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Jersey Barrier

The Menendez mystery.

Picking Bob Menendez was a gamble—that much is clear. When Jon Corzine left the Senate to take over as governor of New Jersey last year, he named Menendez, a longtime Democratic congressman from Hudson County in the northeastern part of the state, to serve out the remainder of his term. It didn’t take long for that decision to look like a significant miscalculation. Running at a time when the national political landscape favored Democrats, Menendez, improbably, seemed headed for defeat. An air of scandal surrounded his campaign, thanks to revelations that, for almost a decade, he rented space to a Head Start provider while also helping the organization get federal grants. It hardly helped that Menendez was widely seen as a machine politician from a corrupt, urban county—in a largely suburban state where voters have left cities in droves over the past few generations. By late August, with the incumbent trailing his Republican challenger by five points, a columnist for the state’s largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, warned that Menendez was “one scandal away from becoming the next Bob Torricelli”—the scandal-plagued senator who was forced to drop out of the 2002 race a little over a month before election day. Four weeks later, on September 28, just such a scandal surfaced with the release of a tape recording of Menendez aide Donald Scarinci pressuring a government-contracted psychiatrist to hire a Menendez friend. Since that moment, Menendez’s poll numbers have gone in one direction.

But not the direction anyone might have expected. Today, Menendez leads by three points and appears to have a plausible shot at retaining his seat. What happened? How did a candidate as imperfect as Menendez manage to right his sinking campaign? The answer has something to do with the flaws of his opponent, Thomas Kean Jr., and plenty to do with the unpopularity of President Bush. More than anything else, however, it has to do with just how solidly Democratic this state has become.

IF ANY RACE was going to resurrect the Republican consensus that not so long ago dominated New Jersey politics, it should have been this one. For decades, the corruption and urban decay of Newark and Jersey City in the north and Camden in the south helped drive the descendants of Irish, Italian, and German immigrants to the middle-class towns that dot this state’s overwhelmingly suburban landscape. As part of their journey, many left behind their Democratic loyalties and began voting Republican. Bitterly anti-tax and adamantly determined to fence off their new communities from city violence, these suburbanites had turned New Jersey into a GOP bastion by the early ‘80s. Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter here by a devastating 52 to 39 margin, then crushed Walter Mondale by more than 20 points. And, in 1988, the year of Willie Horton, New Jersey voters favored George H.W. Bush by a margin of 56 to 43.

But, in 1992, New Jersey flipped; and, in every presidential election since, the state’s electoral votes have gone to the Democratic candidate. Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole by nearly 18 points; Al Gore wiped the floor with George W. Bush, 56 to 40; and John Kerry defeated Bush by 7 points. The state was part of a nationwide realignment that saw middle-class and upscale northern professionals rebel against a Republican Party they believed had grown too Southern, too moralistic, and too socially conservative. This shift has changed the politics of many once-Republican areas—Long Island, the Chicago suburbs, much of the West Coast, and the Eastern Seaboard from Northern Virginia to Massachusetts.

By selecting Menendez to succeed him in the Senate, Corzine turned this year’s race into a high-risk test of just how solid his state’s new political consensus really is. That’s because, while Menendez appeals to New Jersey’s upscale liberals—he strongly opposes the Iraq war, favors abortion rights, and backs stem-cell research—he also seemed more likely than any statewide candidate in recent memory to retrigger the conservative anxieties that overtook voters here during the ‘80s. Menendez was the most powerful figure— the “boss,” his critics would say—in the Democratic Party of Hudson County, an urban area emblematic of the state’s tradition of corrupt machine politics and a place from which New Jersey voters have fled in recent decades. In addition, race had been a factor in the Republican ascendance of the ‘80s; and, with Menendez running against the son of popular former governor Thomas Kean, Rutgers political scientist Cliff Zukin suggested that the election could boil down to “the fact that it’s a Kean, which is an iconic name in the state, versus Menendez, which is a Hispanic name.” In short, Menendez—nonwhite, dogged by allegations of impropriety, and known to have associates, past and present, in jail—brought with him all the political liabilities of Hudson County.

Attempting to resurrect these old political dynamics has constituted virtually the entire strategy of the Kean campaign. Here, for example, is the partial text of one GOP radio ad. Note the number of times the phrase “Hudson County” is used:

My name is Larry Giancola, and I’m a lifelong resident of Hudson County. I’m a registered Democrat. I would not want to see Bob Menendez representing New Jersey in the Senate. I think that if he does for the state of New Jersey what he’s done for Hudson County, I think we’re in trouble—Hudson County being the most corrupt county probably in the whole country. ... There’s a bunch of political bosses. There’s been sweetheart deals with developers and contractors. A number of them have been indicted, and probably more will be. I think if you want to see the kind of job Bob Menendez does, come to Hudson County. He’s made Hudson County a terrible place to live.

Another ad repeats, four times in 60 seconds, the phrase “Bob Menendez, under federal criminal investigation.”

Given the state’s recent history, you can see why Kean thought this strategy might work. And it still could, if voters like Michael DelViscovo are any indication. DelViscovo was one of 15 people I spoke with on Columbus Day in Watchung—the sort of town to which white voters have moved over the years from places like Newark and Hudson County. The director of human resources at Port Elizabeth, he left Newark for the suburbs—”You can’t even live in Newark anymore,” he explained—and used to work in Jersey City, the seat of Hudson County. “The politicians are corrupt and they don’t care about the city itself, and the city continues to decline,” he said of Jersey City politics. “To me, the number-one thing is schools,” he continued. “Look at all the crime that is being committed in schools. Fortunately, it’s not been in our backyards, but it’s eventually going to get there.” DelViscovo said he would be voting for Kean. No surprise there.

IF MORE VOTERS were thinking like DelViscovo, the Republicans’ strategy of trying to reconstitute their old statewide majority would be an enormous success. But several factors have frustrated their plans. The first is Kean himself. He lacks his father’s charisma and speaks in quick, choppy sentences that stick precisely to a script. Menendez, by contrast, is more articulate and thinks better on his feet.

Second, Menendez has been able to muddy the waters of corruption by capitalizing on a series of stories about Kean in the New Jersey and New York press. Last spring, The Wall Street Journal revealed that, on the same day the board of UnitedHealth Group Inc. met to discuss controversial stock options granted to top executives, many of those same executives attended a Kean fund- raiser. And one of the company’s directors, who was evaluating the propriety of the stock options, was none other than Kean’s father. Then, on September 15, The Star-Ledger reported that, as a state senator, Kean voted to preserve a $40 million tax break for Horizon BlueCross BlueShield—on the same day his campaign received $13,300 from 17 company executives and family members. Most recently, the paper disclosed that Kean’s campaign has accepted $213,025 from officials of companies doing business with the state, despite sponsoring legislation that would prohibit such contributions. These revelations have created the impression that both sides in the race are equally tainted—exactly what Menendez wants. “All these politicians—it seems like they are in there for the money,” said one voter, a Republican and retired AT&T executive whom I interviewed in Watchung. “We read all these articles in the paper about them getting money from this guy, that company.” Asked about Kean, he said that, while he admires his father, “I don’t think the son is following in the same footsteps. There are too many bad things coming out. I might vote for Kean if worse came to worst. Menendez has these problems in the paper, but Kean is no angel.”

Menendez’s bid to muddy the waters has been helped by the fact that the charges against him never quite became full-blown scandals. Take, for instance, the recently released tapes, which feature Menendez adviser Donald Scarinci asking a government-contracted psychiatrist to rehire Vincente Ruiz, a Menendez friend whom the doctor had fired a year earlier. “If you can deal with [Ruiz] and make him happy, Menendez will consider that a favor; if you can’t, then that’s OK ... you can’t,” Scarinci says on the tape. That’s pretty vanilla stuff: Anyone who thinks that taking care of friends and associates does not happen everywhere—at every level of government as well as in the corporate and nonprofit worlds—is simply naive.

But maybe the biggest factor keeping Menendez afloat is that New Jersey is no longer the place it once was. Kean’s father campaigned and governed as a liberal northeastern Republican; but, in today’s partisan environment, with control of the Senate hanging in the balance, it has become much harder for Republicans to appeal to socially liberal voters. And, since 1992, those voters have only solidified their preeminence in New Jersey politics. Democrats can thank the state’s economy for that. During the ‘80s, even as Republicans were enjoying momentary dominance in the Garden State, its workforce was changing in a way that would favor Democrats over the long term. New Jersey’s economy was at one time dominated by huge manufacturing companies like RCA Victor, once based in Camden. But globalization and intensified domestic competition had decimated most of these operations by 1980, turning New Jersey cities into slums. Around the same time, high-paying telecommunications, finance, and pharmaceutical companies moved into the state or expanded existing operations— importing scientists, engineers, and MBAs. And so, just as the Democratic Party was beginning to make great strides among the nation’s professionals, New Jersey acquired more than its share of them. In 1970, per capita income in the state was 18 percent above the national average; by 2000, it was 28 percent higher than in the country at large.

Affluent and socially liberal, New Jersey has become arguably one of the most difficult places for Republicans to claim major victories. “Do you have to be pro-choice to win statewide in New Jersey?” asks David Rebovich of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics, before answering his own question: “Yes.” It’s no coincidence that a current Menendez ad mentions the words “Roe v. Wade.” That’s a savvy strategy, but don’t give Menendez too much credit. If he manages to squeak out a victory, it won’t say nearly as much about him as it says about his state.

This article originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.