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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Does Bob Menéndez have enough Teflon to survive again?

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), left, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Oct. 29, 2019. Schumer urged against a rash judgment, saying Menendez had a “right to due process and a fair trial.”

By Nicholas Fandos

In a state long attuned to the drumbeat of political corruption — salacious charges, furious denials, explosive trials — Sen. Bob Menendez has often registered as the quintessential New Jersey politician.

He successfully avoided charges in one case, and after federal prosecutors indicted him in another, he got off after a mistrial in 2017. “To those who were digging my political grave,” Menendez warned then with characteristic bravado, “I know who you are and I won’t forget you.”

Six years later, he is once again on the brink, battling for his political life after federal prosecutors in New York unsealed a jarring new indictment Friday charging the powerful Democratic senator and his wife in a garish bribery scheme involving a foreign power, piles of cash and gold bars.

A defiant Menendez, 69, immediately vowed to clear his name from what he cast as just more smears by vengeful prosecutors. A top adviser said that he would also continue running for reelection in 2024, when he is trying to secure a fourth full term.

But as details of the case quickly spread through Trenton, New Jersey, and Washington — including images of an allegedly ill-begotten Mercedes-Benz convertible and cash bribes hidden in closets — it was clear Menendez may be confronting the gravest political challenge in a career that started 49 years ago in the shadow of New York City.

By Saturday afternoon, nearly every major Democratic figure in the state had called on him to resign, including the governor, senior members of Congress and influential state and county party chairs. It was a dramatic contrast to 2015, when Democrats largely rallied around Menendez in the face of his first indictment.

Party strategists and elected officials were already openly speculating that one or more of a group of ambitious, young Democrats representing the state in Congress could mount a primary campaign against him. One of them, Rep. Andy Kim, declared his candidacy on social media Saturday afternoon, setting up a highly unusual showdown.

“Not something I expected to do, but NJ deserves better,” he wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “We cannot jeopardize the Senate or compromise our integrity.”

For now, Menendez appeared to be on firmer footing among his colleagues in the Senate, notably including Sen. Cory Booker, his fellow New Jersey Democrat, who had not commented publicly. They accepted his temporary resignation as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee but did not ask him to leave office.

In a statement, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, called Menendez “a dedicated public servant” and said that his colleague had “a right to due process and a fair trial.”

Calls for his ouster seemed to only embolden Menendez, who spent part of Friday afternoon trying to rally allies by phone. “It is not lost on me how quickly some are rushing to judge a Latino and push him out of his seat,” he wrote in a fiery retort to Democrats who broke with him. “I am not going anywhere.”

His campaign did not immediately comment on Kim’s announcement.

The electoral stakes were high, and not just for Menendez.

Although he had yet to formally answer the charges in court, some party strategists were gauging the possibility that Menendez could be scheduled to stand trial in the middle of the campaign — an unwelcome distraction for Democratic candidates across the nation.

The details laid out in the 39-page indictment were nothing short of tawdry. Prosecutors said that Menendez had used his position to provide sensitive government information to Egypt, browbeat the Department of Agriculture and tamper with a criminal investigation. In exchange, associates rewarded him with the gold bullion, a car and cash, along with home mortgage payments and other benefits, they said.

Prosecutors referred to a text between an Egyptian general and an Egyptian American businessperson in which Menendez was referred to as “our man.” At one point, prosecutors said, the senator searched in a web browser “how much is one kilo of gold worth.”

Menendez already has a Democratic primary opponent, Kyle Jasey, a real estate lender and first-time candidate who called the indictment an “embarrassment for our state.” But political strategists and elected Democrats said Jasey may not have the lane to himself for long.

New Jersey has a glut of Democratic members of Congress with outsize national profiles; it took barely minutes Friday for the state’s political class to begin speculating about who might step forward.

In addition to Kim, 41, the most prominent possible contenders were Reps. Mikie Sherrill, 51, and Josh Gottheimer, 48, moderates who were already said to be looking at statewide campaigns for governor in 2025, when Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, cannot run because of term limits. Other names included Tom Malinowski, a two-term congressman who lost his seat last year.

National Republicans put their focus on Christine Serrano Glassner, the two-term mayor of a small community roughly 25 miles west of Newark, who quickly branded her opponent “Gold Bar Bob.”

Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, was elected to his first local office at age 20. At 28, he donned a bulletproof vest as he testified in a corruption trial against his former mentor. He won the mayoralty of Union City, before moving onto the state Assembly, the Senate, the House of Representatives and, in 2006, an appointment to the Senate.

It was only a matter of months before he was in the sights of the U.S. attorney’s office of New Jersey. The senator was never charged, but the investigation became campaign fodder after the U.S. attorney, then Chris Christie, issued a subpoena to a community agency that paid rent to Menendez while getting lucrative federal grants.

Almost a decade later, federal prosecutors went further, making Menendez the first sitting senator in a generation to face federal bribery charges in 2015. They accused him of exchanging political favors with a wealthy Florida eye surgeon for luxury vacations, expensive flights and campaign donations.

A jury heard the case two years later and could not reach a verdict; the Justice Department later dropped the prosecution, but the bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee “severely admonished” him for accepting gifts while promoting the surgeon’s interests.

Even so, Menendez handily won his party’s nomination and reelection in 2018.

To longtime analysts of the state politics, though, Friday’s case crossed a new threshold.

“Even by New Jersey standards, this one stands out — how graphic it is, how raw it is,” said Micah Rasmussen, a seasoned Democratic political hand who now leads Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

“There is a world of difference between not reporting a plane ride and having half a million in hundreds stashed around your house,” Rasmussen added. “By all rights, this should be the end of the line.”

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