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A Rough-and-Tumble Congressman Is Ready to Step Up

Hudson County Politics Message Board

By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN

New York Times
METROPOLITAN DESK
Published: September 19, 2005

Growing up in a tenement apartment in Union City, N.J., Robert Menendez had a dream. It was an unusual dream for someone whose vistas were blocked by chain link fences and dollar stores and whose father could barely hold a job. But even back then, Mr. Menendez was openly ambitious about it.

''I remember as kids, he'd say, 'I'd like to be a U.S. senator,''' said Manny Diaz, a childhood friend. ''And we'd laugh, because it seemed like pie in the sky.''

Now, after decades of public service, Mr. Menendez, a formidable Democratic congressman from New Jersey, may achieve his dream.

Just beneath the clamor of the governor's race in New Jersey is a shadow race to be the state's next United States senator. If Jon S. Corzine, the investment banker turned senator turned candidate for governor, wins the election in November, he will pick a successor for his Senate seat. And that's how, after all these years of talking about becoming a senator, Mr. Menendez could step in.

Mr. Menendez is now in an awkward three-way dance with two other Democratic New Jersey congressmen -- Robert E. Andrews of Camden County and Frank Pallone Jr. of Monmouth County -- all working for Mr. Corzine's election campaign in the hope of a major promotion.

Mr. Corzine refuses to say whom he prefers, insisting that he must concentrate on his own race. But many political analysts, reading the tea leaves of Mr. Menendez's frequent appearances on behalf of the senator and their close relationship, say that Mr. Menendez is the front-runner.

If Mr. Menendez is selected, New Jersey will be represented by a rising Democratic Party star who would be the state's first Hispanic United States senator.

The son of poor Cuban immigrants -- his father was an itinerant carpenter, his mother worked in a factory -- Mr. Menendez has both a common touch with his constituents in Hudson County and clout among powerful Democrats nationwide. In 2000, he was even mentioned as a possible candidate for vice president.

But Mr. Menendez also brings with him a reputation for extreme tactics. His career has been marked as much by his Congressional and personal successes as by a number of bruising political battles, notable even in the take-no-prisoners culture of New Jersey politics.

''His style is to live by the sword,'' said Frank J. Guarini, a former New Jersey congressman whose retirement paved the way for Mr. Menendez's ascent.

With a slight paunch and bookish glasses, Mr. Menendez, 51, looks more like the policy wonk he is also said to be than like a political bruiser. But he certainly says little to undermine the description.

''I fought people from the very beginning,'' Mr. Menendez said in an interview this summer. ''It's never easy when you have to turn against someone who is either personally with you or professionally with you, but if it's wrong, it's wrong.''

His steely side may come from where he grew up. Union City is a crowded working-class city perched on the sandstone Palisades above the Hudson River, overlooking Manhattan. It used to be dominated by an Italian-American cabal but today feels more like a little slice of Latin America, where men in cowboy hats sell papaya from the backs of pickup trucks and empanadas seem as common as pizza.

It was here that Mr. Menendez learned to fight for what he wanted. When his high school teachers tried to make him and other students buy extra books for honors classes, he ran for the school board and eventually won, at age 20. A few years later, in 1981 as a young lawyer, he took on the entire Union City establishment after he realized that his mentor, William V. Musto, the beloved but deeply corrupt mayor, was misusing school funds.

Mr. Musto, who was a father figure to Mr. Menendez, was indicted on several corruption charges. And when Mr. Menendez became a government witness, many people in Union City saw it as the ultimate betrayal -- especially after Mr. Menendez announced he was running against Mr. Musto.

Mr. Menendez said he put his life on the line during Mr. Musto's trial and wore a bulletproof vest because he received so many death threats.

''I don't mean to say it was easy, but it was right,'' Mr. Menendez said of his decision to testify.

That testimony led to Mr. Musto's conviction, but voters in Union City re-elected him anyway. It was the only election that Mr. Menendez ever lost. He remembers feeling so disillusioned that he thought to himself, ''That's it, I'm not going to pursue public life anymore.''

But four years later, after Mr. Musto had been sent away to federal prison, Mr. Menendez ran again for mayor and this time he won. He was 32.

Those who knew him back then describe him as self-righteous, effective, polished and indefatigable. He was -- and still is -- a workaholic.

''I can't ever remember Bob Menendez sitting in front of the TV with a bowl of chips,'' said Donald Scarinci, a prominent New Jersey lawyer who has been close to Mr. Menendez since they were teenagers.

Mr. Menendez's single-minded focus propelled him from mayor to assemblyman to state senator and finally to Congress, in 1992. By the late 1990's, Mr. Menendez was one of the most popular politicians in the heavily Democratic county, winning re-election with 75 to 80 percent of the vote.

But someone was suddenly in his rearview mirror. Rudy Garcia, a high school football star and Ivy League graduate, had become a Democratic state assemblyman and Union City's mayor by age 34. He and Mr. Menendez were both bright lights in New Jersey's emerging Hispanic leadership, and they started off as allies.

But soon Union City was not big enough for both of them. Mr. Garcia and Mr. Menendez have wildly different versions of this era, though some of Mr. Garcia's accounts jibe with what others have said about Mr. Menendez's hardball style.

Pat Politano, a political consultant who worked for Mr. Garcia, said the first sign of trouble was Mr. Menendez's lingering involvement in Union City's affairs.

''Bob used to call us up from Washington, asking about police shifts,'' Mr. Politano said. ''I'm thinking, what's going on here? Doesn't this guy have a treaty or something to work on?''

Mr. Garcia said Mr. Menendez turned against him in 1999 after he fired Mr. Scarinci, who was representing several cities in Mr. Menendez's orbit, including Union City. Mr. Garcia said he believed that Mr. Scarinci was charging too much for his services, which Mr. Scarinci denies.

Mr. Menendez said Mr. Garcia coveted his job.

''Rudy wanted to run for Congress,'' Mr. Menendez said. ''And I don't believe in unilateral disarmament.''

Whatever the provocation, Mr. Menendez accused Mr. Garcia of abusing his power and was soon calling for his ouster as mayor, which fueled the perception -- reinforced by later examples -- that the congressman was willing to go to war for his friends' business interests.

''It was getting to the point where I could either walk away or get totally destroyed,'' Mr. Garcia said. He walked away, resigning in October 2000.

Mr. Menendez soon began squabbling with another prominent Democrat, Glenn Cunningham, the mayor of Jersey City, over a political appointment.

The spark between them was a vacancy created by yet another Hudson County corruption investigation. Robert Janiszewski, the former county executive, was indicted on bribery charges (he was eventually convicted), and county leaders needed to replace him.

Mr. Menendez and Mr. Cunningham agreed that Bernard M. Hartnett Jr., a Jersey City lawyer, should serve as interim county executive but they split when it came time to decide what to do next. The mayor wanted Mr. Hartnett to seek election to the rest of the term but Mr. Menendez vehemently opposed him, saying Mr. Hartnett had given his word not to run.

Mr. Hartnett said in an interview that he had never made such a deal. Soon, Hudson County Democrats were witnessing an all-out civil war, with Mr. Menendez and Mr. Cunningham insulting each other at dueling news conferences.

Mr. Menendez called Mr. Cunningham a liar and a lawbreaker. Mr. Cunningham called Mr. Menendez ''the big, bad boss'' and ''Little Fidel.''

Mr. Cunningham accused Mr. Menendez of pressuring state officials to cut some of Jersey City's state aid, which suddenly fell to $2 million in 2003 from $10.5 million the year before -- a ploy, Mr. Cunningham said, to force him to raise taxes. Mr. Menendez denied he had anything to do with the aid cut.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Mr. Menendez was knee-deep in another intraparty battle. He was running an intense campaign against Rosa L. DeLauro, a congresswoman from Connecticut, for House Democratic Caucus chair, the third-highest position among Democrats in the House. Mr. Menendez enlisted national Hispanic groups on his behalf and ended up winning by one vote.

Members of Ms. DeLauro's staff said that neither they nor the congresswoman would comment on the caucus race. But Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist, said the victory sealed Mr. Menendez's reputation as ''the guy who you want on your side in a street fight.''

''He can be very persuasive and charming,'' Ms. Backus said. ''But you know he comes from the white-hot crucible of New Jersey politics.''

But so did Mr. Cunningham, and in 2003, he bucked Mr. Menendez and county party leaders by running for the State Senate. When his slate knocked off three of Mr. Menendez's allies, he handed the congressman an embarrassing defeat.

''A lot of Democratic leaders were concerned about why Menendez was getting so involved in minutiae,'' said David Rebovich, managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics. ''It was beginning to look personal.''

Mr. Menendez said that his rivalry with Mr. Cunningham has been exaggerated. ''I had greater friendship with Glenn for a longer period of time than I had any quote-unquote clashes with him,'' he said.

But even as late as the spring of 2004, several people close to Mr. Cunningham said that Mr. Menendez tried to block Mr. Cunningham from being appointed as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Mr. Menendez said he would never do such a thing. Mr. Cunningham did get his delegate seat. But in May 2004, he died suddenly after a heart attack. More than 5,000 people attended his funeral, but Mr. Menendez was not one of them. He had been told to stay away.

Mr. Menendez has been in Washington for 12 years. He is recently divorced, with two grown children. He sits on the transportation and international relations committees and has secured millions of dollars for New Jersey's ports, tunnels and roads and helped overhaul the nation's intelligence services.

He is the only Cuban-American Democrat in Congress, often crossing party lines to vote with Republicans on hard-line Cuba policy but remaining progressive enough on other issues to rise to the highest ranks of Democratic leadership.

Political analysts say it is this high profile position in the Democratic Party and the fact he could become New Jersey's first Hispanic senator that make him the front-runner to succeed Mr. Corzine.

Yet, the two other Democratic congressmen vying for the job, Mr. Andrews and Mr. Pallone, have served in Congress longer and have their own strengths. Mr. Andrews is known as an education expert. And Mr. Pallone is popular in suburban areas that include many Republicans. And then there is Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, who remains very popular and has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.

Whoever is appointed to finish Mr. Corzine's term, should he win the governorship, then faces an election in 2006. Thomas H. Kean Jr., a Republican state senator and the son of a respected former governor, has already announced his interest in the seat.

Mr. Corzine, refusing to reveal whom he might choose, praised Mr. Menendez for his political savvy.

''Make no mistake about this,'' Mr. Corzine said, ''this guy is very effective.''

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