Sen. Robert Menendez (D)
Elected: Appointed Jan. 2006, term expires 2012, 1st full term.
Born: Jan. 1, 1954, New York, NY .
Home: Union City.
Education: St. Peter's Col., B.A. 1976, Rutgers Law Schl., J.D. 1979.
Family: Married (Jane Jacobsen-Menendez); 2 children.
Elected office: Union City Bd. of Ed., 1974–82; Union City mayor, 1986–92; NJ Assembly, 1987–91; NJ Senate, 1991–92; U.S. House of Reps., 1992-2006.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1980-92.
Robert Menendez, New Jersey’s junior senator, was appointed by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in January 2006, and won election to a full term 10 months later. His ascension to the Senate was no lucky break, but rather the culmination of a career marked by an ability to adapt to and thrive in bruising political arenas. He is of Cuban descent and grew up in Union City, America’s most densely populated city (in 2000 it had 60,000 people in 1.3 square miles), and got into politics early. He was elected to the school board in 1974, at age 20. He worked for Union City Mayor William Musto in the 1970s, but quit and testified against Musto in a corruption trial, wearing a bulletproof vest for protection because of death threats. Menendez was elected mayor in 1986, and elected to the Assembly in 1987 and Senate in 1991; he served both as mayor and legislator, which had been a common practice in New Jersey, until his 1992 election to Congress. Menendez was the first New Jersey Latino in the state Legislature and in Congress. When new district lines were created and incumbent Frank Guarini retired, Menendez won the 1992 primary 68%-32% and the general election 64%-31%. As head of the Democratic Party organization in Hudson County, which has the highest number of registered Democrats of any county in the state, he was for many years a major player in state politics.
|Robert Menendez (D)||1,200,843||(53%)||($13,328,665)|
|Thomas Kean Jr. (R)||997,775||(44%)||($7,762,373)|
|Robert Menendez (D)||159,604||(84%)|
|James Kelly (D)||30,340||(16%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2004 House (76%), 2002 House (78%), 2000 House (79%), 1998 House (80%), 1996 House (79%), 1994 House (71%), 1992 House (64%)
In the House, Menendez was a strong supporter of anti-Castro legislation, including the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. He sponsored a bill in 2004 to put illegal immigrants on the path to permanent worker status and citizenship. Noting the increasing importance of the financial services industry in Hudson County, his home base, he broke with many Democrats to support the 2005 bankruptcy bill and financial services deregulation.
By the late 1990s, Menendez was on the track to a leadership position in the House and to a possible Senate candidacy in New Jersey. In November 1998, he was elected vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus. In February 1999, when Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg announced his retirement, Menendez was widely expected to run for the seat, but support was not forthcoming from New Jersey Sen. Bob Torricelli, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, who preferred Jon Corzine, a wealthy former investment banker who could self-finance his campaign. Minority Leader Dick Gephardt urged Menendez to stay in the House, arguing that as a leader of a Democratic majority—and Democrats came within a few seats of winning a majority in November 2000—he would have more influence than as a junior minority-party senator. In November 1999, Menendez endorsed Corzine for the Senate and began running for Democratic Caucus chairman, the third-ranking minority leadership post. He raised more than $4 million for House Democrats in the 2000 and 2002 elections, and traveled around the country campaigning. His Hispanic background was an asset, and not just within the 20-member Hispanic Caucus. “There are 50 to 60 members who are not Hispanic but have significant Hispanic communities in their districts,” he said.
The decisive leadership election came in 2001, when David Bonior, running for governor of Michigan, resigned his position as minority whip. In a decision with major reverberations today, the caucus picked California’s Nancy Pelosi over Maryland’s Steny Hoyer to succeed Bonior as whip. Menendez announced he would run for caucus chairman in November 2002, against Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. Pelosi endorsed DeLauro, and Hoyer endorsed Menendez. Then, on the last day of September 2002, another opportunity came to run for the Senate. Torricelli dropped out of his race for re-election amid an ethics scandal, and Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey and state Democratic leaders sought another candidate. With more than $2 million in his campaign treasury, Menendez probably could have had the nomination for the asking. But he decided not to run, saying he was already too committed to getting a Democratic majority in the House and becoming caucus chairman. Instead, Lautenberg became the nominee and was elected to the Senate in November. But Democrats once again failed to win a majority in the House in 2002. Menendez walked into the caucus meeting after the election with a list of 107 members who had agreed to openly support him. On the secret ballot he won 104-103.
As caucus chairman, Menendez continued to show his fundraising prowess. By June 2003, he had $2.8 million in his campaign fund, more than any other House member, and over the 2003-04 election season he raised $3.6 million. On August 12, McGreevey announced that he had had an affair with a man he’d hired as his homeland-security chief and would resign on November 15. Menendez, along with Camden County Democratic Chairman George Norcross and Middlesex County Chairman John Lynch, urged McGreevey to resign before September 3, which would trigger a November special election in which Corzine could run and which he would probably win, at which point he could appoint Menendez senator. But McGreevey refused, and Senate President Richard Codey, a political adversary of Norcross’s and Lynch’s, became acting governor for 14 months until January 2006.
In December 2004, after Corzine announced he would run for governor and before acting Gov. Codey took himself out of the race, Menendez made it known that if Corzine were elected, he would run for the Senate even if Corzine named someone else to the seat. As the presumed front-runner to succeed Corzine, Menendez had amassed more than $4 million for a statewide campaign, far more than two potential Democratic rivals—U.S. Reps. Robert Andrews and Frank Pallone. By May 2005, Menendez began spending time on the Senate side of the Capitol at news conferences and developing relationships with senators. Menendez, Pallone, and Andrews all actively campaigned for Corzine’s gubernatorial bid, while at the same time positioning themselves for a Senate campaign.
After Corzine won the election in November 2005, he waited a month before revealing his chosen successor. Codey was the favorite of DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer because of his popularity and name recognition, but Codey took his name out of consideration before Thanksgiving. Democrats worried about Menendez’s Hudson County political baggage, and had questions about Menendez’s relationship with former aide Kay LiCausi and his efforts to steer lobbying and consulting work her way. In December, Corzine announced he would appoint Menendez as his replacement, and did so in January after he was sworn in as governor. Menendez joined Sens. Mel Martinez of Florida and Ken Salazar of Colorado as the chamber’s Hispanic members. In his first actions, Menendez won $2.6 million in additional funding for the New Jersey National Guard and won passage of a measure that would fund $60 million for a United Nations mission in the Darfur region in Sudan.
Much of his attention was devoted to the Senate election. Andrews and Pallone each decided they probably couldn’t compete with Menendez and declined to challenge him in the primary, leaving Menendez free to focus on his Republican opponent, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., son and namesake of popular former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean. Menendez campaigned against the Iraq war, while Kean said he would have voted for the Iraq war resolution and opposed a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. But Kean also called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and criticized President Bush’s handling of the conflict, which Menendez called a “clumsy” attempt to find political cover for the unpopular war. Kean reminded voters of Menendez’s influence in Hudson County. In September 2006, U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie subpoenaed records from a lease arrangement between Menendez and an anti-poverty group for which he had sought federal funding and that paid him some $300,000 in rent on a building he owned in Union City. Republicans spread rumors that Menendez might drop out as Torricelli had in 2002. Menendez responded with an attack ad linking Kean to contributors with ethics problems. Then it was revealed that the Kean campaign’s opposition researchers had contacted former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski, who was serving time in federal prison on corruption charges. Menendez struck back with a television ad accusing Kean of a smear campaign: “Federal prisoner 25038-050. He’s Tom Kean Jr.’s newest adviser.” Polls late in the season showed Menendez with only a slight lead, and for a moment it seemed Republicans had one of the few opportunities to contest a Democrat-held seat in 2006. But Menendez held on to win 53%-44%.
In the Senate, Menendez took part in bipartisan discussions aimed at coming up with a comprehensive immigration bill, but walked out in May 2007, arguing that Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts had made too many concessions to Republicans and that the bill would “tear at the fabric of family reunification.” The proposed $19,000 fees required for legalization for a family of four, he said, were “punitive” and “impractical.” Menendez said, “Under this bill, my father and mother would never have made it here. The parents of Colin Powell would probably not have made it, or Jonas Salk or Bob Hope or plenty of others I consider great Americans.” He sponsored his own unsuccessful amendment to make green card holders eligible for legalization from May 2005 to January 2007. He continued to speak out on immigration after the bill died in June 2007. He defended tax rebates to illegal immigrants under the 2008 economic stimulus bill. “This new dimension about whether that person is undocumented or not—if in fact they paid taxes, then it seems to me that they are also going to continue to stimulate the economy,” Menendez said. After the House extended for five years the eVerify system, used by employers to check the immigration status of new hires, Menendez tried to block it in the Senate by backing an amendment to make hundreds of thousands of unused family visas dating back to 1992 available for use.
He weighed in on other issues. With Lautenberg, he sponsored a bill based on recommendations of the 9/11 commission and requiring 100% radiation scanning of shipping cargo containers by 2012. When the Asbury Park Press spotlighted huge increases in the cost of closing Fort Monmouth by 2011, he and Lautenberg sponsored a bill to require a review of base-closing costs if they went over 25% of original estimates. Menendez also sponsored a bill on beef safety after a recall of beef purchased in volume for New Jersey schools. In January 2009, he succeeded in adding a one-year fix to the alternative minimum tax patch to the economic stimulus bill, which would protect middle-income taxpayers from having to pay a tax originally aimed at wealthy taxpayers who sheltered most of their earnings. In March 2009, he placed a hold on two of Obama’s nominees to administration jobs to protest a provision easing travel restrictions to Cuba that was included in a $410 billion catchall appropriations bill. “It’s a horrid process to start going down the road on. It means a handful of members can change the foreign policy of the United States,” Mendendez said of mixing Cuba policy with appropriations legislation. His refusal to vote for the spending bill prevented it from getting the needed 60 votes until he was offered assurances by the administration that the Cuba rider would have little impact.
The investigation of Menendez’s ties with LiCausi produced no indictments. Menendez was criticized for blocking a promotion for a prosecutor investigating Puerto Rican Gov. Anibal Acevedo-Vila, a friend of Menendez who, as the nonvoting delegate from Puerto Rico in the House, had cast a decisive vote for Menendez in the caucus chairman race in 2002. The prosecutor was in line to become the U.S. attorney in Puerto Rico, and at the time was investigating Acevedo-Vila’s fundraising practices. Menendez had also raised $250,000 in campaign funds in Puerto Rico for his congressional campaigns. The prosecutor got the appointment in the end, and Acevedo-Vila was indicted for violating campaign finance and tax laws in March 2008, and was defeated for re-election in November 2008.
In the 2008 election season, Menendez was the deputy director of the DSCC and worked with Chairman Schumer to raise money for the 2008 campaigns. In November 2008, he succeeded Schumer as DSCC chairman, the fourth-ranking leadership position in the Senate Democratic majority. The campaign committee has been headed by senators from New Jersey or New York in five of the last six cycles—Torricelli in 2000, Corzine in 2004, Schumer in 2006 and 2008, and Menendez in 2010. In February 2009, Menendez said, “I think a cursory look at the map shows that the fear should be on the other side,” and indicated that he would target Republican-held seats in Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
He endorsed New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for president in June 2007, and she carried Hudson County 62%-36%. When Illinois Sen. Barack Obama won the nomination, he offered Menendez a pre-prime-time speech slot at the party’s national convention in Denver, but he declined.