It was a historic day at the nation’s capital on Wednesday, Jan. 18, as Union City native and current Hoboken resident Robert Menendez was sworn into office as New Jersey’s first Hispanic U.S. senator.
Family, friends, and colleagues from Menendez’s more than 20-year political career traveled to Washington D.C. from all over New Jersey, across the country, and as far off as Puerto Rico to watch Menendez take the oath.
“It’s a bit surreal; we’ve been waiting for this day for the past 22 years, which is how old I am,” said Alicia Menendez, the senator’s daughter, who is a Harvard graduate. “At the same time, we know we have a long road ahead of us launching a statewide campaign. Dad is really going to be multi-tasking.”
Menendez was appointed by Gov. Jon Corzine to fill the seat when Corzine moved up to become governor earlier this month. Menendez may have to run again for the seat in the Democratic primary in June, and then face a Republican opponent in November. “America is great country, and I am mindful of what it is to be the first [Hispanic senator from New Jersey] and the heavy obligation of what that means as well,” said Menendez. “I thank Jon Corzine for this privilege, and I will work hard everyday to honor it and deserve it from the people of New Jersey.”
Born in Cuba, Menendez immigrated to the United States with his family before he reached school age. They settled into the tenement buildings of Union City, which has the second largest Cuban community in the nation after Miami.
A product of the Union City school system, Menendez became the first in his family to go to college. However, young Menendez had also already begun the road to his political career at the age of 17, often vocalizing his opinions to the leaders of Union City’s municipal government, especially in regards to education.
“I admire him because when he started he came from very modest beginnings and has worked his way up,” said the state’s other senator, Frank Lautenberg, in Washington D.C. on Wednesday. “He has been a councilman, a mayor, an assemblyman, a congressman, and he went to the third highest position in the Democratic house.”
From 1974 to 1982, Menendez served on the Union City Board of Education, and then went on to serve as mayor of Union City from 1986 to 1992, while simultaneously serving as an assemblyman from 1987 to 1991.
After serving as a New Jersey state senator, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1993, and by 2002 was the chairman of the Democratic Caucus and the third ranking Democrat in the House. Now a junior senator, he will be working alongside longtime colleague Lautenberg.
“I am happy at the age of 52 to be called junior once again,” said Menendez.
Call me junior
During a reception following the swearing-in ceremony, Lautenberg referred to his many similarities with the new junior senator, and humorously emphasized the “junior” in his remarks.
“On this auspicious moment in history, I am so pleased with the opportunity to serve with Bob Menendez,” said Lautenberg. “We have worked on a lot of issues together [over the years] from transportation to homeland security, and we will continue to work well together.”
Lautenberg was also the son of immigrant parents.
“I have great respect for him and his accomplishments; like we say ‘siempre a trabajar’ [always work],” said Lautenburg. “I predict a long prosperous career, and hope to be the senior senator for the next following elections.”
Friends and colleagues
Menendez was in very good company at the day’s events, with his fellow colleagues and supporters from his home base of Hudson County. They included state Sen. Bernard Kenny, Assembly Speaker/West New York Mayor Albio Sires, Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, and North Bergen resident Zulima Farber, who is expected to be named state attorney general this week.
“I think this is just a glorious day for the Menendez family and all of Hudson County,” said Sires. “To think that Bob Menendez is a product of the school system in Hudson County and has risen to become one of three [Hispanic] U.S. Senators [in the country].”
“His whole career is a wonderful success story for Hudson County and the entire country,” said Turner. Kenny said, “It’s a culmination of many years of hard work on his part and on the part of many people that have supported him throughout his career. We’re very proud of him and what he has accomplished politically in Hudson County.”
In addition to his Hudson County brethren, Menendez was also joined by friends and colleagues from across New Jersey including Rep. Steve Rothman (D-Fair Lawn) and Rep. Rob Andrews (D- Haddon Heights), and there was a special visit by Sila M. Calderón, governor of Puerto Rico, and members of his administration. “I am thankful to all those who came out; my former colleagues from the House of Representatives, my colleagues [and delegates] from New Jersey, which include my good dear friend and the first person who endorsed me, Steve Rothman,” said Menendez.
From his family, Menendez’s daughter Alicia was there along with her brother, 20-year-old Robert Menendez Jr. Menendez’s sister and brother-in-law were also there, as well as his nephew and nephew’s wife. Menendez’s mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, could not attend.
Menendez is divorced.
One of three in the Senate
In addition to being New Jersey’s first Hispanic senator, Menendez has now become only the fifth Hispanic in history that has had the opportunity to serve on the United States Senate, and one of three currently serving, which include Mel Martinez of Florida and Ken Salazar of Colorado.
“I choked up just thinking about it because after all the struggles our families went through; the American dream does not get any better,” said Sires, who also emigrated from Cuba.
“We tell children in this country you can be whatever you want to be, and that is only true when we have real life [examples],” said Alicia Menendez.
Although very proud to be the first Hispanic senator from New Jersey, Menendez is most proud of getting the opportunity to represent every citizen of New Jersey.
“I have walked in the shoes of the average New Jerseyean, and I think the greatest part is that I get to represent all of the people of New Jersey, whether you’re young or old, or rich or poor,” said Menendez. “It is my intention to be the senator for everyone.”
Menendez will now reach out to residents across New Jersey and find out what their concerns are, which he had already begun to do after being named Corzine’s successor.
“I’ve been traveling the state of New Jersey on my listening tour, and will continue that throughout the next year,” said Menendez. “In the work we are going to do, you will see a reflection of what New Jersey has told me.”