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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

This political neophyte is a lock for Congress. His name helps.

Robert Menendez Jr., 37, center, known as Rob, is running for a congressional seat once held by his father, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, not pictured.

By Tracey Tully

Brian Varela’s odds of winning the Democratic congressional primary against the son of a powerful United States senator were always exceedingly long.

His main opponent, Robert Menendez Jr., was the hand-picked darling of New Jersey’s Democratic elite. Varela was having trouble hiring field workers willing to risk offending Hudson County’s famously cutthroat political machine. And he had sold his house so that he could lend his campaign $600,000.

Still, the Hudson County Democratic Organization, which is backing Menendez, was taking no chances.

The 589 signatures Varela had gathered to get on the ballot were challenged in court, and roughly two-thirds were invalidated, an aggressive political tactic that disqualified him from the race. Another candidate, Eugene D. Mazo, an election law expert who had hoped to run under the slogan, “No to nepotism. No to Menendez,” was knocked out of contention the same way.

Two other lesser-known opponents remained on the ballot, and Menendez, a 37-year-old lawyer who has never held public office, coasted to an easy primary victory last month.

Barring an unlikely win in November by his Republican opponent, Marcos Arroyo, in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans, 5-1, Menendez will join his father, Sen. Robert Menendez, in Congress next year.

Varela, 33, said he did not regret running.

“I don’t think that anyone should be able to just march right into Washington, D.C., because they’ve been anointed,” he said.

History is filled with examples of other famous families who have held generational power in Washington, including the Bushes, Kennedys, Cheneys and Gores. But in the 8th Congressional District — a densely packed region in northern New Jersey known as much for its sordid history of political corruption as for its stark economic challenges — the Democratic Party’s decision to back Menendez has come to represent party politics at its worst.

Before December, Menendez was known mainly as the affable son of a senator — who, five years after facing federal corruption charges that ended with a mistrial, has emerged as one of Washington’s most powerful Democrats.

Unlike his father, who climbed New Jersey’s political ladder rung by rung — from the Union City school board to that city’s mayor’s office to the state Legislature to Congress — Menendez has no voting or policy record to scrutinize.

Yet as soon as Rep. Albio Sires indicated he was stepping aside, a cascade of powerful Democrats, including the governor, quickly endorsed Menendez even though he had not officially entered the race.

One editorial decried the process as “gross,” and another said the quick endorsements for a candidate who had “never run for dogcatcher” were a symptom of the state’s political dysfunction.

“On a national level it’s all about: ‘Are we losing our democracy?’ ” said Ryan Dowling, 42, a Democrat who, like Menendez, lives in Jersey City. “And on a local level it’s just — ‘Why even vote?’”

Gov. Philip D. Murphy has said that his support for Menendez had little or nothing to do with the family name.

In a June radio broadcast, Murphy said Menendez was “an outstanding lawyer” with “a great personality,” and added, “When you’ve got a talent like that, that’s really impressive, you can’t let his family ties be held against him, either.”

Menendez said he had taken nothing for granted during the campaign and had worked hard to win endorsements from an array of individuals, labor groups and advocacy organizations.

“All I can do is work as hard as I possibly can,” he said. “That’s what I’ve done every single day. I’m not going to stop. I’m not going to stop after November.”

Anna J. Brown, chair of the political science department at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, said the bald display of nepotism carried insidious risk: eroding residents’ already fragile confidence in government.

“It contributes to that feeling of powerlessness,” Brown said. “People just give up because they don’t really think that their voice is heard.”

“Is that really what we want right now?” she added. “I don’t think so.”

The 8th Congressional District includes parts of some of the state’s largest cities: Newark, Jersey City, Elizabeth, Hoboken and Union City. Its poverty rate is 20% higher than in the rest of the country, and nearly half of its residents are foreign-born.

It is filled with residents who, like Sires, fled Cuba, as well as more recent arrivals from Mexico and South America. Roughly 54% of residents speak Spanish at home, census figures show.

It is a language that Menendez does not know but said he was trying to learn.

“That’s something that’s on me, that I am working on, because it is important,” he said in an interview at a campaign event where most people did not speak English.

Hector Oseguera, a left-leaning Democrat who lost an uphill primary challenge against Sires two years ago, said Menendez’s inability to speak Spanish was not an insurmountable liability. But he said it showed a lack of a true connection to the needs of the majority Latino district.

“Sure, he will be a secure vote for the Democrats,” Oseguera said. “But on the issues where we should be taking a lead — will he be a leader?”

Menendez does not discount the influence his father still wields in a district he represented for 13 years. But he prefers to talk about his grandmother and her decision to flee Cuba to start a new life in Union City when asked about his political role model.

His eyes well up when he discusses his mother, who worked as a teacher, and the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas; he has indicated that gun control would be a priority if elected.

“The idea that in the most densely populated state in America, anyone — with absolutely no common-sense limits — would be allowed to carry a concealed gun is stunningly irresponsible,” he said in a statement after a Supreme Court ruling undermined New Jersey and New York’s ability to limit handgun licenses.

One endorsement Menendez sought but did not win was from New Jersey Working Families, a left-leaning group suing to abolish the state’s unique ballot-design system, which gives candidates backed by county leaders an often overwhelming advantage. During an interview with a Working Families panel, Menendez was asked about the last protest he attended.

He told them it was when he was in high school. Sue Altman, the Working Families’ state director, said that disclosure drew a tart quip from the back of the room: “That wasn’t a protest. That was a pep rally.”

The group endorsed no one.

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