  relentless forces of history.

We have fallen in love so much with the founding myths of our powerlessness that most of us have ceased and try to see how much truth lies within them. We don’t do it out of fear that we will discover that we protect ourselves from the remorse of conscience with a great lie. 

The reality: other people are going through the same trials as us, too. The only one difference that matters is that some people never abandon their fight and finally succeed in finding the optimal dosage of idealism, intelligence and pragmatism with which they can put those who abuse them in their place. And a colorful detail: Steve Fulop is the son of some immigrants from Romania.”

Since I published this article in July 2013, under the title “West Side Story”, Fulop hasn’t ceased to fight for the principles that helped him win the elections and defeat the corrupted system of his town. He has done even more. 

He has added new restrictions for the clerks subordinated to him, restrictions about which I should have thought they had been law letter in America for long. He forbade the local officials to have more than one job, no matter if it was appointment or election. He has introduced new rules for transparency, among which the obligation to declare assets and business interests for the elected ones.  And he forbade them to lobby within their institutions.

Yes, these elementary measures to hinder corruption and the conflict of interests had never been in Jersey City before Fulop managed to defeat the political mafia containing it.

No one is afraid to declare that his election as a councilor has stirred up a revolution within the town administration. Besides the decrease of the expenses and stolen money, Fulop managed to create from Jersey City an outpost of the progressive changes, within extremely diverse domains for which no one would have thought he would ever excel. 

Certain revolutions may begin with a blood bath or with thousands hundred people shouting desperately in the streets, or  with a gang of  lucid, idealist, tenacious, disciplined, creative people who may tackle a problem and then get to change from the ground up the whole place  in which they live.”

Two years after this article, in 2017, Steve Fulop was reelected mayor, with almost 78% of ballots. A score that no other candidate for the Jersey City hall had obtained during the last 70 years. 

Dan Cristian Turturică is the Editor-in-chief of Universul.net. He has been working as a journalist for 30 years. During the last 19 years, he was the editor-in-chief of ”Evenimentul zilei” and ”Romania libera” daily newspapers, and of Digi24.ro news website. Contact: dan@universul.net

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