Rob Menendez’s balancing act: Defending his indicted father while not being dragged down by him

Rob Menendez’s balancing act: Defending his indicted father while not being dragged down by him

Rob Menendez’s balancing act: Defending his indicted father while not being dragged down by him

Don’t call him junior.

Rep. Rob Menendez, the 38-year-old son of Sen. Bob Menendez, joined the House earlier this year thanks in large part to the family name.

Now, he’s in a mess because of it.

His powerful father’s political career appears all but over after prosecutors laid out unseemly allegations in a federal indictment this fall. They allege Sen. Menendez was an agent of the Egyptian government while leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and accepted bribes in the form of gold bars, envelopes of cash and a new car for his wife Nadine, who had ruined hers during a collision that killed a pedestrian. Bob and Nadine Menendez have pleaded not guilty.

While his son has nothing to do with this legal case, the political fallout could threaten the 2024 reelection of Rob Menendez, a first-term member who sailed to victory last year and now sits in a congressional seat representing much of the North Jersey area his father did for seven terms in the House.

Now Rob Menendez is trying to stand with his father while also avoiding being dragged down by him.

Many of New Jersey’s major Democrats — including Gov. Phil Murphy and Sen. Cory Booker — have abandoned the father, urging him to step down for the good of the party and the country.

The father has yet to make his own intentions clear, giving cryptic answers as terrible polling numbers are made public, but he’s defied calls to step down.

Sen. Bob Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, leave federal court on Sept. 27, 2023, in New York.

In the days following the indictment, it looked like being untouched by his father’s legal troubles was not enough to spare political headaches for Rob Menendez. The mayor of Hoboken, the second largest city in the district, quickly got the word out that he may challenge Rob Menendez in next year’s primary, and there is talk of others who might also jump in the race.

To head off any doubt about his intentions, Rob Menendez almost immediately made clear he’s going to run for reelection.

And, so far, it looks like he may win.

For Rob Menendez, the first major test is the response of key Democrats in the Menendez political homeland of Hudson County, N.J. As long as Rob Menendez makes it through his party’s primary next June, he’s almost certain to return to Congress in the very blue district.

The Menendez name still carries significant weight in Hudson County, where loyalties run deep and political bosses make or break careers. Even though he faces calls to step down from the Senate, Bob Menendez is still regarded as a “rock star” to voters and the county Democratic Party has declined to call for his resignation — one indication that the younger Menendez may not pay a price for the alleged crimes of his father.

“I’ve had the good fortune to know Rob since he was a young boy, and he’s always been someone who constantly wants to give service to the community and he definitely wants to be his own man,” said Hudson County Commissioner Anthony Romano.

In interviews, several key Hudson County figures seemed to see the two Menendezes as separable. Even if they didn’t all say it, they seemed to adopt the biblical view that a son should not be judged by the sins of the father. (At least one person who ventured to say something similar quickly backtracked because, they said, they did not want to be quoted as suggesting the father had sinned — a sign that, however weakened Sen. Menendez may be, he remains formidable.)

Rob Menendez — who does not go by “junior” — would admit that being his father’s son helped him. He’s not naïve. But, he’d argue, it hasn’t helped him as much as people think.

“For nearly 20 years, I have supported campaigns from the local to federal level, while forging relationships with New Jersey’s political leaders who supported my own campaign to represent the 8th Congressional District,” he said in a statement.

A critic’s version of his resume would look like this: The young Menendez popped up a few years ago as a potential candidate for Jersey City mayor, where he would have challenged Steven Fulop, a political nemesis of his father, in an act of vengeance. Instead, he got a plum appointment from Murphy as a member of the powerful Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. And, when U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) retired, Rob faced virtually no opposition to succeed him as an heir apparent to a seat his father used to hold.

But another view is that Rob has been interested in politics since he was a young man. He was around politics, learned politics and worked hard to break through. He got into a good college — UNC Chapel Hill — went to law school, did a fellowship at the Port Authority, went into private practice at the politically well-connected firm of Lowenstein Sandler and when the opportunity presented itself, looked for things to run for. He won and now in Congress remains as visible in Jersey City as anyone its voters have sent to Congress since the late Rep. Frank Guarini.

There are also glimpses that perhaps his father has not always viewed his son as a political heir, even if he has been drawn, however slightly, into his father’s legal troubles.

In fall 2017, long before he appeared as a major figure in the New Jersey politician scene, Rob Menendez took the witness stand to make the case that a Florida eye doctor accused of bribing his father had offered private jet flights, lavish vacations and hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions out of friendship, not as bribes.

A defense attorney asked Rob Menendez how he referred to the doctor, Salomon Melgen, who he said he’d known since he was a child.

“Doc, Dr. Melgen. But also occasionally as tio,” Rob Menendez said. “It means uncle in Spanish.”

His testimony seemed to bolster the claim made by his father that he’d been prosecuted for friendship, and the case ended in a mistrial. Bob Menendez won another term as New Jersey’s senior Democratic senator.

But when he took the stand in the Melgen case, Rob Menendez told jurors that he came back to the state from college in North Carolina to work on his father’s 2006 Senate campaign “against my dad’s wishes.”

Of course, when he decided to run for things, the name was a good one to have.

“The reality is nepotism exists throughout the world, it’s not limited to Hudson County,” said Gerry McCann, a former Jersey City mayor.

When the younger Menendez was floated as a candidate for Jersey City mayor, the sympathetic view was that he was raising a family in Jersey City and heard from people who wanted things done differently.

Rob Menendez, arrives to a polling site with his daughter Olivia, and wife Alex Menendez in Jersey City, N.J., on June 7, 2022.

Hudson County Commissioner Bill O’Dea said Rob Menendez was having serious conversations about how he’d change the city, rooted in his view of the city as someone raising a family there.

At the Port Authority, where he went instead, agency chair Kevin O’Toole said in a statement that “Rob distinguished himself as a commissioner singularly focused on ensuring that the agency never lost sight of its core mission to keep the region moving. His deliberative, insightful approach to matters that came before us was invaluable and every resident of the Port District is better served because of his tenure on the board.”

When Sires retired, Rob Menendez emerged as the favored candidate to replace him. He locked up support from the local and state party establishment before even announcing his run, enough that all but assured him the seat.

“The father never called me and asked me to support him, there was no need for him to even try to do it,” O’Dea said.

On the campaign trail, the Menendezes certainly share allies. Before the indictment was filed, a bit over a quarter of Rob Menendez’s big donors were also donors to his father’s campaign since the start of 2021, according to a POLITICO analysis of campaign data.

But Menendez has people in his corner. A few weeks ago, he walked in the Hispanic State Parade beside Brian Stack, a Democratic state senator who is also the mayor of Union City and the head of one of the greatest get-out-the-vote machines in New Jersey politics. Stack gave Menendez’s 2022 campaign an early — and key — endorsement.

If people like Stack stick with Rob Menendez, it’s hard to see who could beat him. Stack did not respond to a call seeking comment, but in 2021, as Sires’ retirement plans became known, Stack was quick to back Menendez and said at the time, “It can’t hurt that he’s got the help from his dad, but he’s really his own person.”

Now the son is an election away from knowing if he can stand on his own.

Jessica Piper contributed to this report.

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Author: By Ry Rivard