New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez is at the apex of his career, the highest-ranking Hispanic in congressional history as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the “Gang of Eight” senators leading the charge for immigration reforms.
Not bad for the son of pre-Castro Cuban migrants — his mother a seamstress, his father an odd-jobs carpenter — who grew up in a Union City tenement and was the first member of his family to go to college.
Menendez, 58 and a Democrat, today faces several serious allegations for his links to Salomon Melgen, a West Palm Beach eye doctor and wealthy donor under investigation by the FBI.
But the veteran of New Jersey’s rough-and-ready politics, who once claimed he put on a bulletproof vest to testify against his former political mentor in a racketeering trial, has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and is expected to fight back vigorously.
“He is known as one tough hombre. You do not want to get cross-ways with him because he doesn’t suffer fools gladly and his mind is razor-sharp, and he will cut you to the quick,” said Washington lobbyist and Menendez campaign donor José Cardenas.
Menendez also has strongly supported U.S. sanctions on Cuba, and been singled out as the key obstacle to the possibility that the Obama administration might try to improve relations with Havana in the next four years. During the custody battle over Elián González in 2000, Menendez proposed making him a U.S. citizen. And in 1996 he pushed the Helms-Burton Act to tighten the U.S. embargo.
“From the day he was elected to Congress, Bob’s voice has been consistent and determined to shed light on the abuse of this totalitarian regime and to do all he could to have human rights be respected in Cuba,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Miami Republican.
But he also has defended abortion rights, favored affirmative action and gun controls, voted against authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq and backed Hispanics when they were under attack by such figures as Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh.
“One of my goals is to guide all Americans toward a new understanding of Latinos in this country, to assert once and for all that we are full participants in the dream, not some recently arrived crowd imposing a foreign culture,” he wrote in his 2009 book, Growing American Roots.
He has been chairman of the House Democratic Caucus — the third-highest party job in the chamber — head of the fundraising Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and now sits on the bipartisan group of senators negotiating immigration reforms.
But the peak of his career came two Fridays ago when he became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a powerful and prestigious post previously held by John Kerry, D-Mass., who was sworn in as secretary of state around that same time.
Menendez’s record is not without blemishes, and The New York Times endorsed his Senate candidacy in 2006, writing that he was the best candidate despite “a history of ethical lapses that have been all too common for Democratic officials in New Jersey.”
In his latest scrape, he repaid Melgen $58,500 on Jan. 4 for two private trips to the Dominican Republic in 2010, trips not disclosed until long after a tipster using the alias of “Peter Williams” began making accusations last summer.
Williams alleged the trips aboard Melgen’s private jet were for parties with prostitutes. Menendez is divorced and adult prostitution is not illegal in the Dominican Republican. FBI agents are investigating Williams’ allegations and raided Melgen’s office the week before last, apparently seeking evidence of Medicare fraud.
The Wall Street Journal reported in 2010 that Menendez had directly and strongly urged the Federal Reserve to approve a deal that would have benefitted a deeply troubled New Jersey bank where eight of its directors had contributed to his campaigns.
In 2006, the U.S. district attorney in New Jersey, now Republican Gov. Chris Christie, investigated complaints that Menendez broke conflict-of-interest rules by renting property to a nonprofit agency that received federal funds. Menendez countered that the anti-poverty agency received U.S. funds for years before he went to Congress, Christie himself was later accused of political bias and no charges were ever filed.
Republicans also have accused him of steering business to a former top congressional aide who later founded a lobbying firm. He has denied the complaints and said the staffer earned the contracts because she’s a good lobbyist.
Menendez has flatly denied the allegations made by Williams in emails to some news media and the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) — which turned over the tips to the FBI but is now questioning their veracity.
“Williams” waited until Menendez was seeking reelection last year to make his charges public and never spoke by phone with the FBI, “so those two facts combined to seriously undermine his credibility,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan told CNN.
Menendez’s office did not respond to a request for comments for this story, but many who know him have strongly defended him.
“Senator Menendez has always been straightforward and honorable,” said Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
“He’s one of the most principled people I know,” added Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the pro-sanctions U.S. Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee in Washington.
His Senate Web page calls his “a quintessential American story” — high school senior class president, school board member at 20, a law degree from the state university and, at 32, mayor of Union City, sometimes called Havana-on-the-Hudson for its large Cuban population.
Born in New York City, he is the youngest of the three children of a Cuban couple who migrated to the United States in 1953. His father committed suicide when Menendez was 23, according to some biographies.
He launched his political careers as a protégé of Union City Mayor William “Billy” Musto, but in 1982 he testified in a federal corruption trial that sent Musto to prison for three years. Menendez told reporters he wore a bulletproof vest during the trial.
Menendez served as mayor of Union City from 1986 until 1992, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was appointed to the Senate in early 2006 when Jon Corzine gave up his seat to become governor of New Jersey. Menendez then won new six-year terms in 2006 and in 2012. He is the sixth Hispanic elected to the Senate.
He divorced Jane Jacobsen, a former Union City teacher, in 2005 after nearly 30 years of marriage. They have two adult children, Robert Jr. and Alicia.
From early in his political career Menendez was very close to the Cuban exiles who began jamming Union City after Fidel Castro’s guerrillas seized power in 1959, and since reaching Congress he has worked hand in hand with other Cuban-American members to maintain economic sanctions on the island.
“He is one of the most effective advocates for a hard-line against the Castro regime that I have ever encountered,” said Cardenas, a Colombian American who previously served in Washington as a representative of the Cuban American National Foundation and as a top official of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Cardenas volunteered that he had donated to Menendez’s latest campaign.
Menendez is one of three Cuban-American Democrats in Congress, along with Reps. Albio Sires of New Jersey and Joe Garcia of South Florida. The four other Cuban Americans in Congress are Republicans — Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, and South Florida Reps. Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart.