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Jun 4, 2024, 6:21am EDT
politics

Will Rob Menendez go down with the family ship?

David Weigel/Semafor
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The Scene

WEST NEW YORK, N.J. – On Sunday morning, Rep. Rob Menendez was surrounded by his friends. Two governors. One county executive. Three mayors. One of them, Albio Sires, had represented the majority-Latino city in Congress, then handed off the seat to Menendez.

“When the chips were down, the folks on this stage stayed with me,” Menendez told a crowd of around 200 people. “They stuck with me, just like all of you.”

Menendez didn’t explain what misfortune had befallen him. He didn’t need to. Nine months after his father was charged with accepting bribes from foreign lobbyists, the 38-year old Democrat is defending his seat, and his reputation, in a pricey and bitter primary fight that the voters will decide on Tuesday. Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who endorsed the congressman two years ago, has spent nearly $2 million running against “nepotism” and a toxic brand.

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“It’s an open secret in Washington that the Menendez name is just a drag on the Democratic Party,” Bhalla said in an interview. “We can close the chapter on the Menendez machine. I think that’ll be a breath of fresh air.”

The congressman, who’d never sought office before the 2022 race for this safe seat, hasn’t been linked to any of his father’s scandals. The “Menendez” name has shrunk on his campaign material; Hudson County Democratic literature urges voters to support JOE (Biden) and ROB, with the now-problematic family name in a shrunk-down font.

“There’s constantly an attempt to undermine my achievements,” Menendez said in a joint interview with Bhalla last week. It had dogged him “from the time I was in elementary school and won science fairs, and people would discredit it, to the time I was in law school and won the alumni senior prize for the senior showing the greatest achievement during their law school career.”

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When opponents attack his father’s legal problems, the congressman has accused them of being “afraid” to challenge him; when asked about his father’s intent to run as an independent, Menendez has changed the subject.

“He stands on his own two feet,” Gov. Phil Murphy told Semafor after the Sunday rally. “I love the guy, and I have for a long time.”

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Know More

The North Jersey Democratic machines are built to prevent a race like this; in 2022, they did. Within 24 hours of Sires announcing his retirement, Menendez locked up the departing congressman’s endorsement: “He comes from good stock.” Bhalla, who also endorsed Menendez, now says he was pressured into doing it.

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“It was a full court press to make sure that he could snap up a congressional seat,” Bhalla said. He’d heard of the younger Menendez, an attorney who Murphy had appointed as a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Before Bhalla could vet the candidate, he recalled, he was pulled from a meeting, told that Rob was about to call, and told that Sen. Menendez would be listening.

“I was jarred,” Bhalla said. “I perceived that as very intimidating, to have a senior senator listening to my response to whether I’d support his son for a congressional seat.”

In October, the senator was indicted. Two months later, Bhalla entered the race against his son. Weaker opponents had lost handily to Menendez in 2022; the campaign had even gotten two of them off the ballot, after challenging their signatures.

Bhalla, 50, was better known in the district, getting national attention after his 2017 election in Hoboken — one of few Sikhs to be elected mayor in the US, right across the river from Trump Tower. And he benefited not just from the tarnishing of the Menendez name, but from Rep. Andy Kim’s successful battle to kill “the line,” a ballot-shaping tool that county machines had used to protect incumbents.

“We are literally raging against the machine,” Bhalla said on Saturday, as he met a voter at Jersey City’s jazz festival wearing a Rage Against the Machine T-shirt. “We want to bring a little bit more democracy to average voters.”

Bhalla out-raised Menendez, $2 million to $1.6 million; he got a few endorsements from local Democrats who had their own grievances with local party leaders. When Menendez the senator first threatened to run as an independent, Bhalla asked why his son hadn’t endorsed Kim, the front-runner for the open seat; when Donald Trump was convicted, Bhalla told voters they had a chance to throw out the whole corrupt establishment, in their upcoming primary.

The vast majority of Menendez’s allies stuck with him — and the congressman attacked his detractors as cynical and suspicious. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s BOLD PAC put $500,000 into the majority-Latino district, portraying the incumbent as a fighter for healthcare and Social Security; the crypto-funded Protect Progress PAC followed, with nearly identical messaging. (Protect Our Future, the defunct crypto PAC largely funded by Sam Bankman-Fried, spent $250,000 to help Menendez last cycle.)

In the race’s final stretch, Menendez asked who, exactly, needed to answer questions about corruption. On May 3, Hoboken’s former health director filed a lawsuit in Hudson County superior court alleging that Bhalla had politicized the city’s cannabis review board to help Jersey City Mayor Stephen Fulop’s wife, and had worried that some employees could “hurt him politically if laid off.” (Fulop, who is running for governor, had pointedly declined to support Menendez.)

“Mayor Bhalla was accused of a quid pro quo arrangement,” Menendez said in a televised debate with Bhalla last week, invoking both the lawsuit and a 2018 ethics case against Bhalla for withholding $6,000 from an employee’s retirement account. “If the issue of ethics is important to our viewers, as it should be, only one of us on this stage has an ethical issue.”

That was “pure nonsense,” said Bhalla, relying on a compromised source to make his case: “This is a gentleman who was handpicked by party bosses to be your next congressman.”

“You’re one of the people that supported me in 2022,” Menendez shot back. He had enough of Bhalla’s supposedly harrowing story about Michael Soliman, a lobbyist for Qatar and advisor to both Menendezes, setting up that endorsement with a joint phone call.

“You say you’re gonna stand up to Donald Trump,” said Menendez. “You can’t stand up to Michael Soliman? That’s a ridiculous claim.”

David Weigel/Semafor

The bar for “most problematic Democratic politician’s relative in a courtroom” is pretty high right now. Rep. Menendez hasn’t been linked to any of his father’s alleged misdeeds, and local Democrat electeds who’ve abandoned the senator are overwhelmingly comfortable supporting the congressman.

Bhalla is a far more low-key politician, and Menendez has found plenty of openings for counter-punches. In their final debate, when Bhalla chided the congressman for staying out of the US Senate primary “because your father just started collecting petitions to run as an independent,” Menendez said that Bhalla had double-crossed a low-polling Latina candidate still running in that race: “You have a habit of doing this to powerful Latino women.”

The message: Bhalla’s a political opportunist, trying to take advantage of an unfortunate family situation, and blow it all out of proportion. The mayor benefits from every screaming “MENENDEZ” headline; campaign polling has found that around a quarter of the electorate confuses the father and the son, and when I trailed Bhalla, he met voters who needed a quick explainer. (“Not the gold bars guy,” one voter at a block party said to his partner, as he explained which Robert Menendez was which.)

Both candidates warn supporters that the election will be close; Menendez may benefit from the presence of Kyle Jasey, a real estate insurer who’s spent little on the campaign, as another option for protest voters. But Democrats aren’t treating the father’s problems the way Republicans are treating Donald Trump’s. They don’t assume the senator is being victimized; they aren’t rallying around him. They see the scandal as a tragedy, and disagree over how much to punish the whole family for it.

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Notable

In the New York Times, Nicholas Fandos and Tracey Tulley ask where the family name could be Menendez’s undoing: The son has been “nowhere near the courthouse” where his father’s on trial.

In the American Prospect, Luke Goldstein wonders what the election might mean for New Jersey political machines: “Several top advisers to Sen. Menendez have maxed out individual contributions to his son’s campaign.”

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