Elected: Appointed Jan. 2006, term expires 2018, 2nd full term.
Born: January 1, 1954, New York, NY
Home: North Bergen , NJ
Education: St. Peter's Col., B.A. 1976, Rutgers Law Schl., J.D. 1979
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1980-92.
Religion: Roman Catholic
Family: Divorced (Jane Jacobsen (div)) , 2 children
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. Ambitious and hard-driving, he is admired—if not warmly regarded—for his strategic savvy and prodigious fundraising. He serves as top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee after having been its chairman.
Menendez is of Cuban descent and grew up in Union City, getting 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. As head of the Democratic Party organization in Hudson County, which has the third-highest number of registered Democrats of any county in the state, he was for many years a major player in state politics.
When new congressional district lines were created and incumbent Frank Guarini retired, Menendez won the 1992 primary 68%-32% and the general election 64%-31%. In the House, he was a strong supporter of anti-Fidel Castro legislation, including the 1996 trade embargo. 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 billand financial services deregulation.
By the late 1990s, Menendez was on track to a possible Senate candidacy. When Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg announced his retirement in 1999, 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—Democrats came within a few seats of winning a majority in November 2000—he would soon have more influence. Menendez busied himself raising more than $4 million for fellow Democrats and traveled around the country campaigning.
When Democrat David Bonior left the House to run for Michigan governor in 2002, Democrats picked California’s Nancy Pelosi over Maryland’s Steny Hoyer to succeed Bonior as party whip. Menendez announced he would run for caucus chairman, the No. 3 leadership position, against Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. Pelosi endorsed DeLauro, and Hoyer endorsed Menendez. On the secret ballot, Menendez won 104-103. As caucus chairman, he continued to raise large sums for the party in the 2003-04 election season.
When Corzine decided to run for New Jersey governor, Menendez made it known that he would run for Corzine’s Senate seat. He 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. Democrats worried about Menendez’s Hudson County political baggage, and had questions about his relationship with former aide Kay LiCausi and his efforts to steer lobbying and consulting work her way. Nonetheless, after Corzine was elected governor, he appointed Menendez to his Senate seat in January 2006.
Still, he had an upcoming election to worry about. 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. Kean also reminded voters of Menendez’s influence in Hudson County.
In September 2006, then-U.S. Attorney Chris 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 speculated Menendez would drop out. (A subsequent U.S. attorney closed the case in 2011 after Christie was elected governor.) But 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, but he held on to win 53%-44%.
In the Senate, Menendez became Foreign Affairs’ chairman in February 2013 after Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry became secretary of State. Under normal circumstances, Menendez would have relished the limelight to detail his agenda, which includes taking a harder line than the Obama administration on Cuba and focusing on Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
But news outlets reported that he had possibly violated Senate rules for accepting two round-trip flights to the Dominican Republic in 2010 from a donor, Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye surgeon whose offices were raided by the FBI. After a New Jersey Republican lawmaker filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee, Menendez paid the estimated $58,500 cost of the flights and related expenses. He explained that the issue “unfortunately fell through the cracks.” More news accounts said the senator’s staff had thwarted U.S. donations of cargo-screening equipment to the Dominican government because the equipment could have jeopardized a port security contract benefiting Melgen. The Washington Post also reported that Menendez spoke with top federal health officials in 2009 and 2012 about a finding that Melgen had overbilled Medicare by almost $9 million. It later reported that a federal grand jury in Miami was investigating the senator’s dealings with Melgen.
At the same time, conservative news websites trumpeted allegations, from an anonymous tipster, that Menendez had hired prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. The FBI said it could not substantiate the allegations, and Dominican police later said an attorney there paid three women to make up the stories.
The senator denied wrongdoing, declaring, “The bottom line is all of those smears are absolutely false.” He later blamed Cuba's Castro government for orchestrating a smear campaign. Both The New York Times and The Star-Ledger of Newark had called for Menendez to relinquish his Foreign Relations chairmanship while the Ethics Committee addressed his dealings with Melgen, although the senator refused to do so. Commentators wondered if the controversy would have an impact on his ability to run the panel, noting that he already lacked the foreign policy credentials of his predecessors. “Foreign Relations seems destined to return to the days of ineffective chairmen … or polarizing ones,” Bloomberg columnist Albert Hunt wrote.
Before moving up to claim the Foreign Relations gavel, Menendez had spent his Senate career at the center of numerous big issues. He 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.” He continued to speak out on immigration after the bill died in 2007. He later defended tax rebates to illegal immigrants in the 2008 economic stimulus bill.
He introduced comprehensive immigration legislation in September 2010, but the measure fell victim to a crowded election-year calendar. One of its components—the DREAM Act, which offered the children of illegal immigrants a path of citizenship in return for military service or college attendance—ran into Democratic as well as GOP opposition in the 2010 lame-duck session. But when immigration suddenly became a front-burner issue during the 2012 election season, Menendez became part of a bipartisan group of eight senators that secretly crafted a comprehensive reform proposal. Among the senators was Florida Republican Marco Rubio, another Cuban-American whom Menendez had gotten to know when the two served as chairman and ranking member of Foreign Relations’ subcommittee on Latin America.
Menendez won a coveted slot on the Finance Committee in 2009. In that role, he backed two attempts in the committee to add a government-run “public option” to the health care bill, but both failed. His stance on that issue, as well as on immigration and other Democratic priorities, incensed New Jersey tea party activists, and in early 2010, they launched an effort to recall him. Menendez dismissed the recall as a “political stunt” and in April appealed to the state Supreme Court to stop their actions, calling them an “attack on the Constitution” because the document forbids the recall of a sitting U.S. senator. Seven months after hearing arguments in May, the court issued a 4-2 decision in agreement.
On the committee, Menendez in January 2009 succeeded in adding a one-year fix to the alternative minimum tax to the economic stimulus bill, which would protect middle-income taxpayers from having to pay a tax originally aimed at wealthy taxpayers who sheltered their earnings. In March 2009, he placed a hold on two of President Barack Obama’s nominees to administration jobs to protest a provision easing travel restrictions to Cuba that was included in an 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,” Menendez 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.
Menendez also raised his profile on energy and environment issues. When the Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved a wide-ranging bipartisan energy bill in 2009, Menendez refused to support it, saying that a renewable energy mandate needed to be stronger and objecting to a provision allowing oil drilling within 45 miles of coastlines. A year later, following the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Menendez was a central figure on the contentious issue of liability caps on legal damages that companies would face for the BP spill and future spills. He introduced a bill proposing to eliminate the $75 million cap, but the measure ran into strong opposition from Republicans as well as fellow Democrats Mark Begich of Alaska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. He subsequently sought in 2011 to eliminate $2 billion in tax breaks for the oil industry, which he said no longer needed them in light of massive profits. But his measure failed to clear the necessary 60-vote hurdle.
Menendez got some negative attention for blocking a promotion for a prosecutor investigating Puerto Rican Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, a friend of his, who, as the non-voting delegate from Puerto Rico in the House, had cast a decisive vote for Menendez in the caucus chairman race. The prosecutor was in line to become the U.S. attorney in Puerto Rico and, at the time, was investigating Acevedo Vilá’s fundraising practices. The prosecutor got the appointment in the end, and Acevedo Vilá was indicted for violating campaign finance and tax laws in 2008.
In the 2008 election season, Menendez was the deputy director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, helping to raise money for Senate campaigns. He took over the chairmanship in the 2010 election cycle, attaining the fourth-ranking leadership position in the Senate Democratic majority. His low-key, disciplined approach contrasted sharply with that of his frenetic and publicity-driven predecessor, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. But the economic downturn and the public’s discontent with the Democrats’ health care bill worked heavily against him, and his party was shocked by Republican Scott Brown’s upset win in Massachusetts in the January 2010 special election. After that embarrassment, Menendez reportedly urged his party’s candidates at a private meeting to “run scared.”
Under Menendez, the DSCC outraised its Republican counterpart, $130 million to $115 million. Even though Democrats lost six Senate seats, many in the party were relieved that the damage wasn’t worse. Several vulnerable incumbents, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Colorado’s Michael Bennet, hung on to win, marking the first time in 80 years that the party in charge of the House lost control but the Senate did not. “The windstorm he was walking into, it wasn’t just 30 miles per hour winds with gusts up to 40 miles per hour; it was a hurricane,” Reid told The Record newspaper of Hackensack. Reid’s victory was attributed partly to Hispanic voter turnout that Menendez helped to bolster.
For 2012, Menendez declined to stay on as DSCC chairman to concentrate on his own reelection. Republicans were targeting him, but the challenge of finding a GOP candidate who could compete financially remained elusive. The task fell to state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a good friend of Christie’s whose best weapon became the governor accompanying him to campaign events. Kyrillos took in $4.6 million, but Menendez again demonstrated his fundraising prowess by bringing in more than $17 million. He won 59%-39%. Kyrillos carried coastal Cape May and Ocean counties and affluent suburban Hunterdon, Sussex, Warren, and Morris counties. But Menendez piled up 79% in Newark’s Essex County and 79% in his Hudson County home base.
Office Contact Information
HSOB- Hart Senate Office Building
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HSOB- Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-3005
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Newark, NJ 07102-5323
One Gateway Center
Newark, NJ 07102-5323
208 White Horse Pike
Barrington, NJ 08007-1322
208 White Horse Pike
Barrington, NJ 08007-1322
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