Inside a Dem Senator’s Plan to Install His Son in Congress

·9 min read
REUTERS/Joe Penney
REUTERS/Joe Penney

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) is trying to turn his New Jersey turf into a family garden as he seeks to plant his son in the House of Representatives seat he once held himself.

Despite a purview that ostensibly spans the planet, sources tell The Daily Beast that the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee remains intensely focused on the 62 square miles of his native Hudson County. And with his old ally Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) retiring this year from the congressional district encompassing the county’s major population centers—the district the senator himself represented between 1993 and 2006—Menendez appears to have decided his son and namesake must replace him.

And the Democratic Party appears to have been doing his bidding. At the national level, Robert Menendez Jr. has received the backing of the political action committee of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, to which his father belongs. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy endorsed the 36-year-old for the seat before he even officially launched his campaign. But perhaps most importantly, Menendez Jr. has the support of the local Hudson County Democratic Organization, which has already gotten two of his top opponents kicked off the June 7 primary ballot and is mobilizing its electoral army of municipal employees—many of them first- and second-generation immigrants from countries with tenuous job protections for civil servants.

“He’s like an icon that everyone bends to,” Agustin Torres, an award-winning retired journalist who covered the area for 45 years, said of Menendez Sr. “That’s a plum to give away just because it’s Menendez’s kid. He hasn’t shown he can govern anything yet.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"> <p>Bob Menendez, with his son Robert and daughter Alicia by his side, speaks at his election night party on November 7, 2006 after defeating his Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr.</p> </div> <div class="inline-image__credit"> Daniel J. Barry/WireImage/Getty </div>

Bob Menendez, with his son Robert and daughter Alicia by his side, speaks at his election night party on November 7, 2006 after defeating his Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr.

Daniel J. Barry/WireImage/Getty

Neither Menendez’s spokespeople responded on the record to questions for this story.

The younger’s impending coronation (in such a Democratic district that the November election is a formality) has rankled local editorial boards and progressive activists alike.

“People in Hudson County have become very cynical about how politics operate here,” warned Hector Oseguera, a lawyer based in Union City—the senator’s hometown—who challenged Sires in 2020. “Something like this feeds into that perception of politics: that the people who are ruled by these politicians don’t have a say because there’s a club that makes all these decisions.”

But the royal treatment might not so appall the son, who appears to have been prepped for power from an early age. The scion attended the private Hudson School in Hoboken, where tuition and fees top $25,000 a year, more than half the average Hudson County resident’s annual income. His LinkedIn profile shows he graduated straight from Rutgers Law in 2011 into Lowenstein Sandler, a white shoe firm known for its politically connected attorneys, who have included several current and former attorneys general of New Jersey and Biden Drug Enforcement Administrator Anne Milgram. Its clients are often private firms with business before the state. Lowenstein Sandler also belongs to a limited pool of legal outfits approved to serve as counsel to New Jersey and its municipalities.

<div class="inline-image__caption"> <p>Senator Bob Menendez (C) arrives to face trial for federal corruption charges with his children Alicia Menendez (L) and Robert Menendez, Jr. (R) at United States District Court in Newark, New Jersey, in 2017. </p> </div> <div class="inline-image__credit"> REUTERS/Joe Penney </div>

Senator Bob Menendez (C) arrives to face trial for federal corruption charges with his children Alicia Menendez (L) and Robert Menendez, Jr. (R) at United States District Court in Newark, New Jersey, in 2017.

REUTERS/Joe Penney

In 2018, NorthJersey.com identified Lowenstein Sandler as the senator’s single largest financier during his congressional career. The site also reported the firm was among the biggest contributors to his legal defense fund, which helped Menendez Sr. fend off federal bribery charges in 2017.

Soon after landing at Lowenstein Sandler, Menendez Jr. abandoned his native state for Manhattan’s ultra-affluent Upper West Side, even though he would not be admitted to the bar in New York till 2014.

When he returned at last to the Garden State near the end of the decade, he and his wife moved into a condominium belonging to Silverman Building, whose owners are longtime donors to his father’s campaign and political action committees. Federal Election Commission records show Menendez Jr. made multiple political contributions in 2019 from the 1,045 square foot, south-facing duplex in downtown Jersey City, with its hardwood floors, marble bathroom with radiant heated tiles, Juliet balconies, and rooftop view of the Statue of Liberty.

But Hudson County property records show Menendez Jr. never purchased the unit in the historic, landmarked Majestic Theater building, and neither his campaign nor Silverman would produce a lease or record of payments for the accommodations.

“I’m not going to give you that,” said Paul Silverman, one of the company’s principals. “It was a market rent. I don’t need to give you more than that.”

The arrangement scarcely surprised Torres, the veteran political columnist, who once included the Silvermans on his list of the most influential people in the region.

“Whoever is in power, or the top of the leaderboard right now, that’s who they cozy up to,” he said, noting the founders’ long history of cultivating relationships with local officials, and fertilizing them with campaign gifts.

The great irony, according to insiders, is that for all the exertions to secure Menendez Jr. the Sires seat, the family’s original plan was not for him to run for Congress at all. And this, sources said, is because the elder Menendez groomed his son not just to be his heir—but the instrument of his revenge.

When the senator escaped the Department of Justice’s clutches in November 2017, he stunned observers with a bitter speech outside the federal courthouse in Newark.

“To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat,” Menendez Sr. warned. “I know who you are and I won’t forget you.”

Local outlets reported at the time, and sources confirmed to The Daily Beast recently, that the lawmaker’s remarks were aimed at least in part at Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who had taken tentative steps to seek the Senate in the event of Menendez’s conviction. Fulop’s team declined to comment for this story.

The legal database LexisNexis indicates Menendez Jr. moved to the Silverman condo in Jersey City the year after his father’s mistrial, and New Jersey Division of Elections records show his wife registered to vote in the Garden State for the first time in May 2018. Two years after that, the couple bought a house a short distance away from the Majestic Theatre complex.

In late 2020, word surfaced that Menendez Jr. was preparing to run against Fulop. And the next year, 10 months ahead of the nonpartisan municipal vote, the tension between the senator and the mayor burst into the open, with Menendez Sr. attacking his fellow Democrat’s “record of broken promises” and Fulop slamming the senator as “hell-bent on forcing his son down the throats of Jersey City voters to expand his own political power.”

That March, Menendez Sr. relocated his federal office from Newark to Jersey City, planting a taxpayer-funded foot in his rival’s territory. Hudson County Commissioner Bill O’Dea told The Daily Beast that several party players urged him to personally meet with the senator’s son to talk him out of running, though he said the meeting never came together.

“I don’t think Menendez [Sr.] made any bones about what it was; he was ticked off—and this was never stated to me directly—that somehow Steve was coveting his Senate seat while he was on trial,” said O’Dea, who was at pains to emphasize he found the younger Menendez personally impressive. “I think that was the onus of what the problem was. Everyone assumes it based on the statement Bob made.”

But for once, Hudson County’s Democratic honchos defied the senator, and aligned themselves with Fulop. And the reason for this goes to the source of political power in the area.

The Democratic organization, as insiders described it to The Daily Beast, is less a machine than a contraption: 12 mayors of 12 municipalities functioning as 12 big wheels who, whatever their personal enmities, turn in unison to keep the engine running. If the Hudson County Democratic Organization betrayed Fulop, those gears would jam and it would lose power in the statewide Democratic Party to the political dynamos of Newark and south Jersey.

<div class="inline-image__caption"> <p>"U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) departs the United States Court with his children Alicia Menendez and Robert Melendez, Jr., after his corruption trial ended in a mistrial in Newark, New Jersey, in November 16, 2017. </p> </div> <div class="inline-image__credit"> REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz </div>

"U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) departs the United States Court with his children Alicia Menendez and Robert Melendez, Jr., after his corruption trial ended in a mistrial in Newark, New Jersey, in November 16, 2017.

REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

And so Menendez Jr. never filed to run for mayor. In April 2021, Gov. Murphy nominated him to the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees shipping, rail, and air hubs in the region, which sources described to The Daily Beast as a consolation prize. Murphy’s office insisted Menendez Jr.’s background as a corporate attorney made him “an ideal fit” for the role.

But having refused the senator once, the local powerbrokers dared not do it again. And so the fight for Sires’ seat was over before he announced his retirement last December. Even Fulop fell in line behind the senator’s son.

For critics of the system, it was just a sign that politics as usual had returned to New Jersey. After all, when Menendez Sr. got appointed to the Senate to replace former Gov. Jon Corzine, the county establishment made sure Sires replaced him in the House of Representatives.

“It sort of works like a 17th century feudal empire, where everybody inherits power,” said Oseguera, the erstwhile insurgent. “Usually it’s a lackey of the system who gets elevated. This time, it’s a senator’s son.”

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