Menendez Jr. eyes congressional seat as critics cry nepotism
Son of senator is front-runner to capture 8th District
Rob Menendez Jr., left, is seeking to represent a group of towns once represented by his father, Sen. Bob Menendez. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Within days of Rep. Albio Sires announcing he would not seek a new term in Congress this November, a group of New Jersey Democrats coalesced behind their favored choice to succeed him: Rob Menendez Jr.
Menendez is familiar with the district, which includes most of Hudson County. His father, Sen. Bob Menendez, represented much of the area for more than a decade before he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006.
The younger Menendez has no experience in elective office, but being the son of a congressman, he said, he knows what the job entails.
Rob Menendez’s push to follow in his father’s footsteps is hardly unprecedented. Dozens of members of political dynasties have been elected to Congress, from Prescott and George H.W. Bush to Ron and Rand Paul to Frank and Lisa Murkowski.
In the past two decades, about 7% of U.S. representatives have had a family member serve before them, according to Daniel Smith, a Columbia University professor who has studied the issue.
“It’s definitely not a given” that a candidate with a famous last name will win their race, Smith told the New Jersey Monitor, “but dynastic candidates usually enjoy strong advantages in terms of name recognition, campaign finance, and networks.”
Menendez said voters on the campaign trail have not asked him about the claims of nepotism that his critics have leveled. Only the press asks, he said.
“When you talk to voters, the most important thing is figuring out solutions to the economic, educational issues and challenges they’re facing,” he said. “That’s what people are most concerned about, and that’s what we continue to stay focused on.”
Sires represents the 8th Congressional District, which includes most of Hudson County and parts of Essex and Union. It’s solidly Democratic, so the winner of the June 7 primary is widely expected to win the November general election. Menendez faces two Democrats, David Ocampo Garajales and Ane Roseborough-Eberhard (like Menendez, they do not have experience holding public office). The Republican primary has one candidate, Marcos Arroyo.
The son of a senator
In an interview, Menendez discussed his upbringing in Union City, a dense, working-class Hudson County community that has long attracted Cuban immigrants, like his grandparents. His father was an elected official by the time he was 19 — when he captured a seat on the Union City school board — and his mother was a teacher.
The story of his grandparents — who came to America to seek a better life — “drives me every single day,” he said.
“And I’ll say this, I think we’ve done more interviews, more community events, than anyone else running, so when I say we’ve been working hard every day, we absolutely have and that’s why we’ve been fortunate to have the success we have,” he said.
Menendez, who lives in Jersey City, said he wants to push for policies that will help the middle-class, working families of the 8th District. He wants to reauthorize the expanded child tax credit that expired last year, which he believes will go a long way for parents who can’t afford expensive child care.
Menendez said he also wants to push for more affordable housing and health care and address the rising cost of goods. He wants to advocate for labor rights, he said, and would sign on to the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize.
Menendez is currently a Port Authority commissioner and attorney at Lowenstein Sandler. He explored seeking the Jersey City mayoralty last year but ended up not running.
He waves away criticism of his campaign as one built on nepotism.
“We work every single day to build a broad coalition of folks who see our vision and agree with it, and who believe this is how we move the district and the country forward,” he said.
Data scientist Seth Isaac Stephens-Davidowitz suggested in a New York Times opinion piece from 2015 that among men, sons of senators have an 8,500 times higher chance of becoming senator than an average citizen.
Smith, the Columbia professor, said anyone who is legally eligible has the right to run for office and get elected by voters. But as elections become more expensive and only well-connected candidates like Menendez have the resources to be competitive, “we risk getting worse representation.”
“Upward mobility in life and in politics is increasingly constrained, as the rich get richer and everyone else finds it harder to even stay afloat,” he said.
While voters tend to dislike the idea of political dynasties, he said, they still support their favorite local son or daughter.
The elder Menendez is a divisive figure. He’s well-known in the Latino community for being a fierce proponent of overhauling immigration laws and helping new residents get their citizenship, and has won decisive victories in his last three general election matchups. But he also faced federal bribery charges in 2015 that ended in a mistrial, followed by a surprisingly weak performance in the 2018 Democratic primary. Survey firm Morning Consult says he is one of the 10 least popular U.S. senators.
Sen. Menendez did not respond to several requests for comments.
‘Taking bold stances’
If Menendez’s congressional bid was inspired by his father, David Ocampo Garajales’s campaign was inspired by the younger Menendez.
After reading an article describing a round of Democrats who endorsed Menendez to succeed Sires before Menendez had even declared himself a candidate, Ocampo Garajales said he decided the race needed an outsider.
“It wasn’t so much about Menendez as a person but what it represents, and what that is is more of the same, and a way to not let people choose who represents us,” Ocampo Garajales said in a recent interview. “I don’t think more of the same is going to get us out of any of the challenges we’re facing.”
Ocampo Garajales argued that during his time door-knocking, he’s come across plenty of people who take issue with Menendez “inheriting” the 8th District seat.
While they have some policy disputes, Ocampo Garajales emphasized most of his criticism doesn’t necessarily lie with Menendez: It’s with a system that allows the son of a sitting senator to begin the race far ahead of anyone else who wants to compete.
“What’s not fair is the process by which this happened,” he said. “In New Jersey, the Democratic Party has a track record of lacking transparency. Getting all those endorsements before even announcing, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before. It’s more of the same, but it’s also nepotism.”
Ocampo Garajales, who lives in Jersey City, said he isn’t accepting any money from PACs or lobbyists, so he knows this will be an uphill battle against Menendez (Menendez’s campaign is sitting on a bit more than $424,000, and Ocampo Grajales has $6,635). But Ocampo Garajales believes he has the “winning message.” He wants more investment in affordable housing and public transit and would like stricter review of projects like a power plant plan in Newark opposed by environmentalists and the Amazon hub planned for Newark airport.
Ocampo Garajales calls himself a progressive candidate, and supports policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare For All. He said it’s important to the working-class residents of northern New Jersey who cannot afford to fix their homes after they flood and pay exorbitant prices for prescription medicine.
“I believe people in this district deserve a representative who works as hard as they do. Every single year it gets harder for them to make their ends meet, so I think that it takes someone who has a sense of urgency that this moment calls for,” he said. “That’s why I’m taking bold stances and being unambiguous about it.”
Ocampo Garajales is new to the district, registering to vote here on Jan. 9, a week before launching his campaign. He said he grew up in Ridgefield Park in Bergen County, and had been registered there until he moved.
Public school teacher also eyeing seat
Ane Roseborough-Eberhard has had a whirlwind of a life. She’s lived in dozens of places, from Switzerland to Germany to Israel, and has had several career changes. She said she’s always had the desire to serve on the national scale and began her campaign when she found out Sires was stepping down.
In an interview, she said her campaign is self-financed.
“I’m not taking a dime from anybody. No one’s endorsing me because I’m not taking any money,” she said.
She said she focuses on her “practical politics and practical policies,” like funding public education, including higher education. She also believes all communities should have teen recreational centers, thinks campaign finance laws should be revamped, and wants more investment in public transit.
She said she didn’t want to attack Menendez’s run. Everyone has their own strengths, she said.
“For myself, my strategy can work because of the experiences I’ve had in music, entrepreneurship, the public sector,” she said. “Maybe my strategy doesn’t work for other people. I feel good about what I’ve done so far, and I can look at myself in the mirror and keep moving on.”
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