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Scandal-weary New Jersey Democrats are sticking with Menendez — for now


Publicly, Democrats in Menendez’s home state are rallying behind their lead senator as details of the latest investigation begin to emerge: Federal investigators are zeroing in on a New Jersey company that has been granted exclusive rights to export of halal meat to Egypt, reported the New York Times. Any connection to Menendez remains unclear.

In private, it’s a different story.

Some New Jersey Democrats are expressing deep frustration that the 68-year-old, three-term senator could once again be under an ethical cloud. Most view Menendez as an effective senator, but some are beginning to believe his legal troubles threaten to outweigh that. Others refuse to answer the question altogether, insisting they are too focused on Tuesday’s midterm elections to worry about it.

Menendez, who rose from the cauldron of politics in Hudson County’s urban Democratic machine to become chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged the investigation but said he was unaware of its scope.

“Senator Menendez is always in touch with New Jersey voters and government, political and community leaders. His tireless advocacy on behalf of the state is underpinned by these relationships and has earned him a long, deep reservoir of goodwill,” Michael Soliman, a spokesman for Menendez, said in an emailed statement.

Soliman said Menendez intends to seek re-election in 2024.

Democrats were caught off guard by Menendez’s weakness in the 2018 primary, when Lisa McCormick, a virtually unknown candidate with no significant campaign infrastructure or money, won 38% of the vote despite the senator’s huge structural advantages. The results were read as a protest vote against the senator.

For now, the only thing publicly displayed by New Jersey’s top Democrats is loyalty and fealty to Menendez, a powerful figure who has been open about his willingness to punish Democrats who disloyal to him.

“To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump in my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” Menendez said outside the Newark federal courthouse in 2017, after beating corruption charges.

Menendez’s influence in local politics is so strong that his son, Robert J. Menendez, is set to take over the United States House seat that his father held before he was elevated to the Senate. The young Menendez easily won the Democratic nomination to replace incumbent Representative Albio Sires and is virtually guaranteed to win his election next week in the solidly Democratic district of North Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The district includes some of New Jersey’s most urban areas, including parts of Newark, Jersey City, and Elizabeth.

“I support him 100%,” Hudson County Democratic Chairman Anthony Vaineri Jr. said in a phone interview when asked about the latest investigation into the senator. “No comment on this story. I’m not going to get involved in this, okay?

At a press conference commemorating the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s devastating landfall in New Jersey — an event that took place just days after Menendez’s latest scandal began to emerge publicly — Sen. Cory Booker (DN.J.) described Menendez as “my colleague, my friend, my brother in the Senate [and] my rock.”

“Bob Menendez was truly one of New Jersey’s great heroes in the days of the storm 10 years ago,” he said.

At the same press conference, Gov. Phil Murphy, a fellow Democrat, thanked Menendez for “gathering together the billions of dollars we needed to get back on our feet.”

“No one comes close,” he said.

During a Monday night radio interview, Murphy described Menendez as an “incredibly valuable and important partner,” without commenting directly on the investigation.

But at least one activist on the party’s left flank is publicly voicing his criticisms.

Sue Altman, executive director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said the Menendez news threatened to dampen Democratic enthusiasm and volunteer recruitment for canvassing.

“It’s a window into the ugliness of New Jersey politics, Hudson County politics. Menendez is a product of those things,” Altman said in an interview. “Overall, this is a brand issue for Democrats. Stories like this confirm people’s track records that Democrats are corrupt. We need to take action in New Jersey to make sure that is no longer the case.

Menendez won his first election to a full term in 2006 despite a federal investigation by then-New Jersey U.S. Attorney Chris Christie into a nonprofit that rented him space while he was there. helped to get grants. No charges were ever filed and Menendez, who denied any wrongdoing, received a letter from federal officials in 2011 saying the investigation had been closed.

In 2015, after Menendez was charged with federal corruption for allegedly returning political favors to a political friend and donor, Booker was one of the first New Jersey Democrats to publicly declare his support.

“I will not waver in my commitment to stand with my senior senator to serve our great state,” Booker said at the time. He was followed by nearly every other prominent New Jersey Democrat.

Menendez beat those charges in 2017 after a lengthy trial, thanks to a hung jury in which 10 of 12 jurors wanted to find him not guilty of most charges.

During a speech in court after his trial stalled, Menendez denounced prosecutors who “couldn’t understand or, even worse, accept that the Latino kid from Union City and Hudson County could become a United States Senator and be honest”.

His re-election in 2018 coincided with a Democratic surge that propelled him to a comfortable 11-point victory over Republican Bob Hugin, who is now Republican state chairman. Party and who spent tens of millions of dollars against him.

Much has changed since then, and with it, the political calculations of Democrats.

More importantly, Murphy is governor until January 2026. Had Menendez resigned or been forced out of office during the previous scandal, Christie, a Republican who was then governor, would have named an interim replacement — presumably a member of the GOP. That prospect alone made Democrats stick with Menendez.

Since then, New Jersey Democrats have developed a deeper bench of ambitious elected officials, some of whom are already positioning themselves to run for governor in 2025 since Murphy is time-limited.

New Jersey’s Democratic politics are often determined by a few power brokers forging a deal ahead of the primary, and the state’s regional political bosses would likely salivate over potential deals to be struck on who gets the party’s green light for the senator. and who would get support. for the governor, should Menendez step down.

So far, much of the speculation among insiders as potential Menendez replacements has focused on the reps. Josh Gottheimer, Mikie Sherrill and Donald Norcross and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop. There has even been speculation, perhaps outlandish, that Murphy may appoint himself to the seat.

“I wouldn’t care. Not at this stage. It’s way too early for anybody to try to jump in the guy’s grave,” former state senate chairman Steve Sweeney said in an interview.

“He has been an incredible senator and does a very good job as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” said Somerset County Democratic Chairman Peg Schaffer, who leads the party in a once solidly suburban county. Republican who became a Democrat in the Trump era. “It seems like part of what happens when you’re stationed in this state, especially when you get out of Hudson County, you’re going to be investigated again and again.”

She added: “Just knowing the man, I don’t think there’s any credibility.”


POLITICO

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