MENENDEZ OUT FRONT ON PORT SECURITY AND OTHER ISSUES

by David P. Rebovich The assumption always was that U.S. Senator Robert Menendez would have the fund-raising advantage against his likely GOP opponent, Tom Kean, Jr., and so far he has. As the incumbent, albeit a short-term one, Menendez was also expected to be able to get more free media over the next several months than his opponent who, admittedly, already has a famous and popular name. And that’s been the case, too. But nobody could have predicted the enormous amount of positive publicity that Menendez has received the last few weeks or the very issue that has put him in the national spotlight and boosted his Senate campaign this early in the election year. The issue, of course, is port security. Specifically, it is the decision of the Bush Administration to support a contract with a company owned by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) to manage the seaports in six major cities, including Port Newark and Elizabeth and Philadelphia. By all accounts, the company does know how to run a port. But the U.A.E., considered an ally of the United States, was home to two of the 9/11 hijackers. And before that fateful day, the U.A.E. recognized the Taliban government of Afghanistan. According to Menendez, as well as Democratic Senate colleagues like Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer of New York, scores of fellow partisans in the chambers of Congress, and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, the contract has to be voided. Menendez argued that it is simply too risky to port security, and ultimately to national security, to have a U.A.E.-owned company responsible for unloading millions of tons of cargo a year in six of America’s major seaports. The new Senator from New Jersey was out front on the issue, calling for common sense – not ideological debate, partisan loyalty, or deference to the President – in making decisions about defending the nation, its ports, and the American way of life. The question soon became, what would the Republicans in the Senate and House do as public concerns about this issue grew? Some Republican House members representing districts that contain the effected seaports at first grumbled. But would they buck the President of their own party and possibly invite the wrath of GOP leaders in the White House and Congress who are known to insist on loyalty? Well, none other than Senate President Bill First broke the ice by questioning the appropriateness of having a U.A.E.-owned company run our seaports. Then came a flood of criticism from Republicans across the country and right here in New Jersey, including Tom Kean, Jr.. Those Republicans joined Democrats in calling on the Bush Administration to rescind the contract and said that would pass legislation to that effect. When the President threatened to veto any such legislation, many members of his own party in Congress, including some New Jersey Republican congressmen, responded that they would join with Democrats to override the President’s veto. Partisanship cannot justify supporting bad policy, they said. Undoubtedly part of their calculation was the simple fact that every House seat and one-third of the Senate seats will be on the ballot this November. Control of both chambers in Congress is at stake, and if that means standing up to a fellow Republican in the Oval Office, so be it. But standing up to President Bush on this one issue may not be enough in some states and congressional districts. The port security issue, following the slow, jumbled response to Hurricane Katrina, growing concerns about the War in Iraq, and some harsh cuts in the President’s budget proposal are causing some voters, including folks here in already “blue” New Jersey, to wonder why they should send more Republicans to Washington, D.C. when the current ones can’t seem to get some important decisions right. Most people would probably think that it is good that Republican lawmakers are exercising their own judgment on issues like port security. But in states like New Jersey, those same people are also likely to respond to the idea that if they really want someone who they can count on to fight an ineffective White House, then they should vote for a Democrat. That’s an idea that many Democrats running for Senate and House seats this fall are basing their campaigns on, and that includes Menendez. However, it is important to note that Menendez is not content to simply criticize the Bush Administration and those who support it, no matter how easy and advantageous that might be. As he did as a congressman and chair of the House Democratic Caucus, the New Jersey Senator typically follows up his criticisms with statements about his own values and his own policy alternatives for the issue in question. He recognizes that citizens don’t want complainers to represent them but competent lawmakers who share, or at least respect, their social and political views and who are committed to solving pressing public problems. That’s the Bob Menendez that 235 students, faculty and staff met last Thursday at Rider University. In between several high profile appearances on national political talks shows and well publicized press conferences with Senator Hillary Clinton and other ranking Democrats, the Senator found time to deliver a major policy address at Rider on the port security deal, homeland security in general, and the War in Iraq. Menendez also discussed higher education and its relationship to long-term American economic well-being and social opportunity. The Senator spoke in considerable detail about how the Administration has downplayed the inadequate security checks and lack of transparency in the contract with the U.A.E.-owned company. He went on to argue that the port security deal was symptomatic of a larger problem in the Bush Administration, i.e., it does not seek complete information or adequately use the information it has in the decision making process. He cited the poor intelligence on WMD’s that the Administration used as a basis of invading Iraq and its cavalier attitude toward legitimate concerns about safety and security at home. Besides being concerned about the seaport contract, Menendez is also upset that the Bush Administration is not taking the security of surface transportation and chemical facilities seriously. The federal government has spent an average of $9 on security for each airline passenger but only one-cent for each rail and mass transit passenger. While he and Senator Clinton are introducing legislation to ban foreign owned companies from operating United States seaports, Menendez wants a comprehensive federal strategy to protect ports, infrastructure and sensitive private sector facilities. On foreign affairs, Menendez called for a “radical change in the direction of our foreign policy.” He criticized the Administration’s “mismanagement” of the Iraqi War, asserting that it rushed to war, does not have an exit strategy, and lacks a solid plan for winning the peace. Menendez said that he has been calling for a “success strategy” for months, one that posits specific benchmarks by which federal officials can evaluate its progress in preparing Iraq for self-governance. For example, we need to determine how many Iraqi security forces are needed and can be trained, how much oil Iraq should produce to pay for its reconstruction, and the number of government departments that should be fully functional by certain dates. Then, he claims, policy-makers can determine what is working and what’s not and the changes that need to be made. Menendez also discussed two other issues of importance to college students – financial aid and job creation – and linked the two. He lamented the fact that in his budget proposal President Bush recommended cuts to Perkins loans and student loans and freezing Pell grants. Citing the importance of enhancing America’s competitiveness in high tech industries and of providing socio-economic opportunity for all Americans, Menendez said that financial aid needs to be a national priority. He lauded Governor Jon Corzine’s Edison Innovation Fund as the right kind of investment to stimulate economic growth and the creation of more g
ood paying jobs in New Jersey. Menendez also cited his own Liberty Corridor project as an effective use of federal funds to encourage joint research and development activities between private firms and universities and the establishment of manufacturing, warehousing and distribution centers on old industrial cites in the greater Newark area. As you might expect, these were popular ideas with an audience of students, faculty and staff at a university known for its business programs and career-oriented education. But besides the substance of what Menendez said, what impressed so many of those in attendance was the Senator’s style. In an era when many people, especially young adults, regard politicians as slick hucksters or angry ideologues, Menendez came across as a policy analyst who was asking important questions, collecting data and information, and drawing logical conclusions. That approach can produce good policy decisions. In today’s political environment, it can also get a candidate a lot of votes. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics, for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and writes a monthly report on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.

MENENDEZ OUT FRONT ON PORT SECURITY AND OTHER ISSUES