The Bergen County Democratic Party headquarters are on the sixth floor of a squat 1970s-era office building across from a graveyard in Hackensack, New Jersey. Its elevators are rickety and slow, and Senator Bob Menendez, now running for his third term, starts singing to pass the time with a clutch of aides. “It’s a long, long road,” he croons. The aides laugh. The elevator still hasn’t come. Menendez starts to hum. “Dooo-dooh-dooh-daah.” Fewer aides laugh. The elevator still hasn’t come.
When it finally does, it carries Menendez up to a press conference, where, surrounded by female supporters, the senator launches into a blistering counterattack on an ad his Republican opponent, Bob Hugin, released the day prior, in which Hugin accused Menendez of having sex with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.
The ad centered around an anonymous tip to the F.B.I that made it into the bureau’s affidavit for a search warrant — which was helpfully passed out by Hugin aides outside the Democratic Party headquarters. The warrant involved Menendez and Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida opthamologist and a longtime Menendez friend currently serving 17 years in prison for Medicare fraud.
Dressed in a pinstripe suit that made him look a bit like the protagonist of the children’s book Who’s Got the Apple?, Menendez said at the outset of the news conference that he intended to keep his remarks short out of concern that he might say something he would later regret; he then proceeded to call Hugin, a wealthy pharmaceutical executive, “a desperate man” who was “trying to distract voters from his [own] shameful record,” which, Menendez says, includes killing off cancer patients in order to make a quick buck.
“This deceitful, despicable attack ad tells you everything you need to know about Republican Bob Hugin,” Menendez said. “That he’s a slimeball, he’s a misogynist, and he’s a liar.”
In any other year, it is easy to imagine Bob Menendez facing a much steeper climb to reelection. In 2015, Menendez was indicted, along with Melgen — who, it should be noted, is not a resident of New Jersey — for acting as his friend’s “personal senator,” pushing relevant government agencies to expedite the visa application approval process for several of Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, reaching out to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to help Melgen settle an $8.9 million Medicare dispute, and at a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee hearing, pushing Obama administration officials to increase security at Dominican ports, which would have benefited a company Melgen owned to the tune of $500 million.
In exchange, the government alleged, Menendez received gifts of nearly $1 million in campaign contributions and gifts, including private plane trips around the world and a Paris hotel stay for the senator and his girlfriend which featured, according to an email from Menendez to Melgen that was revealed in the indictment, a “king bed, work area with Internet, limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower, [and] views of courtyard or streets.” Menendez neglected to include these perks on Senate disclosure forms.
The Justice Department’s opening statement was brutal. Prosecutors said that Menendez “sold his soul for a lifestyle he couldn’t afford.”
“He went to bat when Dr. Melgen asked, and Dr. Melgen asked frequently,” said the Justice Department’s attorney. “There’s no friendship exception to bribery. There’s no friendship exception to breaking the law.”
“As soon as that opening statement ended, I thought he was done for,” said one senior New Jersey Democrat. You have to go back to the Nixon era to find another sitting senator indicted by a Justice Department helmed by said senator’s own party. “The DOJ doesn’t lose. Just look at New Jersey’s history with public corruption cases — when the government puts you on trial and says you are dirty, you get locked up. Everybody thought he was going to plead guilty and resign his seat. But he didn’t. He took it to the max. The man has balls the size of boulders.”
Some in New Jersey, a state whose political corruption scandals form a list as long as its coastline, shrugged.
“He goes to the Dominican Republic with a friend. I go to the Dominican Republic with friends, and, yeah, sometimes they take me out to dinner. What is wrong with that? This country is getting too into scrutiny and forgetting the big picture,” said West New York mayor Felix Roque, who himself faced legal issues when he was arrested in 2012 for hacking into the website of a political opponent. (He was later acquitted.)
“The reality of being an elected official is that you help everybody. I have people who come into my fundraiser and they say, ‘I am having an issue with my permits,’ and you help him because you help everybody else. You go to a hotel, you are the mayor, they know you. You go to the airport and they put you in first class. It’s just one of the perks of being an elected official. It’s like going into a shop and they give you a cup of coffee because you are a policeman. Is that a bribe? Give me a break.”
Menendez was likewise and persistently defiant, and he caught a lucky break in 2016 when the Supreme Court drastically circumscribed the definition of official bribery. The trial ended with a hung jury.
Afterwards, one would expect Menendez to have emerged chastened; to say something to the effect of, “This has been a humbling experience. I pledge to learn from it and earn back the trust of the citizens of New Jersey.” The facts, after all, had not much been in dispute — it was only a question of whether or not they constituted quid pro quo, or if Menendez had lobbied on behalf of his buddy out of his own goodwill.
Instead, Menendez announced on the courthouse steps, “For those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are, and I won’t forget it.”
“That’s just Bob Menendez being Bob Menendez,” said Congressman Albio Sires, a longtime friend of Menendez’s, who, like the senator himself, hails from Hudson County, a rough-and-tumble stretch of turf across the Hudson from New York which is known for its political brawls. “There were a lot of people out there singing his demise, and ready to run for that Senate seat themselves, and Bob caught on to it. This is not an easy place to do politics.”
Indeed, anytime you ask somebody in New Jersey about their senator, they always first mention his home county, an otherwise unremarkable jurisdiction that is home to scrappy cities like Jersey City, Bayonne, and Secaucus. Menendez climbed its political ranks one unforgiving rung at a time.
The son of Cuban immigrants — his father, a carpenter, committed suicide when Menendez was in 20s — he ran for the school board of Union City at 19, when his high school forced him to buy his own extra textbooks for an honors program. He won, and went on to serve as aide-de-camp to William V. Musto, Union City’s mayor. When Musto and other city leaders were eventually indicted on federal corruption charges, his one-time protegé testified against him, and started wearing a bulletproof vest to protect himself.
Menendez then ran against Musto, lost, then won after Musto was sentenced to prison. He rose up the ranks of the state legislature. When a sitting member of Congress retired, the legislature redrew the district as majority Hispanic to elect Menendez. He quickly rose in the ranks in Washington, too, becoming the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and he let his intentions to run for the Senate be known for years.
Bigger names like Robert Torricelli and Jon Corzine pushed him out of the way until Corzine was elected governor and named Menendez his successor.
Before the trial got under way, Torricelli, who declined to run for reelection in 2002 after he was rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee for doing favors on behalf of a millionaire campaign fundraiser of his, let it be known that he was interested in the seat. Backers of Jersey City mayor Steven Fulop pushed him to run, too.
But Menendez has developed a reputation in Jersey as the kind of politician other politicians don’t want to cross. “It was the fear factor,” said Ray Lesniak, a former state senator. “He is such a fearsome fighter, no one wants to take [him] on. Even if you lost to him, that would be sacrificing your entire political career. Bob’s from Hudson County. This kind of politics just comes with the territory.”
(Perhaps this is why Fulop — who has been eyeing higher office for years — when asked by The Jersey Journal if he had any interest in the seat, responded, “Zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero.”)
New Jersey is one of the few places in America where there remains a Democratic machine; where candidates run as a slate and county leaders control who gets on the ballot. No sooner had the jury reached its decision than top aides to Menendez were on the phones to Democratic leaders throughout the state. The big Democratic county chairs soon lined up behind him, making the path to the senatorship almost impossible for anyone else.
Still, it is hard not to wonder what might have happened if some young reformer had taken a flyer on the race. An unknown community newspaper publisher named Lisa McCormick scarcely campaigned, raised almost no money, and still got nearly 40 percent of the vote.
Hugin has already spent over $23 million in the race — nearly four times what Menendez has, battering him on TV, targeting lefty channels like MSNBC in particular, often splicing the anchors’ own words about Menendez’s alleged misdeeds into his commercials. Menendez has maintained a lead in the mid-to-high single digits, while last week the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, announced they were sending $3 million to New Jersey to help out Menendez’s campaign — a move that enraged national Democrats, as valuable resources had been diverted to what would be an easy election with another candidate.
Menendez has been a reliable liberal vote over the years, championing immigration reform and stricter gun control laws — his record has given Democrats something to rally around. Still, there remains a distinct sense that many wish there were a better option out there. The point of this blue-hued resistance, after all, is not just — or not merely — Democratic gains, but rather forging a new kind of politics, one that gets away from political machines and lobbyist-financed vacations.
In her own speech in support of Menendez at the Bergen County headquarters, Elizabeth Meyer, the lead organizer of the Women’s March of New Jersey, acknowledged some of those misgivings. She described conversations with friends in which they said they would cast a protest vote, or leave the Senate ballot blank. “Considering the circumstances, it’s a reasonable point of view,” she conceded. “There are two candidates in this race that can win it: Senator Menendez and Bob Hugin. It may be a choice some disagree with it, but it’s the choice we have,” she added.
“We cannot cast aside what is good in pursuit of what is perfect.”