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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Groundswell of Democrats builds calling on Menéndez to resign

Sen. Cory Booker, (D-N.J.) takes an escalator at the Capitol on Tuesday, July 11, 2023.

By Annie Karni

A stampede of Senate Democrats led by some of the party’s most endangered incumbents rushed forward earlier this week calling for Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey to resign, a day after he defiantly vowed to fight federal corruption charges and predicted he would be exonerated.

Even as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, defended Menendez as a “dedicated public servant” and refused to publicly move to push him out, the drumbeat for Menendez to step down grew from within his ranks. That left Schumer in a difficult position, caught between his role as the leader and defender of all Senate Democrats and the political imperative of cutting loose a member of his caucus who had become a political liability in an already difficult slog to keep the party’s Senate majority.

The most notable call for Menendez to go came from Sen. Cory Booker, the junior senator from New Jersey who has long been a close friend and fierce defender of Menendez. Booker, who testified as a character witness for Menendez during his first corruption trial, said the “shocking allegations of corruption” were “hard to reconcile with the person I know.”

He added, “I believe stepping down is best for those Sen. Menendez has spent his life serving.”

His statement came amid a flood of calls by Democrats running for reelection next year in politically competitive states, who appeared eager to distance themselves from Menendez. The third-term senator was indicted last week on bribery charges in what prosecutors alleged was a sordid scheme that included abusing his power as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to benefit Egypt.

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who is running in a state that former President Donald Trump won by more than 16 points in 2020, said Menendez needed to go “for the sake of the public’s faith in the U.S. Senate.” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a onetime bellwether state that has shifted sharply to the right over the past two presidential election cycles, said Menendez had “broken the public trust and should resign from the U.S. Senate.”

And Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada, who launched her reelection bid in a battleground state by predicting that her race would decide control of the Senate, said the corruption charges were a “distraction that undermines the bipartisan work we need to do in the Senate for the American people.”

Democrats view the fact that they were able to get all of their vulnerable senators to run for reelection in 2024 as their biggest source of strength in their quest to hold on to their slim majority next year.

By noon, those vulnerable Democrats had helped open the floodgates, with more than a dozen Democratic senators from across the country joining them and rushing to release statements calling for Menendez’s resignation before their weekly lunch in the Capitol. By the end of the day, at least 24 Democratic senators — almost half the caucus — had reached the conclusion that their colleague needed to go.

Booker often has described Menendez, the senior senator, as a friend, ally and mentor. But the nature of the charges — along with the political landscape of the state — appeared to have played a role in changing his mind.

Even before the latest indictment was announced, opinion polls indicated that public support for Menendez was waning, said Patrick Murray, director of the Polling Institute at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

During Menendez’s first criminal indictment, “New Jersey voters, and particularly Democrats, were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Murray said. “This time, public opinion is different.”

The floodgates may have opened Tuesday, but it took Democrats in the Senate days to get around to condemning their colleague.

On Friday, Menendez stepped down temporarily as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, under the rules put in place by his own party, but Schumer defended his right to remain in office. Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said any decision about Menendez’s future in the Senate was “going to be up to him and the Senate leadership.”

A lone Democratic voice over the weekend adding to calls for Menendez to go was Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who hails from another battleground state. He vowed to return campaign donations from Menendez’s leadership political action committee in envelopes stuffed with $100 bills — an apparent reference to the indictment against Menendez, which said investigators found jackets and envelopes stuffed with cash at his home, allegedly containing the fruits of the senator’s corrupt dealings.

Fetterman, who has come under criticism from his colleagues for pressing for a dress code change in the fusty Senate to accommodate his shorts-and-hoodie uniform, on Tuesday said he hoped his Democratic colleagues would “fully address the alleged systematic corruption of Sen. Menendez with the same vigor and velocity they brought to concerns about our dress code.”

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker from California, on Monday night also weighed in on the Menendez scandal, helping wedge open the door for detractors, saying on MSNBC that it would “probably be a good idea” for him to resign.

Some Republicans, on the other hand, jumped to Menendez’s defense, arguing that Democrats should have to weather the political consequences of his conduct.

“He should be judged by jurors and New Jersey’s voters, not by Democratic politicians who now view him as inconvenient to their hold on power,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote on X, previously Twitter.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, however, said Saturday that Menendez should go, arguing that the case laid out by prosecutors was “pretty black and white.” In contrast, McCarthy, R-Calif., has defended one of his own indicted members, Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., saying that it was not up to him to decide whether he should represent his district.

“You know why I’m standing by him? Because his constituents voted for him,” McCarthy said of Santos in January.

Menendez won reelection in 2018 by a 12-point margin.

On Tuesday, McCarthy appeared to change his position on Menendez, telling reporters that “it could be his choice with what he wants to do.”

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