Bob Menendez: The Senate's Newest Member
Bob Menendez was formally sworn in as New Jersey's newest senator this morning. The seven-term House Democrat was appointed by Gov. Jon Corzine (D) to serve out the 10 months remaining on his unexpired Senate term.
The Fix sat down with Menendez late last week -- a meeting sandwiched between a briefing for Menendez on Senate ethics and a separate one on procedure -- to talk to him about how he was preparing for his new job, his thoughts on the coming campaign against state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R), and his first major decision as a senator -- whether or not to vote to confirm fellow New Jerseyan Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court.
Let's take the Alito matter first since the full Senate is expected to begin debate over his confirmation on Jan. 25 with a vote coming before President Bush's State of the Union speech on Jan. 31.
Menendez, who will meet face-to-face with Alito for the first time tomorrow afternoon, said he has not yet decided how he will vote on the nomination. "There are many important votes a U.S. senator can make," said Menendez. "Two of the most important are war and peace....and the appointment of a Supreme Court justice." In preparation for the coming vote, Menendez has closely monitored the confirmation hearings, read up on a select few cases in which Alito ruled and met with various Garden State groups.
Republicans will be watching carefully how Menendez votes as they believe a "no" vote could hinder his chances of winning a full six-year term in November. Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that "as a party boss himself, [we] expect Menendez will do the bidding of the leadership he intimidated into appointing him his seat."
The Alito vote symbolizes the careful balance between policy and politics that Menendez must try to strike over the next 10 months. He must simultaneously step into the swirl of legislative activity in the Senate while also raising his profile -- and scads of campaign cash -- to beat Kean Jr., the son of a former popular governor.
"I'm practical about the 10-month period," said Menendez. "I have always believed that good public policy and performance makes for good politics."
With an eye on building relationships in the Senate prior to his swearing-in, Menendez said he made a concerted effort to meet with the "bulk" of the 45 members of the Democratic Senate caucus. "A lot of this is about relationships," said Menendez. "I walk into the Senate -- because of the leadership positions I have already [had in the House] -- with some pretty good relationships on the Senate side." Asked which senators he was particularly close to, Menendez listed Sens. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Ted Kennedy (Mass.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), as well as former House colleagues Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.).
As for the political end of his new job, Menendez said he needs to raise $20 million to effectively introduce himself to voters outside of his northern New Jersey base. At the end of September he had roughly $4.2 million sitting in his House campaign account, a sum that can be transferred directly to a Senate bid. By contrast, Kean Jr. had roughly three-quarters of a million dollars in the bank.
If a recent independent poll is to be believed, Menendez starts the race behind Kean; the state senator held a 36 percent to 25 percent edge in the Fairleigh Dickinson University survey.
Republicans also believe that whispers of scandal surrounding Menendez (as yet unsubstantiated despite considerable digging by reporters) will make turn this race into a referendum on political corruption and overcome the Democrats' advantages in New Jersey. A research document on Menendez being circulated by the NRSC today includes a remark by former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) that a Menendez appointment carries "inherent risks." (Menendez and Torricelli have not seen eye-to-eye since the former helped short circuit the latter's brief gubernatorial ambitions in 2001.)
In a likely preview of his campaign strategy, Menendez rattled off a list of reform credentials he has compiled in his three decades in the political arena -- accomplishments that range from his efforts to overturn a corrupt school board to his testimony in a public corruption trial that required him to don a bullet-proof vest to his support for campaign finance reform in the House.
"The bottom line is I've got a long history of reform," said Menendez. Although not mentioning Kean Jr. by name, Menendez drew an implicit contrast, saying: "Being someone who actually acted and created change in the reform effort is different than talking about reform."
Menendez also cited the recently concluded gubernatorial contest between Corzine and wealthy Republican businessman Doug Forrester -- widely acknowledged as one of the nastiest in recent memory -- as a sign that voters "reject the politics of personal destruction."
"If Republicans want to stay in the gutter, I'll leave them there," he added.
January 18, 2006; 1:15 PM ET
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