The Cost of NJ’s Protective Politics: Menendez Edition

It’s probably time to grit our teeth and rally the troops. The Menendez race is getting tight, with polls in the low single-digits and occasionally within the margin of error. Losing a Senate seat in a reliably blue state would be devastating to the national party, would empower Trump, and more. I get it. But it’s still hard.

Now, maybe you’re a genuine Senator Menendez fan. If I squint I can see it. I agree with the Senator on a lot of issues. He’s at the forefront of opposing Trump. I’m proud that New Jersey has elected one of only two Senators on the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

But I have to squint. The Senator has also come to me to represent many of the things that are wrong with New Jersey politics. In particular, the various allegations (and yes, I understand he wasn’t convicted) speak to the ways money muddies the water here in New Jersey. According to the New York Times, he was the first sitting senator to be indicted for federal bribery in over a generation.

After the mistrial, he was quoted as saying “To those of you who were digging my political grave so you could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you.”

It is a chilling response, and as someone who has witnessed and faced occasional political retaliation in New Jersey, it fit all-too-nicely with an approach to politics that is virulently protective. You’re on the team or you’re off the team, and if someone decides you’re “off it” then be prepared for things to get ugly quickly.

And make no mistake, there is a cost to such politics for the Democratic Party, both on behalf of the candidate and on behalf of the party more generally. Menendez’s power and influence in the party was part of the reason that he faced no serious primary challenger. It was only when an unknown (and, in my estimation, unserious) challenger pulled close to 40% of the vote that the party began to take these issues seriously.

Now, the party is bearing the fruits of this party-building approach. A robust primary process could have led to a victory from a candidate that New Jersey voters were excited to support, an avenue for the bastions of progressives ignited by Trump to get involved in state politics, and an easy win for a national Democratic party that needs them. Or, it might have led to a genuine excitement about Menendez, a comeback story, and a chance for him to make the case Democrats should rally around him from within the party (rather than trying to garner excitement while a Republican is spending millions to dislodge him). Instead, we have a tight race, an uninspired New Jersey electorate, and the promise of an ugly, drag-em-down and knock-em-out election. That’s the cost of emphasizing loyalty and “insider politics” over open systems — it’s the risk that the Menendez race is a historic upset, and it’s the lost opportunity of everyone who will shy away from donating, volunteering, and yes, voting, because the party leadership rallied around Menendez at a time when the public didn’t.

Comments (3)

  1. Bertin Lefkovic

    While Democratic establishment politics most certainly deserves its share of the blame for the lack of competitive primary elections in our state in general and in the Menendez example in particular, I believe that the lion’s share should be focused more on the progressive community itself for OUR (and I most certainly include myself as one of the many who make up the collective “OUR”) continued failure to sufficiently organize in a manner that would enable us to seriously compete against establishment Democratic candidates year-in and year-out.

    I have been involved in NJ politics in one capacity or another for almost two decades and progressive politics here for about 15 years, beginning with Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign and for that entire length of time, my fellow travelers and I have talked endlessly about what needs to be done to change/reclaim the nature of the Democratic Party from what it was to what it has become, but all it has ever been is talk.

    We need leadership and we need organization. We need to build an organizational structure that mirrors that of the Democratic Party local, county, and state organizations and we need to run candidates for elected and party office at every level year-in and year-out so that voters get used to the idea of competitive primary elections and voting in them.

    We did not need establishment Democrats who are more progressive than most like Frank Pallone or Bonnie Watson Coleman to have had the guts to take Bob Menendez on this year. We needed one of the many outsiders who ran spirited congressional and gubernatorial campaigns this year and last year to have had the vision to see how truly vulnerable Menendez was and put aside their short-sighted congressional ambitions and set an example for the rest of us by taking him on and providing the top of the ballot leadership and structure that we so desperately needed.

    After seeing how well a completely inept and unserious candidate like Lisa McCormick did this year, there is no doubt in my mind that a legitimate progressive hero like Gina Genovese, Peter Jacob, Jim Keady, Dana Wefer, and others could have defeated Menendez and also enabled others bracketed with him to upset establishment candidates like Jeff Van Drew.

    Abba Eban, an Israeli diplomat and politician once remarked that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The same could be said for New Jersey progressives, because we have been missing opportunities for the better part of fifteen years. However, this year’s missed opportunity might have been the greatest of them all and one that we may never see the likes of ever again.

    1. Bertin Lefkovic

      Yes, Rosi. I know what you are going to say. TL; DR. Don’t disparage others for what they didn’t do when I didn’t do enough myself.

      This is all true, but what is also true is that we need a New Jersey Progressive Democratic State Committee and local and county Progressive Democratic Committees. Until we form these, we are going to continue to miss opportunities year-in and year-out.

    2. Stephen Danley (Post author)

      Thanks Bertin —

      I think, in many ways, it’s a productive question to ask what progressives need to do to keep from missing opportunities like this. I appreciate the thoughts — though I think it would have been an extremely uphill climb for the names you mention to challenge Menendez.

      Even if candidates have the knowledge to be Senator, putting together the campaign and fundraising infrastructure is so difficult. I agree this is where progressives need to be working, but doing so in the context of NJ’s archaic party and election law is a real challenge.

      That leads to a chicken and egg question — do you build the infrastructure first? Or do you challenge the NJ election and ballot structures to make it more possible to build infrastructure?


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *