The newly elected senator from Hudson County Menendez’s victory could spell prosperity locally

Sen. Robert Menendez made history on Tuesday when he became the first Latino in New Jersey elected to the U.S. Senate. He already had been appointed to the seat by Gov. Jon Corzine in January, but the election gives him a full six-year term.

Of even more local importance, his victory against Republican challenger state Senator Tom Kean Jr. may be a bright sign for Hudson County.

Menendez, 52, who also had held the distinction as the first Hispanic assemblyman, state senator, and House of Representatives, moves into the U.S. Senate at a time when the Democratic Party has gained a majority, providing Hudson County with significant political clout and a possible boon in federal aid.

“Look at all the federal dollars Menendez brought into Hudson County as a minority congressman,” said Jim Kennelly, spokesperson for the Hudson County Executive’s office, last week. “That about how much more he can bring in as a U.S. senator with the Democrats in the majority.”

A daunting task

Menendez beat Kean on Tuesday by more than 8 percent of the total vote statewide, although until a few days before the polls opened Nov. 7, he and Kean were nearly tied in the opinion polls.

Hudson County came out big for their native son, giving Menendez 81,000 votes, providing him with a huge cushion against the Kean serge in other parts of the state. That was even more votes than Hudson County gave Jon Corzine (62,000) in the governor’s race.

The depth of feeling stunned even those perceived politically-hardened. “The line of voters at Menendez’s headquarters in Jersey City went around the block,” Kennelly said.

Volunteer Jerome Coldwell, a Bayonne resident, worked at the Jersey City headquarters. “Everybody came out – we had senior citizens, we had kids,” he said. “Everybody thought it was time for a change and worked to save Social Security and other programs threatened by the Bush administration.”

Political consultant Tony Amabile said he received five separate calls on Election Day to see if he had voted yet.

Voters also got automated calls from Al Gore and Bill Clinton reminding them to vote, while Tom Kean Jr.’s recorded phone endorsement came in the form of Joe Piscopo.

In his victory speech at his New Brunswick celebration Tuesday night, Menendez acknowledged the role Hudson County played in his election.

“Work, sacrifice, faith, family, progress – that’s what people in Hudson County are all about,” he said.

Will represent prominent demographic

State Sen. Bernard Kenny, who serves as chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, said the victory had huge implications for future Hudson County political aspirants.

“If Bob didn’t win, we would not have seen a Hudson County candidate win a statewide election in my lifetime or the lifetime of our children,” Kenny said. “Bob broke the ceiling, not only in this, but also as a Hispanic candidate. Years from now, someone raised in this county can run for governor, U.S. Senate or even the presidency because of what Bob did Tuesday.”

Kenny predicted Menendez would become a national figure for the Democratic Party within a year.

“He will become the spokesman for the fastest growing population in the county, and he will be called on to help with campaigns. He is articulate and he is good on the stump,” said Kenny.

Kenny predicted that Menendez’s legislative skills would become evident in a short time, giving him a prominent position in the Senate.

National effect

Menendez’s election was seen as one of the key victories for Democrats in the nation, allowing for a possible takeover of the U.S. Senate.

“We benefit as a county because we now have a senator and governor who call Hoboken a hometown,” Kennelly, “That’s not a bad thing.”

Menendez grew up in Union City, becoming that city’s mayor, and now lives uptown in Hoboken.

Eric Daughtrey, executive director of the HCDO, said Menendez has been a friend to Hudson County.

“People in this county have had a friend in Bob Menendez, and now that he is U.S. senator, he will continue to be our friend,” she said.

Daughtrey said Menendez made this promise earlier this year when he accepted the nomination, and she expects he will live up to that promise now that he is elected.

Results in the towns

Menendez beat Kean in all 12 Hudson County municipalities, dispelling fears that Bayonne and Secaucus might swing towards Kean. However, Bayonne and Secaucus did provide more narrow victories than the other towns.

Jersey City, where some believed a past feud between Menendez and former Mayor Glenn Cunningham might erode votes, came out heavily for Menendez.

This, according to Kennelly, bodes well for the future of Hudson County political theater, suggesting that a peace may finally have been brokered betweens some Democratic factions.

Several key political observers feared that a less than enthusiastic vote might have led to more tensions in the party.

Kennelly said some local voters might have been angered by Kean’s campaign that turned Hudson County into a political punchline.

“Kean tried to kick us with his corruption campaign,” he said.

Kean, not Bush, lost this campaign

Remarking after the results of the election were announced, Kean’s father, former Gov. Tom Kean Sr., said President George W. Bush caused Kean Jr. to lose this election.

Kenny disputed this claim, saying Kean ran a bad campaign, harping on the negative while failing to convey his own beliefs.

“If he had lost by one or two thousand votes statewide, I would have said President Bush was a factor, but Kean lost by 140,000 votes,” Kenny said. “This was a competitive race across the state. Kean just didn’t convince voters. Kean ran a poor campaign. The negatives debilitated him. He trashed Hudson County with every other sentence, a county that has been the economic engine for the state for the last 20 years. That is dishonest and disrespectful.”

James Barracato, a political consultant for York Strategies, said Menendez won partly because this was a Democratic year and partly because Menendez has a remarkable track record that Kean could not match.

“In some ways, this was a people’s referendum against President Bush,” Barracato said. “But Menendez has a great record of accomplishments: the light rail, the ferry terminal, homeland security funding. He does a lot, and he has tangible things he can point at for what he’s done. What would Kean have done as freshman senator with only five years experience in state government?”

Barracato said this election victory was well earned.

“This was the race of Menendez’s life, and even his enemies have to admit he earned this one. He worked hard and he won this the old fashioned way,” he said.

Even enemies see Menendez election as positive

Some longtime political opponents took Menendez’s side in this election, including political activist and former school board member Michael Lenz of Hoboken.

“I voted for Bob Menendez,” he said. “Not because he was excellent congressman, but because the country needs him to be a magnificent senator. Given the state of the United States of America, I believe what he said in his acceptance speech.”

In his victory speech, Menendez promised to wake up every day thinking of ways to make this a better country.

Lenz said he believed the Democratic Party needs to begin building a roadmap for the future over the next two years, a plan of action that they can implement when regaining the White House in 2008.

More begrudging was the compliment from stem cell research advocate and former Hoboken councilman Tony Soares, who had criticized Menendez earlier for not explaining one of the perceived ethical lapses that Kean harped on.

“At the end of the day, Menendez’s victory is good for America as a whole,” Soares said. “His positions on a national level, such as funding for stem cell research and the war in Iraq, have been two things I agree with the senator on. Unfortunately, he turned a blind eye to mudslinging, deficit spending, over-development, and corruption at local levels. The latter is why I could not publicly support him.”

Soares added, “In the end I am thrilled George Bush has been put in his place and the checks and balances are restored to the people of the U.S.”

This will remain a Democratic seat

The contest for the U.S. Senate seat Menendez inherited earlier this year when Jon Corzine vacated it to become new governor was one of the toughest and most bitterly fought in the state.

Some issues raised by Kean in his campaign to portray Menendez as a corrupt political boss will linger after the election. Several political observers believe investigation into some of Menendez’s real estate deals may leave a gleam of hope for Republicans seeking to retain control of the U.S. Senate.

But it is a false hope. The U.S. Constitution leaves the choice of replacing a U.S. senator to the state governor. Except in Arizona, a candidate may remain in that seat until the expiration of the term of office, without need of a special election.


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