AFTER THE FLOOD, MUDDY SENATE RACE REMAINS

by David P. Rebovich Waters finally receded along the Delaware last week after yet another flood of the historic river. But there still is a lot of mud in New Jersey, and apparently more of it will be slung in the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez and Republican challenger, Tom Kean, Jr. The New York Times reported that the Kean campaign has sanctioned work on a documentary-style film of Menendez’s political career as a longtime officeholder and leader in the Democratic political machine in Hudson County. And, it is not going to be a testimonial. There’s no word on what exactly the documentary will say about the former school board member, mayor, assemblyman, state senator and congressman or when it will be aired. However, Kean and his staff have been regularly calling Menendez “corrupt,” a word that not used loosely even in campaigns since it suggests that someone has broken the law. Published reports suggest that the film will focus on the theme of corruption and try to use Menendez’s involvement with political mentor William Musto and his own alleged influence peddling during his many years in office to condemn him. U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer has characterized the planned film as similar to the “Swift Boat” ads that supporters of President Bush ran against John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race. Schumer and Menendez’s staffers have called Kean’s endorsement of this project a disgrace to his family’s name. Menendez has been quick to point out that stories run by The New York Times and The Star Ledger support his claim that he in fact helped prosecutors nab political operatives and mobsters participating in a kickback scheme with Musto in Hudson County. The prosecutors themselves have also confirmed Menendez’s version of the events. Nonetheless, even after these stories were published, Kean persisted in calling Menendez corrupt and did so to the Senator’s face in the June 26th debate aired on New Jersey Network. When asked by a panelist what was his evidence for this serious charge, Kean claimed that Menendez channeled contracts to his political allies and to a former staff member. With the nation at war with Iraq, widespread concern about issues like America’s economic future, high energy costs, terrorism, and illegal immigration, and New Jerseyans calling for more federal aid for education, transportation, environmental cleanup, and homeland security, Tom Kean, Jr. is talking about corruption. What gives? Well, the character of public officials is an important issue for folks here, especially given Jim McGreevey’s ethically impaired governorship and the successful prosecution of more than eighty politicos by U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie. New Jerseyans who are understandably skeptical about politicians in general may be inclined to think that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Kean’s strategy is aimed at perpetuating concerns about Menendez among those folks who are likely to be most skeptical about politicians. That’s the twenty percent or so of folks who, according to several polls, are undecided about whom to support in the Senate race. Those polls also show that each candidate has roughly forty percent of the vote. That’s good news for the Kean camp in a state that has not elected a Republicans to the U.S. Senate since giving Clifford Case his last term in 1972. But with the exception of Bob Franks in 2000, GOP senate candidates have only climbed a few points above that forty percent line by the time election day has rolled around. When in doubt about which candidate to support, late deciders in U.S. Senate races here tend for vote for the Democratic candidate. But what happens if this fall those late-deciders still have doubts about Menendez? Well, that’s what Kean is counting on. So don’t be surprised if the mudslinging continues right through November and the “Swift Boat” style film gets a lot of play in the last weeks of the campaign. But, Kean also has another rather clever theme that he introduced in the televised debates and will likely continue to discuss. He is trying to turn Bob Menendez’s many years of experience in Washington, D.C., normally a strength, into a liability and a reason why those undecided folks should not vote for the incumbent. Do you have complaints about how lawmakers in Washington, D.C. have been behaving and how our representatives need to help New Jersey more? Well, Kean has been calling Menendez part of the political establishment in the nation’s capital, and someone who could have helped New Jersey more but hasn’t. Instead, the Republican asserts, Menendez has been too busy advancing his own career within the Democratic Party, keeping his hand in Hudson County politics, and helping other unsavory Democrats in New Jersey like McGreevey. If New Jersey needs more funds for homeland security and other important policy areas, it’s because the state’s Democratic U.S. Senators, Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, have been ineffective advocates. Menendez’s responses to these two lines of attack are predictable. Regarding Kean’s charge that he is corrupt, the Senator has said read the papers and listen to what the prosecutors in the Musto case say, not what an ambitious but unqualified Republican candidate claims. Menendez can always make the point that the U.S. Attorney, a Republican at that, has done an excellent job fighting political corruption and has not bothered to look at him. The Senator has already charged Kean with manufacturing a bogus issue because the Republican is afraid to talk about real issues. That’s because Kean shares President Bush’s unpopular positions on the war in Iraq, tax cuts, the minimum wage and illegal immigration. On not helping New Jersey more, Menendez asked Kean if he understood that it is the Republican Party that has controlled Congress for the White House for years. The thirteen year congressman and Senator insists that he has fought for constituents but has often been undermined by GOP leaders and majorities. The question that voters need to ask themselves is why would they want to send a Republican to the Senate to help a party that has not helped New Jersey and that has hurt the nation with its irresponsible fiscal policy and incompetence in Iraq. Kean will have to address these criticisms whether he wants to or not. As such, he is well-advised to develop some clear statements about his positions on a variety of issues and not worry about apologizing if he agrees or differs with the President. The key for Kean will be explain how his positions forward the state’s and the nation’s interests, not on whether his views are consistent with any ideology or with his party’s national platform. Unless he does this, Kean will be vulnerable to Menendez’s charge that he is trying to hide behind trumped up charges of corruption and use them to trick citizens in supporting a candidate for Senate who will merely rubber stamp the unpopular policies of his party. Is that mudslinging? Whatever it is, it’s likely to be more effective than anything in that film that Kean’s supporters are working on. 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 monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine and is a member of CQPolitics.com’s Board of Advisors that provides weekly commentary on national political developments.

AFTER THE FLOOD, MUDDY SENATE RACE REMAINS