The televised debates between incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and Republican challenger New Jersey State Sen. Tom Kean Jr. have been beyond tense.
Menendez, a Union City native and current Hoboken resident, has fired salvos at Kean for his position on the war in Iraq and the overall performance of the Bush administration. “At the end of the day, you are unlikely to stand up to the president on so many different issues,” Menendez said to Kean in a recent televised debate.
Meanwhile, Kean has been trying to tie Menendez to past corrupt politicians in the Hudson County Democratic machine.
According to the most recent polls in the Nov. 7 Senate elections, the Republican rule of the U.S. Senate may be slipping away. Seven G.O.P. Senate candidates in the country are behind or in trouble. The Democrats need only six seats to regain control of the Senate, presuming that Menendez holds on to his seat in this surprisingly competitive race.
In the weeks to come, these issues may not just change the political landscape in New Jersey; they may change the nation.
Who the candidates are
Robert Menendez was born in 1954 in New York City to Cuban parents. He is a graduate of Union Hill High School, Saint Peter’s College, and Rutgers School of Law. He was elected to the Union City Board of Education in 1974 at the tender age of 19.
Menendez became mayor of Union City in 1986 and served in that capacity until 1992. During this time, Menendez also was elected to the New Jersey General Assembly, where he served from 1987 to 1991, and then to the New Jersey State Senate, where he served from 1991 to 1993.
Menendez was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1992, where he was re-elected six times for the 13th district.
In January 2006, Governor Jon Corzine appointed Menendez to the U.S. Senate. Menendez lives in Hoboken, is divorced, and has two children.
Tom Kean Jr. was born in 1968 in Livingston, New Jersey. Raised in Livingston, he is a graduate of the Pingry School and Dartmouth College. He has a Master’s degree in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and is currently completing his doctoral dissertation there. Appointed to the New Jersey General Assembly in April 2001, he was elected to a full term for the 21st district in November 2001.
He was subsequently appointed to the New Jersey State Senate for the 21st district by G.O.P. county committee members in March 2003, and then elected to a full term in November 2003.
He lives in Westfield in Union County with his wife, Rhonda, and their two children.
Menendez’s record of helping Hudson County
Menendez served as New Jersey’s 13th District congressman from 1993 to 2006. In 2003, he was elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, a position that made him the third-highest ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.
Menendez used his power and authority significantly to help his district. He helped to secure millions of dollars in funds for the Bergen-Hudson Light Rail system that now links Bayonne to North Bergen. He also helped to secure funds for the Trans-Hudson Express (THE) Tunnel, a project that after its projected completion is expected to double rail capacity between New Jersey and New York.
Menendez has taken a leading role regarding port security in New Jersey. While in the Senate, Menendez has assisted in securing an additional $1 billion for additional port security measures.
In February 2006, Menendez co-sponsored legislation with Democratic New York Senator Hillary Clinton to make it illegal for foreign governments to own or operate United States ports.
Additionally, the relatively new Senator has been proactive on heath care issues. He worked to restore $130 million to the Garden State for seniors’ prescription drug coverage and has fought the Bush administration’s cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.
Although Kean has been in the New Jersey State Senate for a relatively short period of time, he has already risen to prominent leadership positions, including his unanimous election as Senate Minority Whip in 2004.
During his earlier service in the state Assembly, Kean was the original sponsor of legislation designed to ban the practice of “pay-to-play” in New Jersey. In both the assembly and the State Senate, Kean sponsored legislation aiming to promote education, protect the environment, streamline government and lower property taxes.
In 2002, Kean was recognized as a Toll Fellow by the Council of State Governments for high achievements and service to state government. He was one of only 40 state leaders from across America to receive this honor.
In 2005, the New Jersey Conference of Mayors named Kean as a Legislative Leader. For two years in a row, he has received the Amerigroup Foundation’s Champion for Children award for his work on children’s issues. Kean has also been named Legislator of the Year by the Fireman’s Benevolent Association and has received a 100 percent voting record rating from the National Federation of Independent Business.
The candidates on Iraq
Democratic candidates around the nation have seen their fortunes rise over one particularly explosive issue: the war in Iraq, a war that has cost nearly 2,700 American lives to date. New Jersey is no different.
Menendez has tried to tie Republican Kean to President Bush and his stance on Iraq.
In a state where President George W. Bush’s approval rating is extremely low, Menendez has spoken out on perceived policy missteps regarding the war. Menendez’s vote was one of 133 against the Iraq war resolution when he sat on the International Relations Committee in the House of Representatives in Oct. 2002.
Menendez has subsequently called the Iraq conflict a “war of choice and not of necessity.” Last week, he stated that he would work to bring back the troops from Iraq within a year if the Democrats win back control of the Senate.
Kean has stated that he would have voted for the war in Iraq based on the information that was present at the time. However, he has since been critical of the way the Bush administration is handling the war. He has repeatedly called for the resignation of U.S. secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Kean also believes that an immediate withdrawal from Iraq would be unrealistic, and that such a move could lead to a “humanitarian crisis” and further regional instability.
Kean has been trying to frame this election as a crusade against corruption, claiming that Menendez is too close to the Hudson County Democratic machine, which has in the past seen some of its politicians go to jail on corruption charges.
Kean got a little help this past September when federal investigators from the office of the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, Christopher Christie, subpoenaed records of a rental agreement between Menendez and the North Hudson Community Action Corporation (NHCAC), a non-profit health agency for the poor based in West New York.
Menendez rented a building to the agency from 1994 to 2003, collecting more than $300,000 in rent from the organization while he was serving at the representative for the 13th Congressional district. During the same period, he helped the agency receive millions in dollars in federal funds.
Menendez has denied any allegations that these transactions were unethical, stating that they were approved by the House Ethics Committee.
The issue has received national attention, with the NHCAC – which actually provides thousands of health screenings for local low-income adults and children – being referred to as simply a “Hudson County non-profit.”
The Menendez camp, in defending itself against the allegations, went further, suggesting that U.S. Attorney General Christie, a Republican who was appointed by President George W. Bush to his position in December 2001, timed the subpoena of Menendez’s tenants in a way to inflict maximum negative political damage on him.
Christie purportedly does have political aspirations. However, he has also won some accolades from on both sides of the aisle for his equal-opportunity approach to prosecuting political corruption.
At a recent press conference, Christie spoke to the issue of timing. “We have no preconceived notions when we go into investigations,” Christie said. “We merely follow the evidence we uncover wherever it leads. We have no other agenda.”
Menendez fought corruption himself
Menendez himself was on the same side as the prosecutors in the early 1980s when his former mentor, Union City Mayor and State Sen. William Musto, stood trial for federal conviction on racketeering charges. Menendez, a young Cuban-American who had moved up through the ranks of Union City politics and had been an aide to Musto, now was among those who testified against Musto.
“He demonstrated by his actions that he is a reformer,” said local attorney Donald Scarinci about Menendez in August. “He testified against his mentor Musto, who was a personal and a political disappointment to him. Several people who were indicted with Musto were members of organized crime. Bob Menendez testified against them. That took courage. I saw him wear the bullet-proof vest [during the trial].”
‘Guilt by geography’
Known as a tough campaigner, Menendez is not backing down. Menendez complained about the Republican “smear campaign” that is using “guilt by geography” to try to defeat him. In an earlier interview with the Reporter, Menendez was defiant about Tom Kean’s claims that he is just another corrupt Hudson County political boss.
“It was Tom Kean Jr. and his father who muscled out many Republicans who expressed a desire to run for the Senate so that there wouldn’t be any primary,” he said. ” It seems to me if any national political muscle was brought into this race, it was more by Kean Jr. There’s a degree of bossism in the way he’s acted.”
The Menendez campaign has also criticized the timing of contributions totaling over $13,000 from Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield executives and their families to the Kean Senate campaign shortly before he voted twice during a June 2005 state Senate vote to let the insurance company keep a $40 million tax exemption.
Kean campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker stated that Kean “has never taken contributions with strings attached.”
Who’s the underdog?
Referring to the challenges he faces and the closeness of the race, Menendez said, “the reality is I’m the underdog in this race. Tom Kean Jr. comes from a family with a great name…This election will be between the son of immigrants who grew up poor and walked in the shoes of the average New Jerseyan, versus the son of a powerful governor whose family goes back to the colonial period. As New Jerseyans get to know me and what I stand for and see the differences between us, I believe those polls will widen.”
He added, “It’s an election about where the nation heads,” he said. “If you believe the nation is headed in the right direction and you agree with the President’s policies, you would be voting for Tom Kean Jr.”
At his campaign headquarters in Mountainside, N.J., the man who wants to foil Menendez’s plan begged to differ.
“When Bob Menendez was appointed to the Senate, many newspapers and individuals criticized his ethical background,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s not what New Jersey needs right now. The concerns voiced at the beginning of the campaign are now being borne out.”
Kean went to on to talk about what he believes is the cost of corruption.
“The system that currently exists costs taxpayers too much money,” he said. “Every time you have an inflated contract through pay-to-play, every time a legislator puts federal taxpayer dollars into their own pocket, how else could that money have been used? This is not about Hudson County or the people of Hudson County. This is about a system of government that has focused far too long on a pay-to-play culture.”
Kean consultant writes to Janiszewski; the Scarinci issue
However, Kean himself has had to deal with the fact that a subcontractor for his campaign actually exchanged letters with imprisoned former Hudson County Executive Bobby Janiszewski. Chris Lyon works as a subcontractor for Kean’s chief campaign political consultant Matt Leonardo. It was publicly revealed at the end of September that Lyon had established a written correspondence with Janiszewski in an attempt to dig up damaging information about Menendez.
Following an Oct. 1 news conference, Gov. Corzine, who appointed Menendez to the Senate in January, expressed his concerns about these tactics.
“Now we have a situation where the Republican candidate is actually using a person in jail as a campaign consultant and an advisor,” he said.
Kean subsequently defended himself and his campaign.
“I don’t know the daily activities of the people who are providing research for the campaign,” he said. “But thousands of people have come to us to talk about the corruption that has surrounded Bob Menendez, and this is one individual that knew exactly what he had done in his past. Is anybody going to believe that Menendez hasn’t done research into my background?”
Recently, a more personal blow to Menendez’s campaign came at the end of September, involving the aforementioned attorney Scarinci. Dr. Oscar Sandoval, a Union City psychiatrist and FBI informant who helped to bring down Janiszewski, released transcripts of a taped telephone call made seven years ago in which Scarinci, Menendez’s closest political and personal ally, told Sandoval that Menendez would consider it a “favor” if Sandoval hired another doctor, Vicente Ruiz, who was allied with Menendez.
Last month, Menendez’s campaign quickly severed ties with Scarinci after the transcript revelations. Scarinci said that Menendez didn’t know about the conversation. “I will clearly state,” he said, “that none of my dealings with Dr. Sandoval were either directed or requested by Bob Menendez.”
Political science professor on the horserace
Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, commented recently at how the corruption issue is affecting the Senate election.
“The revelations concerning Menendez have taken their toll [on his campaign],” he said. “In combination with former State Senator John Lynch’s guilty plea for fraud and tax evasion, former Governor Jim McGreevey’s book, and State Senator Wayne Bryant stepping down from the head of the budget committee [all Democratic officials], it begins to form a kind of mosaic. It is the kind of problem Senator Menendez would find really troublesome to deal with. But is it fatal? No.”
He said, “The incriminating evidence would have to be a lot more direct. It would have to be his voice on the tape, or a subpoena to him personally. Menendez still has the solid support of prominent Democrats.”
Baker sees a Menendez victory as possible for both national and local reasons. The recent resignation of Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Foley over e-mails to young male congressional pages has hurt the G.O.P. nationally. In Baker’s view, ethics is only one of many complex issues facing New Jerseyans.
“This is a Senate election,” he said. “Local issues are important, but there are national concerns. There is a lot of concern is this state about the conduct of the war in Iraq. Ethics issues cannot win a Senate campaign by themselves.”
He added, “There is in New Jersey, for better or for worse, a fairly high threshold for what people consider corruption. There is a belief that politics is a game not played by choir boys, so politicians get a certain amount of slack cut for them where a couple of allegations for questionable dealings are pardoned. I think there’s a feeling that somehow having impeccable honesty in Trenton is more important than sending it to Washington.” See last week’s article ‘Politics in shades of gray’ for more on the history of corruption among politicians (www.hudsonreporter.com). To comment on this story, e-mail Mark J. Bonamo at email@example.com.