IT’S MENENDEZ FOR SENATE, FINALLY

by David P. Rebovich Remember when there were rumblings about a secret deal between Jon Corzine and Democratic Party bosses about whom he would name to succeed him in the United States Senate? That was the rumor when Corzine was trying to clear the field in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and convince ranking Democrats here to talk popular Acting Governor Richard Codey out of seeking a full term. Well, any discussion about a deal was dropped during the long general election campaign season. That’s because most of New Jersey’s Democratic congressmen were tripping over each other to serve as surrogate speakers for Corzine on the campaign trail. In that role they attacked Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Forrester as an agent of the Bush Administration that had hurt the state and praised their party’s candidate as the leader who could save it. Many of those congressmen admitted that they were auditioning for Corzine’s Senate seat and playing to an audience of one. But after Corzine’s victory on November 8th and subsequent procrastination over whom should replace him, the showboating was replaced by squirming and squawking and finally by threats by some of the Senate hopefuls. A few said they might run in a primary if the Governor-elect did not appoint them as his replacement. Now, one month after the election, Corzine has finally announced who won the audition. It’s none other than Robert Menendez, the 13th district congressman and former state senator, assemblyman, mayor and school board member who was the front-runner all along. Menendez will finish the remaining year of Corzine’s Senate term and is the Governor-elect’s choice to run for a full term next fall. But despite the announcement and Corzine’s rousing endorsement of his own pick, some questions remain about the selection process and about Menendez’s prospects. One question is why Corzine took so long after his election as Governor to make a decision. Another is why he gave so many congressmen the impression that they were being seriously considered as his replacement. Then there is the matter of whether Menendez, who has spent his adult life in the rough and tumble world of Hudson County politics, has any political or personal baggage that can weigh him down in a general election campaign. Given the possibility that Menendez does have problems, will any of the ambitious Democrats who Corzine passed over decide to challenge the new Senator in a primary next Spring? And, assuming he is his party’s nominee for a full term next year, how will Menendez campaign against his likely Republican opponent, Tom Kean, Jr. Corzine was correct not to announce whom he would select as his successor immediately after his election as governor. A quick decision could have been interpreted to mean that he was more interested in political machinations than in the serious policy challenges that he will face as governor. But waiting a month and a day was too long. When Corzine’s camp hinted that he may even be considering Democrats other than the Congressmen who campaigned so hard for him, political observers here started to wonder about him. Did this multimillionaire who did anything but work his way up the ranks like to see experienced, dedicated politicians who did just that sweat while he made up his mind? And, was the Governor-elect sending a not so subtle message to his party’s leaders that now he was in charge? Whatever his motives, the fact that Corzine took so long fueled speculation that Menendez just might have some baggage that could hurt his chances of winning a full term. How he could and still become the third most powerful Democratic in the House of Representatives is not inconceivable – think of Tom Delay -, but it is not likely. Nonetheless, when it became clear last week that Menendez was Corzine’s choice, Republicans here immediately called the selection a huge mistake. They argued that the Governor-elect had picked an ethically impaired county party boss, even though he promised during the campaign to restore integrity to the state’s politics. And, unfortunately for Corzine and Menendez, editorials in The New York Times and The Times of Trenton made the same point. If any Democrat decides to challenge Menendez in next June’s primary, not only can the new U.S. Senator be harmed but so can the new Governor and the state’s Democratic Party. Corzine would be made to look foolish at the very time – next Spring – that he will be dealing with some difficult budget problems whose resolution will require citizens to have faith in their new Governor and believe he puts their interests, not partisan considerations, first. Menendez will be put on the defensive and have to devote time, political capital, and part of his campaign war-chest to fend off a challenger. He would undoubtedly go on the attack himself, meaning that whomever won the Democratic nomination would enter the general election campaign having to live down some negatives that the Republicans will be happy to repeat. From Corzine’s, Menendez’s and presumably the national and state Democratic Party’s perspective, far better that New Jersey’s Democrats rally behind Menendez and enable him to focus on winning a full term next fall. He can improve his prospects by introducing himself in positive terms to south and west New Jerseyans who may not be familiar with his impressive intellect, speaking skills and knowledge of domestic and foreign policy. Yes, expect Menendez and other Democratic candidates for Senate and House seats across the country next year to spend lots of time and resources arguing that President Bush and the Republican controlled Congress have pursued policies that hurt the nation and many states. But those New Jerseyans who don’t know much about Bob Menendez may be surprised to learn that this veteran public official has several well-reasoned alternatives to GOP policies. These alternatives, along with Menendez’s experiences as a leader and an advocate in the halls of Congress for the state and his constituents, are likely to make him an attractive candidate to New Jerseyans, including unaffiliated voters, who are disgruntled with politics as usual in the nations’ capital. The fact that Menendez can mobilize Latino-Americans, and perhaps other minority voters, will be a bonus. 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.

IT’S MENENDEZ FOR SENATE, FINALLY