Ever since Senator Jon S. Corzine won the bitter race for Governor of New Jersey earlier this month, a political pall hanging over the state has started to lift. Gone are the sharp-toothed campaign ads and the slanderous whispers. The cacophony of anger and intrigue—most notably from Joanne Corzine, the Governor-elect’s ex-wife—has calmed.
But power abhors a vacuum, and a secondary struggle has already sprung up to replace the first. Before Mr. Corzine moves his place of business to Trenton in January, he must appoint an heir to serve the last year of his Senate term in Washington. The deliberations have already ignited a political drama that reads like Cinderella, with suitors from across New Jersey falling over each other in a mad scramble to fill Mr. Corzine’s shoes. Even with the Governor-elect out of earshot during a recent vacation in Mexico, his would-be successors worked tirelessly to woo him, lining up endorsements, building war chests and mounting public campaigns.
Political insiders say that U.S. Representative Robert Menendez, 51, the third-ranking Democrat in Congress and a Hudson County powerbroker, is leading the pack, which also includes Democratic Representatives Robert Andrews of Camden County and Frank Pallone and Rush Holt of Mercer County. But while some of his colleagues tap-dance for Mr. Corzine’s attention, Mr. Menendez has been keeping a low profile.
“You should see my tap-dancing! Actually, I’m better at salsa than tap-dancing,” he said, laughing heartily. Mr. Menendez spoke with The Observer in his Capitol Building office on Nov. 18, amidst a flurry of floor votes leading up to the week-long Thanksgiving recess.
“This is a universe of one, and I don’t think that the way to convince a universe of one is to necessarily wage a public campaign,” said Mr. Menendez coyly. Then—and perhaps despite himself—he switched into campaign mode. Gingerly, he kissed the Senator’s ring. “If Jon Corzine is looking for someone who has the depth of experience, the ability to perform for New Jersey, who has walked in the shoes of the average New Jerseyan, I’m a New Jersey guy through and through,” he said.
Mr. Menendez has already amassed a $4.1 million war chest. And while he may not be brazenly barnstorming the state, his admirers say that won’t be necessary.
“People were telling me on Election Day, ‘I voted for Bob Menendez,’” recalled Donald Scarinci, an attorney and Democratic activist who befriended the Congressman as a teenager in Union City. “And I said, ‘What are you talking about? He’s not on the ballot.’ ‘No, no, no, no,’ they said, ‘Corzine will appoint Menendez,’” Mr. Scarinci concluded with a laugh.
Congressmen Andrews and Pallone, who have raised $2 million apiece, have been campaigning at full volume. Just three days after Mr. Corzine’s election victory, Mr. Andrews caused a stir by announcing that, no matter whom the Senator appoints, he will run for the seat next year—meaning that if he is not Mr. Corzine’s choice, he will mount a primary challenge next year.
The declaration disheartened state Democrats. Party officials hope to avoid a bloody primary battle for the seat. Republicans seem united around State Senator Tom Kean Jr., the son of former Governor Thomas Kean. The younger Kean is bolstered by his father’s enduring popularity. In a recent Wall Street Journal/Zogby poll, he trounced all comers except Acting Governor Richard Codey, who has endeared himself to voters and has been mentioned as a possible Senate appointment. Mr. Codey, however, has indicated that he’d rather stay in New Jersey, where he could continue in his role as the State Senate president.
Congressmen Menendez and Pallone have also suggested they’d consider a primary race if they are not Mr. Corzine’s choice. Mr. Pallone has been stumping around the state with a simple slogan—“Pallone for New Jersey”—and has even launched a Web site to tout his credentials as Mr. Corzine mulls his choice.
But will noisy campaigns influence the final decision? “We’re really not commenting on that,” said Ivette Mendez, a spokeswoman for the Governor-elect. “He’ll be making a decision in the coming weeks.”
Mr. Menendez believes his record will do the stumping for him. “The bottom line is the ability to be able to fund a campaign, to strategize a campaign, to win a campaign, as well as to serve. I have all of those abilities,” he said. “I suspect that Jon Corzine will make his analysis, and I’m comfortable with my background, my history and my ability, for him to look at that. If that’s not enough, well, I don’t think campaigning will be.”
In recent days, Mr. Menendez has avoided making direct public overtures to Mr. Corzine. But a chorus of surrogates, many representing local and national Latino constituencies, have spoken forcefully on his behalf, including Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, one of the country’s foremost Hispanic elected officials.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has thrown its weight behind him. So have the National Association of Elected and Appointed Latino Officials, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda and Raul Yzaguirre, who, until his retirement last year, presided over the National Council of La Raza, a powerful Hispanic civil-rights group.
“People say he has the potential to become the Latino Barack Obama,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University. “There’s no shortage of speculation that what Corzine’s ultimately after is a bid on the Presidency. If you’re looking to 2008 or 2012, it’s not bad to look like the kingmaker who put Menendez in the U.S. Senate,” she added.
And Mr. Menendez isn’t shy about the power of his Latino constituents to deliver votes. During Mr. Corzine’s gubernatorial campaign, Mr. Menendez was featured in Spanish-language commercials and helped broker an endorsement from Anibal Acevedo Vila, the Governor of Puerto Rico. On election night, he predicted that Mr. Corzine would vanquish Republican Douglas Forrester with the largest Latino vote in state history.
While it’s hard to substantiate a direct historical comparison, a report from the Latino Leadership Alliance Political Action Committee—often cited by Matthew Miller, Mr. Menendez’s communications director—found that Mr. Corzine won a combined 77 percent of the vote in the state’s 44 most heavily Hispanic precincts. An Associated Press/Ipsos voter survey, conducted on Election Day, suggested that the Senator enjoyed two-thirds of the Hispanic vote statewide.
Mr. Menendez’s Democratic rivals can only envy his national ethnic support. In a pale reflection of its power, a coalition of 25 Latino leaders from South Jersey recently lined up behind Mr. Andrews. “While we do admire Bob Menendez, we believe Rob Andrews is the best choice for the Hispanic community,” read their letter, which was posted on PoliticsNJ, a popular political Web site.
The Congressman from Hudson County, however, remains wary of efforts to pigeonhole him as an ethnic politician. Or, more specifically, as a Latino liberal with predominantly urban interests. In a state that has grown increasingly suburban in recent years, this may be a wise move.
“If I have the opportunity to represent the people of New Jersey in the U.S. Senate, it will be all the people of New Jersey,” Mr. Menendez said. Sitting cross-legged in a crisp pinstripe suit, he was encircled by a gallery of pictures lining his office walls. They showed him beside everyone from Chi Chi Rodriguez to Tony Blair, the Dalai Llama and Al Gore. “The reality is that I have, over my public life, been about representing everyone,” he said.
Mr. Menendez, however, is not without liabilities. Unlike most politicians who attain national stature, he has been known to keep a hand in political matters on his home turf. And his home turf is Hudson County, a hotbed of old-fashioned New Jersey street politics.
“The atmospherics of Hudson County are not all that wholesome. There’s a lot of intrigue. In some ways, it’s kind of the Democratic heartland of New Jersey, but at the same time, it’s very much a place of problematic public ethics,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that Menendez himself is tainted by it, but, nonetheless, it’s not the most wholesome environment.” Mr. Baker added that, after the bruising series of scandals of the past few years, the Governor-elect would be under added pressure to restore integrity to the state Democratic Party.
There are also whispers about the divorced Congressman’s private life, which briefly became an issue in the waning days of the McGreevey administration. But the Congressman bristles at such suggestions. Addressing critics of Hudson County, he said, “I was a reformer before reform was even a cause célèbre, and I don’t believe that the happenstance of where I grew up should be held against me.”
As for the rest, he said: “I think that the people of New Jersey rejected the politics of personal destruction. More people voted against Doug Forrester than for him as a result of the personal attacks of Jon Corzine’s ex-wife.”
“They rejected those politics, and if Republicans want to replay that book, they’ll have another losing election,” he added.
So far, Mr. Menendez’s quiet strategy seems to be working. All of the bowing and scraping from possible successors seems unlikely to move Mr. Corzine, and it may even be getting on his nerves. According to Democratic insiders, Mr. Corzine recently expanded his short list of potential replacements to include a little-known state Senator from Montclair named Nia Gill.
“I interpreted it as a way of shutting everyone up for awhile,” said David Rebovich, managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. While Mr. Rebovich spoke highly of Ms. Gill, he speculated about the mood that Mr. Corzine may be trying to project: “Keep on pissing Uncle Johnny off, and I may do something really crazy and donate all my money to PETA,” he joked.
But the dueling campaigners may be trying to send a message of their own. New Jersey’s junior Senator, 81-year-old Frank Lautenberg, will eventually retire, vacating another Senate seat. (He would be up for re-election in 2008.) By getting some shots off early, the politicians who aren’t picked this time around can marshal resources for future battles.
In the current race for Mr. Corzine’s seat, the rules are simple: hold tight, look good and resist the temptation to pummel your rivals. The longer Mr. Corzine waits to appoint an heir, however, the harder it may become for candidates to smile through the strain.
Congressman Menendez, for example, couldn’t resist firing a faint salvo to set him apart from a chief rival. “I voted against the Iraq War at a time in which it was a lot more popular to vote for the war,” he said. “Some of my colleagues voted for the war. I did not. I did my due diligence.”
Among Mr. Menendez’s main competitors for the Senate seat, only Mr. Andrews, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. Mr. Scarinci, a longtime Menendez supporter who said he’s also a friend of Mr. Andrews, reinforced the significance of Mr. Andrews’ vote. “I think it disqualifies him” from consideration, he said.
Mr. Andrews doesn’t agree. “The only person in this race who’s talked about how we could get out of Iraq is me,” he told The Observer on Nov. 21. “I think what people are looking for in the next Senator is someone who can answer that question, not someone who can play politics with a very painful and difficult issue for the country.”
Looking ahead, Mr. Menendez also had some choice words for the younger Mr. Kean, who figures to be the Republican Party’s nominee next year.
“A well-known family name does not, in and of itself, make a U.S. Senator,” he said. “There’s no question that he gets a halo effect because of his name, but not necessarily because of his record. I’m sure that when people come to know that it is not the former Governor but his son, and they view his record and his statements, the halo will go away.”
And if New Jerseyans don’t figure out who he is?
“If not,” Mr. Menendez chuckled, “they’ll be aided.”