The Bob Menendez Conundrum

menend-itis
For a candidate with superior legislative experience and supposedly stronger “Jersey values,” Bob Menendez is awfully compromised by his ethical failings. That fellow New Jersey Democrats rallied behind him so quickly after his criminal trial speaks to a dysfunctional political process in his home state and with the Democratic Party at large. (Photo Credit: Benedikt von Loebell/World Economic Forum/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Though you probably don’t need a reminder, in 2016, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Despite getting fewer votes than Hillary Clinton overall, Trump won enough states—and the right states, at that—to secure victory under the current system. In the minds of many voters, Trump’s lack of experience in public office, his moral failings, and his platform predicated on demonization of “the other” were negligible next to their dislike of Hillary Clinton and her perceived corruption.

Pundits and average voters alike (rightly) have criticized this viewpoint in the endless postmortem dissection of the election to follow. But the notion remains that Americans, jaded about the country’s politics and/or susceptible to political rhetoric, viewed these candidates on par with one another. This, despite Clinton’s obviously superior comprehension of D.C.’s workings and her message—however genuine—that “love trumps hate.” Trump’s triumph seemed to be a clear signal to establishment politicians that voters are fed up with the status quo and are willing to roll the dice on an unpolished outsider, even if it risks further damaging the institutions they regard as broken.

It’s 2018 now and the midterms are fast approaching. As evidenced by the race for Bob Menendez’s seat in the Senate, though, little has changed in the Democrats’ approach to winning elections. At a time when winning back the House and/or Senate is a priority for the Democratic Party, it bears wondering whether history will repeat itself and the Dems will find themselves on the losing end once more, even with apparent momentum.

First, a little background re Menendez. Back in June, in a piece for The Intercept, journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote about how Menendez was set to garner the Democratic Party nomination for New Jersey’s Senate seat up for grabs this November, and how his nomination serves as a symbol of how “calcified” the party really is. For Greenwald and numerous New Jerseyans, the issue with Menendez, who is seeking a third term in the Senate and is a veteran of Congress of 26 years, is his—how shall I put this?—questionable attention to ethics.

As Greenwald details, the public integrity unit of the Obama administration’s Justice Department began prosecution of Sen. Menendez in 2015, bringing him up on a dozen federal corruption and bribery charges. Allegedly, Menendez accepted lavish gifts and donations from friend and supporter Salomon Melgen, a Florida-based ophthalmologist,  in exchange for helping Melgen resolve disputes with federal health agencies, secure contracts, and obtain visas for three of his female “associates.”

Ultimately, the case against Menendez was dismissed because of a hung jury, but as Greenwald characterizes this situation, the New Jersey senator benefited from federal bribery statutes diluted “to the point of virtual impotence” by the Supreme Court over the years. Without the presence of a “smoking gun,” as several jurors in the case cited in their refusal to convict, convictions of public officials are “close to impossible to obtain.” The Trump DOJ, as apparently litigious and vindictive as it is, opted not to re-try Menendez. All of this occurred amid Menendez receiving a public admonishment by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting and failing to disclose gifts, effectually bringing discredit to a legislative body that hasn’t been all too credible of late, especially in the minds of everyday Americans.

And yet, as Greenwald explains, Menendez’s fellow Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker, then-governor-elect Phil Murphy, state senate president Steve Sweeney, then-incoming State Assembly president Craig Coughlin, and influential party leader George Norcross, were quick to rally around him. Thus, with an advantage in party support and finances, any primary challenge was all but a non-starter.

It bears highlighting that Greenwald criticizes more than just Menendez’s ability to skirt convictions owing to lax bribery statutes, and that his fault-finding is indicative of larger reservations about the Democratic Party on a national level. For one, as chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Menendez is an influential and outspoken Iran hawk, and during George W. Bush’s tenure, he voted with Republicans to authorize the Bush-Cheney Military Commissions Act, which later would be deemed unconstitutional. Menendez also has been a staunch supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and for his trouble, has received donations from AIPAC supporters and officials, including significant sums for the costs of his legal defense.

Greenwald sums up his case against Menendez thusly:

This is how calcified the Democratic Party is: They even unite behind an incumbent who is drowning in sleaze and corruption, who was just “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee, whose legal defense was funded by far-right figures, and who has used his senior leadership role to repeatedly join with the Bush-Cheney and right-wing GOP factions against his own party’s supposed positions. Not only do they unite behind him, but they ensure that no primary challenge can even happen — they deny their own voters the right to decide if they want Menendez — by making it impossible for any such challengers to raise money from funders who rely on the largesse of Democratic officeholders and who thus, do not want to run afoul of their decreed preferences.

Whether New Jerseyans outside the progressive vanguard are fully aware of Bob Menendez’s profile as a U.S. senator is a matter of debate. His very public corruption charges, on the other hand, are fresh in the minds of voters, and likely explain why Menendez performed relatively poorly against Lisa McCormick, a virtual unknown, in the Democratic Party primary. It also likely explains to a large extent why a recent Stockton University (GO OSPREYS!) poll has the race between Menendez and his Republican opponent Bob Hugin essentially in a dead heat.

So, who is Bob Hugin? Hugin grew up in Union City, NJ, and attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, later earning an MBA from University of Virginia. He also served as an active duty infantry officer in the 70s and 80s, and a reserve officer after that. In terms of his professional life, Hugin has worked at J.P. Morgan, and most recently, spent close to two decades with Celgene Corporation, a biotechnology company which manufactures drugs for cancer and other chronic illnesses.

As for Hugin’s positions on the issues, among other things, he supports the move of the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, increased domestic production of oil and natural gas, opposing “sanctuary cities” and securing our borders, enhancing our vetting process for immigrants, increased military spending, school choice, extraditing Assata Shakur/Joanne Chesimard as part of relations with Cuba, and accountability for North Korea given any denuclearization agreements. Much of Hugin’s platform, meanwhile, lacks specificity, particularly when, say, addressing New Jersey’s finances or the state’s health care. While he may appear more socially moderate than someone like Donald Trump, his stances are, on the whole, generic conservative Republican.

Moreover, Hugin is not without unsavory elements in his past. At Princeton, he fought antidiscrimination protection for gays, and later opposed making an all-male eating club co-ed, describing a lawsuit at the time to overturn the gender exclusivity policy as “politically correct fascism.” Hugin says his views have “evolved” since then. Additionally, as CEO of Celgene, Hugin oversaw significant price increases in cancer drugs. Hugin and the company have defended these increases as necessary to offset expenses, but consumer advocates have accused them of “gaming the system” to prevent generics from reaching the market and artificially keeping revenues high. In an era when executive behavior is under increasing scrutiny, this is not a good look.

For all Bob Hugin’s baggage, however, given how ethically compromised Bob Menendez is perceived to be, it’s hard for him to connect in his attacks on Hugin’s character in a meaningful way. How can one point fingers about the other’s greed when he himself was accused of accepting lavish gifts? Even the indignation about the excesses of Big Pharma seems misplaced considering Menendez has received over $900,000 from the pharmaceutical industry over the course of his legislative career. These monies include 2012 donations from Celgene employees; Menendez was third-highest in Congress in donations from Celgene employees that election cycle. Bob, meet Bob. Pot, meet kettle.

It is no surprise that nearly all of the content of the political ads between Hugin and Menendez has been negative, attack-oriented fare rather than substantive reasons to vote for either candidate. As it concerns the latter individual, the strategy seems to be a shrug and a “take me as I am” attitude, much as it was with Hillary Clinton and the outrage about her E-mails and other scandals, however disproportionately they may have figured into the 2016 election. For most Democratic voters this election cycle, it means biting the proverbial bullet and casting their ballot for Menendez or staying home and risking losing a Senate seat to the Republicans. Electorally speaking, it’s the equivalent of being caught between a rock and a hard place.


In making allusions to Clinton vs. Trump, I recognize that different factors were in play than with Menendez vs. Hugin. Though Hillary and her supporters might’ve been quick to accuse her critics of sexism, gender bias almost certainly had an impact on the race. There also hasn’t been anything close to the magnitude of what happened with James Comey and his fateful letter to Congress—though it’s still early, mind you. Plus, there’s the obvious contrast in the levels of the races being run; Clinton/Trump was a national race for the presidency, while Menendez/Hugin is a state race for a seat in the U.S. Senate. For what it’s worth, Bob Hugin (thankfully) isn’t Donald Trump, to boot.

Differences aside, the essence of the conflict for potential Democratic voters is the same: as with Clinton and Trump, an experienced Democratic Party politician may lose to a Republican with no history of holding public office who touts his ability to create jobs (which he had to do as a function of running a business) as a crowning achievement. In Bob Menendez’s case, it’s particularly bad given a) New Jersey tends to vote “blue,” b) the president, a Republican, is largely unpopular, and c) the state just lived through two terms of Republican Governor Chris Christie, also largely unpopular.

I’m not suggesting it should be a walk-over for Menendez necessarily, and you may well dispute the predictive accuracy of the Stockton University poll or any similar poll. As some observers might argue, however, Menendez and his campaign waited a while to get into the fray with political advertisements, allowing Bob Hugin to strike first. In a blue state like New Jersey, Bob Menendez would be expected to have a lead, even if slight. An effective tie is vaguely embarrassing, and is downright disturbing to those leaning left with visions of “flipping” the House and Senate.

I’m also not suggesting Democrats, independents, and others with qualms about Menendez should necessarily choose otherwise or just stay home either. While I might strongly suggest that my fellow New Jerseyans not vote for Hugin, their vote is their business. Should Hugin end up as the victor, though, blame should be placed primarily on the shoulders of Bob Menendez and his campaign, not his constituents. The onus should be on the candidate to make the case to voters why they should choose him or her, rather than accusing or shaming voters for their choices. Sure, greater turnout should be encouraged. Pointing the finger at average voters who have to work and/or may not have much concern for politics seems like a poor tack to take, meanwhile, notably when both parties are yet more unpopular than individual politicians.

At any rate, voters in New Jersey and other states deserve better than to feel forced to cast their ballots for candidates they feel hard-pressed to endorse without meaningful and robust primary challenges and without room for serious debate. And they shouldn’t have to worry they are giving their implicit consent and reinforcing the bad political strategy of the major political parties with their vote. In the grand scheme of things, Bob Menendez is just one candidate in one race. But his situation is representative of a larger dysfunction within American party politics that beckons substantive reform.

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