by David P. Rebovich It’s a strategy veteran campaign manager, consultant, and pollster Steve DeMicco has used before. Take your opponent’s self-stated strength or line of attack and turn it back on him. When Brett Schundler attacked Jim McGreevey in the 2001 gubernatorial race for being supported by all sorts of special interest groups, McGreevey’s camp showed how the Jersey City mayor received scads of donations from folks who received contracts with the city. When Doug Forrester challenged Bob Torricelli’s ethics in 2002 and in last year’s gubernatorial race promised that he would rid state government of waste, fraud and abuse, he was attacked for becoming a multimillionaire at the expense of taxpayers. Forrester’s Benecard prescription drug management company served several municipalities throughout the state. This year Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Kean, Jr. has centered his campaign on the supposed ethical impairment of Democratic Senator Robert Menendez. It’s understandable that Kean is using this strategy. It’s difficult for a Republican to win a statewide race here unless the Democratic candidate goofs up or has some heavy baggage. And in today’s political environment , New Jerseyans certainly are attuned to the issue of government ethics. It’s bad enough to have your taxes hiked and good programs cut while others of questionable value were added to the new state budget. But to have all three done by politicians who seem beholden to special interests or who use their positions to help friends and family drives citizens crazy. Kean has been doing his best to make Menendez not just a player in this grimy, self-serving political world but the post-McGreevey poster-boy for what’s wrong with politics in New Jersey. This despite the fact that Menendez has been out of state government for nearly fourteen years. For thirteen of those years he was in the House of Representative where he rose to the position of chair of the Democratic Caucus, a position he gained because of his fluency on domestic and international policy issues, his industriousness, and his appreciation of the need for the Democratic Party to expand its base. Nonetheless, as a congressman Menendez did keep his hand in Hudson County politics and alienated some fellow Democrats in a high profile intra-party fight. And his willingness to promote friends and associates, including the controversial Zulima Farber, to stand up to then Governor McGreevey, and to raise large amounts of campaign funds, along with his influence in the state party, gave him the reputation for being a political boss. According to the Republicans, bosses like Menendez, John Lynch of Middlesex County and George Norcross of Camden County were the real powers behind the McGreevey Administration with all its ethical failings. During the 2005 governor’s race, Forrester’s supporters argued that even Jon Corzine would be controlled by bosses like Menendez. That charge was aimed at creating skepticism about Corzine’s promise to restore both ethical and fiscal integrity to state government. When the governor-elect announced that he would nominate Farber, better known as a government official and party insider than a crime fighter, to be Attorney General, this was seen as evidence of Menendez pulling the strings behind the scene. When Farber ran into trouble over her friend’s driving problems, Kean was quick to remind the public that Menendez was her biggest booster. His camp has also called for an investigation of the state’s Clean Energy Program for poor management, cronyism in awarding grants, and for setting up an $80 million bank account without appropriate approval. The relevance of the latter to the U.S. Senate campaign? Well, Jean Fox, Steve DeMicco’s wife, is President of the Board of Public Utilities that oversees the program. During Kean’s non-stop criticisms of the incumbent’s ethics and judgment, the Menendez camp has responded by claiming that Kean wants to talk about anything other than his positions on domestic and foreign policy issues. That’s because the State Senator supposedly agrees with the unpopular President Bush on many issues, including the war in Iraq and the privatization of Social Security. Despite the fact that New Jersey is a “blue” state, President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress are extremely unpopular, and Menendez has the advantages of incumbency, polls show that the Senate race is close. Most New Jerseyans may disagree with the President’s policy on Iraq and his conservative social views and be worried about the direction the country is headed in, but this hasn’t benefited Menendez much yet. Past patterns in statewide races here have the Democratic and Republican candidates starting out neck and neck. But as Election Day approaches, more late-deciding voters will support the Democratic candidate. It’s hard to image that this would change this year, especially given the President’s 30 percent approval rating in New Jersey. Unless, that is, enough of those late deciding voters can be made to think that the Democratic candidate is unfit or otherwise undeserving to serve in office. Hence. Kean’s focus on Menendez’s reputation as a boss and mover and shaker and the innuendo that the veteran politician is an influence-peddler or worse. Of course, if Menendez was “worse,” one suspects that he would be on U.S. Attorney Chris Christie’s radar, and there is simply no indication of that. However, while Kean’s hyperbole about Menendez’s political ethics is rather standard fare for New Jersey campaigns, it may well be giving some voters pause. After all, Menendez is not well-known statewide, having been in the U.S. Senate only since Corzine named him as his replacement in January. He is also an urbanite who represented the heavily urban, working class and minority 13th congressional district. If voters don’t buy Kean’s claim that Menendez is corrupt, some may find the charge that the Democrat is a tax and spend liberal who is willing to squander money on unsuccessful, big bureaucracy social programs as somewhat plausible. Contrast this characterization of Menendez with Tom Kean, Jr.’s image. He is, of course, a son of New Jersey’s most popular modern day governor who is a non-partisan figure associated with good economic times and support for public education, higher education, the environment, transportation, aid to urban areas and good government! . When the young Kean calls himself a “reformer,” he is not only trying to draw a sharp distinction between himself and his opponent and to connect himself to his highly respected father’s political reputation. So the Menendez team, headed by DeMicco, decided to raise some questions about their opponent’s commitment to ethics and about how father Kean has been helping his son. First, they have criticized Kean, Jr. for not aggressively supporting pay-to-play reform in Trenton, despite his claim of being a prime sponsor of such legislation. Then the Democrats have asked why Kean has not raised questions about the ethics of the Republicans in Washington, including how the Haliburton Corporation, formerly headed by Dick Cheney, gained so many government contracts The Menendez camp also criticized Kean, Jr. for obtaining campaign donations from employees of companies and a foundation where his father serves on the board of directors. A few days ago Menendez filed an ethics complaint against Kean with the Senate ethics committee. He charged Kean “…for his failure to disclose the full scope and nature of his inherited assets, as Senate ethics rules require.” Specifically, Menendez wants Kean to reveal where a hedge fund and an equity fund invest their capital to determine if those investments represent a conflict of interest. Fair enough. But there’s innuendo here, too. Kean, Jr. has “inherited assets,” not earned ones. He has kept the details of his investments private rather than being transparent about how he makes his money. What’s he hiding? Will this sparring over ethics end anytime soon in this campaign? Probably not. Kean is counting on his criticisms of Menendez to stick to keep the race close. That being said, it’s still unclear how the Republican would close the deal with undecided voters who need to be convinced why it’s a good thing for the Garden State to send a Republican to the Senate to help President Bush. For his part, Menendez can’t allow himself to be labeled the professional politician, the hack, or the thug in this race. As such, he will continue to attack Kean but try to talk about substantive issues that matter to New Jerseyans. However, the incumbent would be well advised to avoid coming across as too liberal, lest he continue to give undecided voters in suburbia doubts about his candidacy. New Jersey may be blue, but its residents are tired of forking over the green to government at any level. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS magazine. He also is a member of CQPolitics.com’s Board of Advisors that offers weekly commentary on national political developments.