To begin with, full disclosure: Iâ€™m Bob Menendezâ€™s communications director and write this post with the obvious acknowledgment that I have a dog in this hunt.
Since Corzine was elected governor last Tuesday, Iâ€™ve enjoyed the debates here about who should be the next Senator from the Garden state. Rather than try and pick up each thread, however, I thought Iâ€™d lay out the case for Congressman Menendez the way weâ€™d do to the voters and let you all chime in from there.
First, Menendezâ€™s personal story, which is not well known despite his 31 years in public life, but bears repeating because it helps explain what motivates him today. Bob was born in New York City to Cuban immigrants in 1954 and was raised in a tenement in Union City. This was not an easy life â€“ a two bedroom tenement for five people (Bobâ€™s two parents and two older siblings, a brother and a sister) â€“ and they didnâ€™t have much money, a fact that spurred Bobâ€™s first entry into public life. When he was a senior in high school, he signed up to take honors classes but couldnâ€™t afford to because the school district at the time actually made students buy the books for honors classes. The cost was only about $100, but it was more than his family could afford. So he protested and after a while the principal just gave him the books for free to shut him up. But while that helped him, it didnâ€™t do anything for the other students in the school.
So the next year, when he was a 19-year old college student at St. Peterâ€™s, he launched a petition drive to change the school board from one that was appointed by the local machine to one that was elected. The petition drive succeeded, the board changed, Bob was elected to it, and they reformed the system. That effort â€“ one college student leading a reform movement â€“ changed the lives of Union City students and launched Bobâ€™s career.
His next big test came several years later when he worked for the mayor of Union City, Bill Musto. Musto was a mentor to him, but when Bob saw that the mayor had become corrupt (another long story that can wait for another post), Bob actually did something about it. He left the administration, cooperated with the U.S. attorneys investigating Musto, and eventually testified against him in court, despite threats to his life that forced him to wear a bulletproof vest.
After that, Bob went on to be elected mayor of Union City, and later to the state Assembly and state Senate. Since 1992, heâ€™s served in Congress, where heâ€™s risen to become the third-highest ranking Democrat in the House and the highest-ranking Hispanic in Congressional history. As a leader in the House, he hasnâ€™t been sitting on the sidelines, heâ€™s been leading the fight: against the presidentâ€™s tax cuts, against the war in Iraq, for cleaning up our environment, for workersâ€™ rights to organize, and for plans to lower the cost of health care and make a college education more affordable. He is sponsoring the bill to establish an independent commission to investigate the tragic federal response to Hurricane Katrina and legislation to impose a windfall profits tax on big oil companies. I could go on and on, but on the issues that matter â€“ and letâ€™s be honest, despite the talk about electability that dominates much public discussion, itâ€™s issues that matter and issues that motivated so many of us to get into politics in the first place â€“ on the issues that matter, Bob Menendez has an unmatched record of fighting for average New Jerseyans. Bob has spent his entire life fighting for the issues that effect the lives of New Jersey families, and he would be a senator that would make New Jersey, and especially Blue New Jersey, proud.
Now, a bit about electability, since so much time on these pages has been devoted to it. First, Menendez starts from a powerful base. The four counties he represents (Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Union) account for 42% of the statewide Democratic primary vote and nearly 30% of the general election vote. He obviously doesnâ€™t represent every person in each of these counties, but heâ€™s well-known there, and this base gives him a powerful place to begin a statewide campaign. Second, Bob can motivate an important constituency, Hispanics, who often stay home in larger numbers than other groups, and whose votes fluctuate widely between Democrats and Republicans. This is a growing swing group in the state, and Bob can deliver it for Democrats.
Bob also starts this campaign with the money in the bank, and the ability to raise more, to run a serious statewide campaign. I know bringing this up will raise the hair on the back of some peopleâ€™s necks â€“ we all wish campaigns didnâ€™t cost what they did, but they do, and we need a nominee who can be competitive with a well-financed Republican campaign that will no doubt follow the same pattern of aggressive negative attacks weâ€™ve come to expect on the state and national level.
Finally, the appointment and election of Senator Menendez would say something important about our party and our state. It would show that the Democratic Party is the party of opportunity, the party that lifts people up and breaks down barriers. Bob would become only the 5th Hispanic to serve in the history of the Senate, and would show people across the country that we are the party committed to diversity â€“ that we reward people who work hard, overcome tough odds, and succeed in the face of adversity.
There are a lot of things I could say about Bob, but Iâ€™ll simply close with this thought of what a 2006 general election could look like. Republicans are likely to nominate Tom Kean, Jr., a state senator who starts off with a name thatâ€™s been in New Jersey politics for a long time. I donâ€™t know about you, but I like the idea of a campaign that matches up the son of immigrants who grew up in a tenement building against the son of a governor who grew up in Drumthwacket. I know which side Iâ€™m on, and I hope you will all join us.