NEW BRUNSWICK – Leading Republican opponent state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-13) by 15 points, according to a Monmouth University poll released this week, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) nonetheless insists he’s running a campaign on par with his most aggressive ever.
He’s running scared, he says, the only way he knows how to run, going back to the only election he ever lost, against then-Union City Mayor Bill Musto in 1980, when Musto beat Menendez, then went to jail.
In a bustling downtown New Brunswick office where allies worked the phones Wednesday, the incumbent Democrat sat down with PolitickerNJ.com as he contends not only with Kyrillos, but a state dominated by the Republican presence of Gov. Chris Christie and a fractured Democratic Party.
The fact that polls show him up by double digits over his opponent won’t change the way he runs.
He said anyone who knows him knows he believes there are two campaign modes in which to compete: unopposed or scared.
Faced with an opponent in this election, “I am running as hard as I ever had,” Menendez said. “My schedule starts early and ends late, and I am traveling every day up and down the entire state. …I see elections as an opportunity for a conversation with voters about the work I have done on their behalf.”
He highlights his work on energy, securing transportation funding, championing middle class targeted tax cuts and bipartisan work he has done to combat autism.
For Menendez, it comes down to starkly different views on the issues.
On the GOP Effort to Win over Latinos
“I think Marco did a good job,” Menendez said of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) late August address to the Republican National Convention (RNC). “He was their best speaker at the convention. He was an excellent asset. Their problem is not the individuals, their problem is their policies. Their problem is how they speak about issues so important to the Latino community. This party is not on our side.”
Referring to Mitt Romney’s quote at a private fundraiser about how 47% of voters back Obama because they depend on government, Menendez said Rubio wouldn’t stand with the GOP presidential nominee if he embraced polices advancing the interests of most Latinos.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here without the Pell grants and Perkins loans (from the government), that helped me attend St. Peter’s College and Rutgers Law School,” said Menendez. “I wouldn’t be a U.S. senator. To suggest the power of the federal government is something that makes them part of an entitled victim class, that’s tough.”
The senator also pointed out that among presidential hopefuls competing in the Republican Primary, Romney stood farthest to the right, supporting self deportation, electrified fences and a veto of the Dream Act.
“I think if you physically look at the shots of the convention audience you see the difference in diversity between the two parties,” he added. “For us diversity is not just in the people in the seats, it’s in the views we take. For them diversity is a smaller universe, therefore in order to seem more diverse they have to highlight it.”
But the prime time presence of Rubio at the GOP convention, the Obama Campaign’s selection of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for the Democrats’ keynote speaker role in Charlotte, and frontline speeches by numerous other Hispanic elected officials both in Tampa and Charlotte, underscored the fact that Menendez did not have a prime speaking role.
It begs the question – why not?
“I gave my blood to the party two years (as chairman, from 2009 to 2011 of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee),” said the senator. “I’m focused on my election to the Senate. I’m a work horse, not a show horse.”
On the Absence of an Obama NJ Campaign
He said he’s committed to Obama’s re-election and has specifically gone on Univision and Telemundo highlighting critical differences between the incumbent president and Republicans. But he also points out that his re-election bid has focused him squarely on New Jersey and not a national stage.
“I take no one for granted,” he said. “The election… takes my full engagement.”
Two sources close to the senator told PolitickerNJ.com he has not enjoyed a close relationship with the president, a chill going back to Menendez’s impassioned support for Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic Primary.
With polls showing New Jersey locked down for Obama, the president’s Chicago-based re-election campaign is not contributing resources here in any significant fashion, requiring Menendez to rely solely on his own resources and machinery.
He doesn’t see Chicago’s absence as a negative.
“The president is doing well in the state and I’m not surprised,” said Menendez, referring to the calamitous state of the nation when Obama took office.
“Having said that, what’s happened is a lack of advertising from the presidential campaign and a lack of a field operation. To the extent that they get Obama volunteers, they send then into Pennsylvania. The only person who is engaged on a statewide level is me. That’s why I laugh a little bit when I read the pundits, who say I’m riding on the president’s popularity. In that context… this whole suggestion that I’m on the president’s coattails makes me wonder where is their political knowledge. It is both great that the president is doing well and challenging to us, because we have to carry the whole burden, so to speak, but we are meeting that challenge.”
On Wall Street and the Middle Class
His challenger has repeatedly cited Menendez’s contribution receipts from Wall Street, including $1.4 million from the securities and investments industry over the course of his career, as evidence that the senator can’t effectively fight for working people.
A member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Menendez said his record shows otherwise.
“I fought for the toughest Wall Street reform,” he said, arguing he led on credit card reform, which industries opposed, on CEO salary disclosure, and in his support for the Volker Rule, restricting banks from making investments that do not benefit their customers.
“None of those people wanted any of that,” he said, “which is why I’m being supported by so many of the consumer groups.”
The senator has had to stave off criticism from his opponent concerning his office’s revolving door into the world of high powered lobbying. Strongly opposed to money market reform, Federated Investors, Inc. in May hired former Menendez chief of staff Michael Hutton, paying him $30,000 in the second quarter.
“I have no control of what a former staffer goes on to do,” said Menendez of Hutton, who was his chief from 1992 to 2002. “I can’t tell anyone what to do or not to do. There isn’t anyone more vigorous in his efforts on Wall Street reform and greater transparency.”
He wants full disclosure – as part of the federal Disclose Act – of mega committees and others secretly funding political campaigns.
“I am going to fight tooth and nail for disclosure of super PACs,” he said, describing the Citizens United Supreme Court decision as “the worst thing that happened for our democracy. What we can do is at least require disclosure so that when citizens for whatever show up on your screen you know who’s behind it. You know that is that the oil company fighting for that and approving its message that would blunt some of the corrupting influence in the elections.”
He blamed Kyrillos for the storyline depicting him as soft on Wall Street.
“My opponent is the one who stokes this,” said the senator. “We know nothing about how he makes money at Colliers and Newport capital. How do you make your money there while a real estate broker? Everybody knows how I make my money. I have one salary, as a U.S. senator and I have some income from some rental property where my sister lives.”
Like Rubio, Kyrillos finds himself in the unfortunate position of trying to prop up trickle-down economics, according to Menendez.
“The last time something trickled down on me I didn’t like it very much,” he cracked.
Menendez has attacked his opponent for his failure to chastise Romney on his infamous “47 percent” comment. Asked why it is incumbent on Kyrillos to repudiate Romney’s comments, the senator said he believes Kyrillos agrees with his party’s standard bearer.
“Kyrillos’s silence (on Romney’s 47% comment) is because he shares that view. He ran Governor Romney’s campaign in the state four years ago. He says he supports his presidential campaign, he’s the former state Republican chairman, and it’s how he votes. He votes to give tax cuts to millionaires and then votes against minimum wage, then walks out on paycheck fairness vote for women.”
In a television advertisement his campaign released this week, Menendez sits in a diner with the plates getting cleared and speaks of his dedication to the middle class.
Why doesn’t he talk about the working poor and the dispossessed?
“Our messaging is done in multiple ways,” Menendez said. “I always talk about the middle class and those struggling to get into the middle class. Our field operations have different targets. Advertising is a 30 second segment. When our elements all join together they will paint a coherent picture that speaks to the working class. I don’t know how many people grew up in a tenement but I did.”
Menendez won’t talk about it, but cowed or politically co-opted members of his own party arguably pose more of a hazard than his Republican opponent.
Part of Menendez’s election year challenge includes working with the structures of a Democratic Party softened by the aggressive efforts of a politically savvy Gov. Chris Christie. Some sources credit Menendez with coining the term “Christiecrats” when addressing county committees and reminding his fellow party members to be alert to Republican measures harmful to Democratic causes.
At least three big Democratic Party machines – the South Jersey Democratic Organization, the Essex County Democratic Committee, and Union City Mayor Brian P. Stack’s local Democratic Committee – have had notably good relations with Christie’s front office, sending shivers through some Democrats worried about the capacity of those machines to deliver for Democrats come election time.
“I have been about building the party over the last six years, working to communicate what I am fighting for,” Menendez said. “I have worked to help those who share my values and help build a structure in the state. Overall there’s a lot of good work being done by parties and volunteers. It’s always tougher for the party out of office to have everything that goes with the governor’s office. Do we need to do more? Absolutely. …The consequences for America are too great. We don’t want morning in America to be a president who says 47% of Americans are people who he (Romney) doesn’t care about.”
Senate Foreign Relations
A day after Iranian President Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations, Menendez reiterated his view that Iran poses the biggest Middle East national security threat to the United States and thousands of troops stationed in the Middle East, well in range of an Iranian missile.
The senator said he led the sanctions against Iran vote that passed 100-0.
He praised the Obama administration’s response to the crisis, but stressed that all options must remain on the table in dealing with the potential for Iranian nuclear weapons. A nuclear arms race in an unstable portion of the world would be disastrous, Menendez said.
“I think the president has a red line – Iran cannot have nuclear weapons,” the senator added. “It is not in the best interest of the United States. …I look at the totality of what he has said and done. I am convinced he will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons.”
On the Capitol political front, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez could move up to become chair of the powerful committee if Chairman John Kerry replaces a retiring Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
Kerry may have to contend with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, whom published reports describe as also interested in the job.
Menendez won’t say who he prefers.
“It is a tough question,” he said. “They are both exceptional people, they’ve both been on the world stage. John Kerry brings a wealth of experience and understanding. Susan Rice brings a huge reservoir of academic experience and so either of them would be good.”
‘All Politics is Local’ and 2013
PolitickerNJ.com later followed up on the question about fractured Democratic Party structures, pointing to the ongoing North Hudson tousle between Democratic Party power brokers, state Sen. Nick Sacco (D-32) and state Sen. Stack (D-33).
Menendez said outward strife will not translate to poor election day results, adding he has no doubt post Election Day that the spread sheets out of the 32nd and 33rd districts will show solid performance toward his re-election.
He denied the Sacco-Stack war is good for voters in the sense that each time one of the two warlords steps out of line, the other is there to blow the whistle.
“Good governance comes from the people, not officials in two towns overlooking each other,” Menendez said. “It comes from people going to school board meetings and commissioner meetings. Good governance is choosing well. Elections have consequences. We saw that in 2010. The rise of the Tea Party brought the nation to its knees. It’s the electorate who chooses. I always believe a participatory democracy doesn’t end on casting a vote, but begins by asking questions.”
Inevitably the question arises about 2013 and the Democrats’ chances of unseating Christie.
“We’ve got a lot of talent,” Menendez said. “As I tell all that talent, I know it sounds self serving, but the way to lay the foundation is to have a solid election this year. Use this year to communicate with voters and build a response that you will be able to go back to next year.”
Does Menendez include himself within that framework of potential challengers?
“I have no intention of running for governor,” he said. “My whole intention is focused on running for the U.S. Senate.”