Sen. Menendez should resign, top New Jersey Democrats say after newest indictment

Prosecutors say Menendez took cash and gold in exchange for his influence

By: - September 22, 2023 5:26 pm

Sen. Bob Menendez won reelection in 2018 after a jury deadlocked on earlier corruption charges. He might not be so lucky again. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Michael Schwenk)

Several of New Jersey’s top Democrats called for Sen. Bob Menendez to resign on Friday, hours after an unsealed indictment accused Menendez of taking cash, gold, and gifts in exchange for using his influence to help friends and associates.

Gov. Phil Murphy called the allegations “deeply disturbing” and said they implicate national security and the integrity of our criminal justice system.

“Under our legal system, Senator Menendez and the other defendants have not been found guilty and will have the ability to present evidence disputing these charges, and we must respect the process. However, the alleged facts are so serious that they compromise the ability of Senator Menendez to effectively represent the people of our state. Therefore, I am calling for his immediate resignation,” Murphy said.

The statement was followed within minutes by similar calls for Menendez’s resignation from LeRoy Jones, the state Democratic chair, and the Legislature’s two top Democrats, Senate President Nicholas Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. Four Democratic House members — Andy Kim, Bill Pascrell Jr., Frank Pallone, and Mikie Sherrill — have also said Menendez should resign.

The calls for Menendez’s resignation are a reversal from the support he received from Democrats when he faced criminal charges in 2017, charges that ended in a mistrial and ended up as little more than a speed bump on his road to a third term in the U.S. Senate.

“Today is a sad day for our state. The allegations laid out in today’s indictment are alarming, and they raise serious questions about the Senator’s ability to continue to serve,” Scutari said.

Even before the new allegations became public — they include accusations that Menendez and his wife took gifts of cash, gold, and a luxury car in exchange for Menendez’s influence — the senator’s image had been marred by news stories about the probe. Some took this as a signal that voters are less willing to believe Menendez than they were when he faced the separate corruption accusations six years ago.

“The ground has shifted. Sen. Menendez is in a weaker position now than he was the last time he faced a federal indictment,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “What we saw there was there was a sense that voters were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. This time around, his numbers are decidedly negative even before the indictment dropped.”

An August Monmouth poll found Menendez underwater with New Jersey voters. Forty-five percent disapproved of his performance, while only 36% approved. Perhaps more worrying, a majority of New Jerseyans, including 60% of Democrats, said the investigation had impacted his ability to do his job.

In a statement, Menendez denied any wrongdoing and said prosecutors mischaracterized the routine work of a Senate office. Menendez, who is Latino, charged he is being targeted because of his race and said Friday night he is “not going anywhere.”

“Those who believe in justice believe in innocence until proven guilty. I intend to continue to fight for the people of New Jersey with the same success I’ve had for the past five decades. This is the same record of success these very same leaders have lauded all along. It is not lost on me how quickly some are rushing to judge a Latino and push him out of his seat,” he said.

Feds accuse Sen. Menendez of taking gold, car and cash for favors

Past charges

In 2015, Menendez was indicted in a case centered around gifts and private flights the senator received from Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and friend.

New Jersey Democrats broadly stood beside Menendez throughout the trial, which ended with a deadlocked jury and later led to an admonition from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics that chided the senator for failing to disclose gifts and for using his position to advance Melgen’s interests.

Though Menendez emerged from the 2017 trial with only slight bruises — he won reelection over former Celgene CEO Bob Hugin, who is now the state Republican chairman, by 11 points — the charges did expose some vulnerability during that year’s primary. Perennial candidate Lisa McCormick won 38% of the vote against Menendez in the 2018 Democratic primary even though McCormick barely mounted a campaign.

Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, said Menendez’s 2018 primary performance may explain his lack of support this time around.

“The tendency to not do anything, I think, is not a winning option for the party chieftains this time because not doing anything cedes control of an uncontrollable situation to the Lisa McCormicks of the world,” Rasmussen said.

Observers noted the charges lodged at the 2017 Menendez trial — which touched on the esoterica of Senate financial disclosures and involved a longstanding friendship — were more difficult to understand than those Menendez now faces. The new indictment includes photos of gold bars and piles of cash that prosecutors say they found in Menendez’s home.

“There’s no question that this is something that people can easily point to and feel uncomfortable with,” Murray said. “Whereas the last time, there was a real judgment call — you have a lifelong friend, you’re taking trips. There’s a fine line there.”

Menendez was widely expected to seek reelection when his seat comes up for a vote next year. So far, he faces a primary challenge from only Kyle Jasey, a real estate lender and son of Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex).

Republicans have not won a U.S. Senate race in New Jersey for more than half a century, and Democrats now hold a nearly million-voter registration edge. But the newest charges could hurt the Democratic Party unless Menendez decides not to run.

“I think if he’s running for reelection with commercials of hundreds falling out of his pockets and pictures of the gold bars — I think even that may be a bridge too far for New Jersey,” Rasmussen said. “It’s really, really tough to imagine that that’s something that can be defended electorally.”

Only one New Jersey Democratic official, Rep. Robert Menendez (D-08), issued a statement in the elder Menendez’s defense Friday. He is the senator’s son.


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.