New Jersey Democratic insiders better hope giving Menendez a pass does not come back to haunt them

The state’s professional Democrats indulge the front runner's fantasy that he is the victim of prosecutorial zeal

Published November 5, 2018 5:02PM (EST)

Bob Menendez (AP/Seth Wenig)
Bob Menendez (AP/Seth Wenig)

Morristown: It was 9:45 in the morning on November 4 with less than 48 hours to go before the most consequential mid-terms in living memory.

On this crisp autumn Sunday morning there was more foot traffic headed into Mikie Sherrill’s campaign headquarters at 11 Washington St. than there was at the popular Jersey Boy Bagel deli, a few blocks away on South Street.

The last minute push for Sherrill appeared to be an energized affair with entire families cheerfully reporting for campaign duty.

A block away on Schuyler Place the Republican Party’s Headquarters was still locked and dark.

And, while the GOP plate glass windows displayed posters for the GOP contenders up and down the ballot, the Democratic storefront only had Sherrill for Congress posters up and the permanent signage above that read Morris Democratic Party Headquarters.

I knew from a previous visit at the start of the race that the Sherrill campaign had rented this strategic location, just a block off the Morristown Green, from the Morris County Democratic Party. 

But no doubt, for the thousands that pass that location since, without that InsiderNJ knowledge, the impression left by the window display is that the only Democrat Morris County Democrats are proud of that’s running Tuesday  is the unsullied Sherrill, mother of four, former Navy helicopter pilot, and federal prosecutor. 

And yet, it is Senator Robert Menendez’s name that has top billing on the Tuesday’s ballot.  While the latest polling from Stockton University suggests that the senior Senator has a 12 point lead, the New York Times reported Oct. 31 that Democrats had grown  “increasingly alarmed when in mid-October their own internal polling suggested that Mr. Menendez’s lead had fallen to only two points.”

On October 26 the venerable Cook Political Report downgraded Mr. Menendez’s prospects to the toss up category. He was grouped in with other embattled Democratic incumbents; Senators Bill Nelson (Fl.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Claire McCaskill, and  Jon Tester (Mt.). 

That’s a far fall from his 2012 58 percent to 40 percent trouncing of former State Senator Joe Kyrillos. It is worth noting that all of the other senators in Cooke’s  toss-up purgatory can at least claim they are fighting the good fight in a red state that President Trump carried in 2016. 

So, what’s Menendez’s excuse?  On NBC’s Meet the Press Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who heads the Democratic Senate Campaign  Committee,  blamed the $30+ million spent by Menendez’s opponent, former pharmaceutical executive, Bob Hugin. 

What Democrats can’t own is that it was Menendez’s own behavior which resulted in him being  severely admonished” by the bi-partisan U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Ethics. And what his colleagues took him to task for wasn’t  a technicality, but  a pattern of corrupt behavior over a six year period when he  accepted and concealed gifts “of significant value” from Dr. Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and “used his position as a member of the Senate to advance Dr. Melgen’s personal and business interests.”

Melgen got a 17 year federal sentence for his conviction in a $73 million dollar Medicare fraud case. Senator Menendez was criminally indicted on Melgen linked corruption charges in 2017 but the jury deadlocked and the DOJ opted not to retry him. Menendez called it as an exoneration and New Jersey’s professional Democrats did not contradict him.

Just like the GOP Congressional leadership that remain silent on Trump’s excesses, the state’s professional Democrats enabled Menendez to soldier on through the scandal indulging him in the delusion that his only problem was that he was the victim of over zealous prosecutors not that he betrayed the public trust. 

While the well oiled Democratic party machinery offered the incumbent the kind of loyalty we expect in the Soprano State it was left to Lisa McCormick, a political newcomer and Bernie Sanders supporter with no campaign treasury, to challenge him in the primary. In the process she won close to 160,000 votes from Democrats  who wanted to send the veteran pol the message his colleagues did not have the courage to send. 

The closest Menendez could come to mustering an apology to voters came in the only debate with his opponent on Oct. 24.  “The reality is I understand that there are people in this state that are disappointed and I apologize to them but I also want them to look at my totality of service of standing up for the people of New Jersey,” said Menendez.

Odds are the balance of power in the U.S. Senate won’t come down to whether or not New Jersey voters accept the Senator’s apology and vote for him. At least New Jersey’s professional Democrats better hope so because they will only have themselves to blame for not upholding a higher ethical standard.

This story originally appeared in

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

MORE FROM Bob Hennelly

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2018 Midterm Elections Bob Menendez Mikie Sherrill New Jersey