His humble office on the second floor of the Political Science house wouldn’t suggest it, but James Solomon is a force of nature.
Not only is he a professor at three universities, but he’s also a Harvard graduate who beat cancer and then became a Jersey City councilman against all odds. But when he sat down and shook my hand, I only saw a man who deeply loves his family and his work.
After completing his Master of Public Policy degree at the Kennedy School of Government, the Essex County native settled in Jersey City with his wife, who wanted to move here due to its resemblance to her home neighborhood in Brooklyn. It wasn’t long before they grew to love the city.
“It’s the diversity, the lack of pretentiousness,” Solomon said. “And the people aren’t jerks.”
It wasn’t long, however, before he would face one of the greatest challenges of his adult life.
In 2015, Solomon was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, but remained optimistic with the support of his wife and family.
“I was lucky,” he remembers. “I had a disease that had a likely positive outcome.”
But it was in the wake of his battle with cancer that Solomon took advantage of a newly-found motivation to pursue a dream he’d had for a long time.
“I always thought I might run for public office,” he said. “But [my diagnosis] was jarring and I was like, ‘What am I doing?’”
Solomon saw a major issue in Jersey City -- poor city development, and with a new courage spurred on by his recovery, he decided to run for City Council.
“If I felt like the representation at the city level was adequate, I wouldn’t have run,” he said. “But at the time I didn’t see anyone in the city council effectively challenging poor decision-making, and I felt like I was the candidate best-equipped to be the check on the mayor.”
Easier said than done. From the outset, Solomon faced an uphill battle in a highly competitive race.
“I was the underdog because I basically didn’t have any establishment support.”
What the local political scene didn’t account for, however, was a man who was a bit closer to the real issues than the typical politician. As a professor, Solomon has a close ear to the city through the young people he interacts with every day.
“The students are a great sounding board,” he said. “How do you all experience life in the city? What works and what doesn’t work? That is always really, really interesting for me to hear.”
And it was this constant interaction with his students that helped to inform his policy priorities when he ran for office.
“Part of where my message came from was being able to talk to students who had grown up in the city, who clearly didn’t see the development that was happening as being for people like them…,” he said. “They would kinda frown and say, ‘this feels like we’re spending taxpayer money to push my family out of the city.’”
In the end, Solomon won the Council seat of Ward E over establishment favorite Rebecca Symes in a runoff election, having campaigned on a progressive agenda of city development reform, affordable housing and street safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.
“The reason I won,” he said, “is because through me and my team and the volunteers, we knocked on enough doors and talked to enough people to spread a message.”
That message was one that evidently resonated with many local residents. According to Solomon, Jersey City had a long past of granting construction permits to developers with significant perks attached, including long-term tax abatements.
“We gave sweetheart deals to developers… they sold condos for over a million dollars and they received a 20-year tax break,” he noted. “They’re going to build up a giant high-rise, add thousands of new people and they’re not really going to give the city anything.”
As a result, much of his campaigning and early work in the city council has been to change rules that allow this type of shortsighted development, which puts a strain on infrastructure that wasn’t built to accommodate a rapid rise in population. Since then, he has also been focused on making the City Council as a whole a more capable legislative body.
“The job of city council is to write laws and to engage in oversight of the administration, and we don’t do either particularly well,” Solomon admitted. “One of my big goals in this first term is to strengthen the city council, so that does its job more effectively for the citizens. We have to change the rules, [and] we have to get more resources.”
On top of all that, Solomon can still be found teaching either at Saint Peter’s, Hudson County Community College or New Jersey City University on any given day, teaching classes on politics and policy. With all this at once, it’s begs the question as to how one man could balance it all.
He laughed and paused, smiling.
“People find ways,” he said.