A Democratic mayor wants to run against Sen. Menendez. Will the party let him?

February 28, 2023 9:50 am

Roselle Park Mayor Joseph Signorello III, right, wants to take on U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez in next year’s Democratic primary. (Photos by Danielle Richards/the Signorello campaign)

Joe Signorello apologized for looking like a douche.

I was meeting for breakfast with Signorello, the 35-year-old mayor of Roselle Park, at the Sunrise Diner on Route 28, about a mile off Exit 137 on the Parkway in this Union County town. He walked in wearing a peach knit hat that, yeah, made him look like he hits SantaCon annually.

But, he said, “I just feel like my hair is not working today.”

I was in Roselle Park to talk to Signorello, a Democrat in his fifth year as the town’s mayor, about his newly announced, bonkers decision to challenge Sen. Bob Menendez in next year’s Democratic primary.

I say bonkers because a) Incumbent politicians, in general, hate it when another Democrat dares to primary them; and b) Menendez, in particular, is mighty sensitive about being challenged. When he faced federal public corruption charges before his last reelection fight, some Democrats made behind-the-scenes moves to replace him on the ballot in case of a conviction. Just those few private conversations led Menendez to issue an instantly infamous threat outside the courthouse after the jury in his trial deadlocked.

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

So what would make Signorello, a Democrat who potentially has a long future in politics in New Jersey if he plays nice with the political bosses, want to throw his career away for a quixotic bid to unseat a three-term senator?

Roselle Park Mayor Joe Signorello III says Democratic voters should turn the page on the Bob Menendez era. (Photo by David Pilmenstein for New Jersey Monitor)

“I didn’t get into politics to, I don’t know, like climb the corporate ladder,” Signorello told me. “Jersey politics is very machine-like … You start off as a councilman, and then you become mayor, and then maybe if you’re lucky you’re a freeholder, and whatever else, right? I think the problems we have in the state and countrywide now are too drastic to kind of sit on the sidelines.”

He added later, “I’m going to cause a ruckus, man.”

It’s too soon to tell whether Signorello, whose Senate campaign became official today, will indeed cause a ruckus. He has no major Democrat on his side, he has yet to start fundraising, and his policy positions aren’t all that different from those Menendez holds. That means his push to get Democratic voters to put him on the November 2024 ballot instead of Menendez may hinge almost entirely on the argument that Menendez is too scandal-plagued to reward with another term.

This may not be a difficult argument to make.

Menendez’s job approval ratings are terrible. The latest Monmouth University Poll put it at 38% among New Jersey voters.

He is yet again facing a federal criminal inquiry, one we know little about now but the details of which could go drip-drip-drip as the primary nears. The Wall Street Journal has reported investigators are probing whether his wife received gifts from people who sought favors from the senator. Last month, Menendez said the inquiry will “result in nothing.”

And anti-Menendez sentiment in New Jersey was so strong during his 2018 reelection fight that Lisa McCormick, a perennial candidate who reported raising zero campaign cash, nonetheless grabbed nearly 40% of the Democratic primary vote against him.

It’s not impossible to think Signorello can tap into all this and make Menendez sweat.

In a video announcing his Senate campaign, Signorello calls Menendez “an embarrassment to the people of the state of New Jersey.”

“I think he does a bad job representing the state, with the baggage,” Signorello told me. “He represents dirty New Jersey politics. He’s like the walking embodiment of it right now.”

Now, the question is, will New Jersey’s elected Democrats let Signorello do this? Or will they stop answering his calls, shut off the state aid spigot to Roselle Park, tell Signorello’s donors to close their wallets, and otherwise make him flee for the private sector?

I’m not a Democrat, so I have no say in this race, but I hope the party’s leaders do not stand in the way of a primary. Signorello is right that we’re facing a lot of challenges in the state and nation right now; those challenges, plus Menendez’s age and his — as Mr. Mayor calls it — baggage, demand a robust conversation about which direction the party is headed. Alas, I fear history indicates party bosses will line up behind Menendez without a second’s thought, and potentially fight to keep Signorello’s name off the 2024 ballot.

Signorello said he hopes his entry into the race will encourage others to do the same, even those who may have a better chance than him at unseating Menendez.

“I actually am kind of disappointed that it takes a small-town mayor to stand up to a f**king senator,” he said.

A request for comment from a Menendez spokesman was not returned.


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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”