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Menendez's Moment Of Truth

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Posted by Despite Triumphs, Nagging Questions on January 17, 2005 at 10:23:55:

Menendez's Moment Of Truth
Despite Triumphs, Nagging Questions


New York Times
New Jersey Section

January 16, 2005

ON the surface, Representative Robert Menendez seems to be a political juggernaut.

Mr. Menendez, an articulate and energetic Hudson County congressman, is one of the Democratic Party's premier fund-raisers. As one of the country's leading Hispanic politicians and the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, he is a major attraction on the party's speaking circuit. And he has outmaneuvered his political rivals, methodically consolidating power in his gritty Hudson County district as well as in the stately corridors of power in Congress.

But as he gears up to run for the United States Senate seat that Jon S. Corzine will have to vacate if elected governor next year - by far Mr. Menendez's most ambitious campaign to date - the career of the seventerm congressman is likely to come under far greater scrutiny from Democrats who do not paint an entirely flattering portrait of the ambitious legislator.

Perhaps that is why Mr. Corzine has not said that he will turn to Mr. Menendez to fill his unexpired Senate term, which would give the congressman a huge advantage in a subsequent race to fill the seat. Others dismiss Mr. Corzine's reticence as simply a way to stifle the political chatter.

Mr. Menendez - who declined to comment for this article - is still widely regarded as the leading candidate to replace Mr. Corzine, although some Democrats say that all the talk about his obvious political strengths has obscured the troubled history he has had with his party and its leaders.

Indeed, the list of politicians Mr. Menendez has clashed with reads like a veritable Who's Who of New Jersey politics: former Senator Robert G. Torricelli; former Gov. James E. McGreevey; and Glenn D. Cunningham, a state senator and mayor of Jersey City who died last year.

The buzz over a Menendez candidacy - a buzz that he and his advisers helped generate - has also conveniently overlooked the ways in which he might be vulnerable, both geographically and ideologically, as he begins to map out his first statewide race, Democratic officials say.

For instance, it is widely acknowledged that the 51-year-old lawmaker will have to overcome a widespread perception among blew Jersey's largely suburban voters that Hudson County, the base of his political support, is a bastion of corrupt political bosses steeped in big-city Democratic politics. Indeed, since 2002 almost 20 public officials have been indicted, convicted or pleaded guilty to corruption charges there.

Nor has Mr. Menendez been entirely immune to questions about how he has conducted himself at times. When Democratic leaders tried to pressure Mr. McGreevey to leave office last summer after he admitted to having an extramarital homosexual affair, the governor's supporters went on the offensive. One administration official, according to a New York television station, warned that Mr. Menendez had no business criticizing Mr. McGreevey. The official, cited in the news report on WCBS-TV, accused Mr. Menendez of steering business to a woman with whom he had a close relationship - and whom others have identified as a former top aide.
Some Fences Need Mending

"We're talking about a guy who has been successful - and successful quickly," said David Rebovich, director of the Rider Institute of New Jersey Politics. "But to be a senator and represent the entire state, Menendez will have to broaden his appeal, reach out to more diverse constituencies and mend some fences."

The questions hanging over Mr. Menendez may explain, at least in part, why two other Democrats are being mentioned in any discussion about who may succeed Mr. Corzine in the Senate: Representative Robert E. Andrews of Camden County, who has the support of George Norcross III, the acknowledged Democratic leader in South Jersey, and Representative Frank Pallone Jr. of Monmouth County.

For their part, however, advisers to Mr. Menendez contend that the congressman would easily emerge as the most dominant figure in a Democratic primary. And to seal their argument, they say he has demonstrated a remarkable ability to raise money.

Indeed, he raised about $3.6 million in the two-year period leading up to last November's election, compared with the $1.5 million taken in by Mr. Pallone and the $1 million for Mr. Andrews, campaign disclosure
statements show.

And despite Hudson County's checkered history, Mr. Menendez's advisers and supporters are counting on his standing in the county - a Democratic stronghold that is crucial in statewide elections - to give him a huge advantage over his rivals. He also represents parts of Essex, Union and Middlesex counties, all heavily Democratic.

"He starts with a pretty formidable base," said Brad Lawrence, a Menendez adviser.

He Wanted McGreevey Out
The jockeying for Mr. Corzine's seat actually began before the senator announced last month that he intended to run for governor. When Mr. McGreevey resigned, Mr. Menendez was among a handful of party power brokers who demanded that the governor call a special election with the notion, of putting Mr. Corzine in the governor's office. It was widely perceived that Mr. Menendez favored that scenario rather than anointing the Senate president, Richard J. Codey, as the acting governor after a threemonth transition because it could probably have catapulted him into the Senate and given him a leg up in a race for a full term.

Mr. Menendez, for his part, intends to run for Mr. Corzine's seat even if the senator wins the governor's race but looks to someone else to fill out his term.

"There's obviously the possibility that Senator Corzine will say, `I will appoint a caretaker to fill my seat because I am not going to choose among the candidates who are out there,' " according to a Menendez adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Bob is preparing for any eventuality."

Mr. Menendez entered politics almost three decades ago, becoming a protégé of State Senator William V. Musto, who was also the mayor of Union City until he was convicted of racketeering for seeking bribes for awarding school construction contracts.

New Jersey's first Hispanic representative in Congress, where today he sits on the International Relations and Transportation committees.

'The 800-Pound Gorilla'
To be sure, his accomplishments have won him many admirers, among them State Senator Shirley Turner, a Democrat whose district includes Trenton. "Everyone thinks of him as being the 800-pound gorilla," Ms. Turner said.

But his rapid rise has come with a price.

Mr. Menendez has made more than his share of enemies in New Jersey, where he is notorious for a brand of bare-knuckle politics that is essential to survival in Hudson County but is viewed with some alarm elsewhere.

For example, he faces lingering resentment among some black leaders over his role two years ago in a battle that erupted over a vacancy on the state Supreme Court.

Mr. Menendez had accused Governor McGreevey of insulting the Hispanic community after failing to nominate a Cuban-born lawyer, Zulima Farber, for a seat on the court. While Mr. McGreevey insisted that he drew back from Ms. Farber after learning that a bench warrant had been issued for her arrest over a traffic violation, Mr. Menendez accused the governor of playing politics by nominating John E. Wallace in response to the demands of black leaders.

At the time, Mr. Menendez said the governor's "political calculus" in turning to a black nominee rather than Ms. Farber was "that Hispanics will be upset, but they don't revolt as much as African-Americans."

It is that kind of attitude that stings.

As State Senator Ronald L. Rice, a Democrat from Newark, said about Mr. Menendez's feud with Mr. Cunningham, the black mayor of Jersey City, "There are things we don't forget," and added that the congressman had fences to mend.

Mr. Menendez's reputation for political hardball is also well established in Washington, where he has aggressively climbed the leadership ranks. Two years ago, for example, he narrowly defeated a popular colleague, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, in a bitterly contested race for the post of caucus chairman, the third-highest position among House Democrats.

To this day, some DeLauro supporters still bristle about the outcome, contending that Mr. Menendez, who is of Cuban descent, injected ethnic politics into the race by arguing that elevating a Hispanic to a leadership position was important for the party.

No Apologies for Tactics
For their part, Menendez supporters make no apologies for his tactics. "I don't think Bob would apologize for fighting for what he believes in," the Menendez adviser said. "And he's taken on some difficult foes."

Mr. Menendez's potential liabilities do not end there.

Some Democrats say that the congressman has never been tested politically outside of his Hudson County-based district, a Democratic stronghold where he routinely wins re-election. They question how he would fare statewide, where independents and even Democrats have shown a willingness to vote for Republican candidates. Indeed, when he was offered the chance to step in for Mr. Torricelli, who withdrew from his race for re-election because of ethics issues, Mr. Menendez indicated to party leaders that he wanted to run, but rescinded his offer the next day after considering the limited time he had to run - and, others

Disenchanted with the party organization Mr. Menendez worked with prosecutors in the Musto case, and in 1982 ran unsuccessfully as an insurgent for a seat on the city commission in his hometown of Union City. Then in 1986, Mr. Menendez overcame strong opposition from the city's political establishment and was elected the state's first Hispanic mayor.

Just a year later, he became the first Hispanic to win election to the State Assembly, and in 1991 he was elected to the State Senate, becoming the first Hispanic to hold a seat in that chamber. In 1993, he became speculate, his limited name recognition statewide.

By contrast, Mr. Pallone, one of the other Democratic congressmen positioning himself for Mr. Corzine's seat, usually garners more than 60 percent of the vote in Republican-dominated Monmouth, leading some to argue that he would be a more appealing candidate in a general election.

The trick for Mr. Menendez, as Mr. Rebovich put it, is to appeal to the sensibilities of suburbanites, who may have liberal leanings on social issues but who are often moderate to conservative on fiscal policy.

"He has to overcome the perception that he is simply an advocate for traditional liberal causes," Mr. Rebovich said.

Mr. Menendez's advisers discount such concerns, saying that his base of support in Hudson County includes Reagan Democrats - primarily blue-collar voters who take conservative positions - as well as liberals and moderates.

They also note that in 2001 he coordinated the Democratic gubernatorial campaign as well as state legislative races in New Jersey, an effort that helped to bring Republ can rule to an end in Trenton.

"This is a guy who has built a coalition that is very broad," Mr. Lawrence said.

Hudson County's Troubled Past
Finally, there is the question of Mr. Menendez's political heritage. Fairly or not, his name is inextricably tied to a county known for machine politics and government corruption. In the early 1980's, federal prosecutor brought such a flurry of indictments that that The Jersey Journal, Hudson County's main newspaper, published a front-page headline that read, "No Hudson Officials Indicted Today."

"You have Hudson taint, no question about that," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute. "New Jersey is a suburban, small-town state. And Hudson is not a part of that. It's out of synch."

To Mr. Rebovich, Mr. Menendez presents two very different personalities to voters: the hardened party chieftain who keeps a tight reign on his organization and the highminded politician interested in shaping national policy.

"The question is, do a large percentage of New Jersey voters outside the northeastern part of the state see him as a policy wonk and advocate," he said, "or do, they see. him' as a political boss like George Norcross of Camden County or John Lynch of Middlesex County."

This is a delicate subject for Mr. Menendez, who recoils at the label "boss" - even though he has spent considerable time establishing himself as the county's undisputed political leader.

Mr. Menendez's advisers claim that they are not concerned about the prospect that Hudson County politics will cast a shadow on his candidacy, recalling that he began his career by challenging the party leadership....

"He ran against the machine," Mr. Lawrence said. "He fought those guys, and he paid a price. His life was threatened."

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