The senator’s son striving to be a Congress man

Robert Menendez Jr. is hoping there’s room for another Menendez in the Garden State

It isn’t too often that a first-time candidate will, in quick succession, notch high-profile endorsements from a governor, a U.S. senator and a chorus of local political bosses — all before entering the race.

But when Robert Menendez Jr. announced his bid for an open House seat in northern New Jersey this past January, he had done just that. In the weeks leading up to his campaign launch, the Garden State political scion had all but officially been crowned as the heir apparent to longtime Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ), who is retiring from New Jersey’s 8th Congressional District at the end of the year.

Of course, it was no surprise that Menendez had drawn early and enthusiastic support from such leading establishment Democrats as Gov. Phil Murphy and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) as well as multiple officials connected with Hudson County’s Democratic machine. Though Menendez, 36, has never previously run for elected office, his family name has long been revered in the district, where his father — the formidable senior Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) — once presided for more than a decade.

It seems inevitable, then, that the senator’s son would now stake his claim to the soon-to-be vacated seat. But Menendez Jr., a practicing attorney who goes by Rob, insists that such aspirations had, at least until recently, never held particular favor over a competing interest in carrying on as a private citizen.

“The truth of it is that I could have seen a life where I never ran for public office and a life, now, where I am,” Menendez told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “The ultimate question was: Are we on a good trajectory or are we not, and if we’re not, are there things that I can do, bring to the table, advocate for that would correct a lot of the struggles and issues that we’re facing?”

“The answer,” he declared, “is yes.”

Menendez said he jumped into the race motivated by a personal conviction that it is time to “turn the page” on an era of increasing polarization that has come largely at the expense of everyday voters.

“We can’t wait any longer for people to do the work for us,” he told JI. “If we want to see a different course, a different trajectory, we have to do the work ourselves.”

Menendez, a moderate Democrat who speaks positively of the Biden administration’s domestic agenda, described an urgent need to address the “pain and frustration” of “working families” in the majority-Hispanic district, which sits mostly within Hudson County and is home to a sizable immigrant population. Menendez, whose father is the son of Cuban immigrants, said the “disruption” of the pandemic had left voters “looking for their leaders to provide a clear vision” for the future. 

Describing his platform mostly in broad strokes, he argued in favor of increasing access to affordable housing and healthcare, extending child tax credits and launching workforce development initiatives with community colleges and trade schools, among other initiatives. “There’s a lot of work to do,” he said.

If Menendez prevails in the June primary and then the general election, he and his father — or, as some wags have noted, Rob and Bob — would be the only parent-child duo in Congress next year.

“I do believe that’s been mentioned,” the younger Menendez said, albeit somewhat sheepishly, noting that he is now “solely focused” on his campaign. Still, he hastened to add, “it would be an honor to serve with my father.”

While Menendez emphasized that he is taking nothing for granted as he prepares to go up against two lesser-known rivals in the primary, he was equally quick to confirm he aligns with his father on a range of issues, not least in the Middle East foreign policy realm. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the elder Menendez is widely viewed as a leading expert on such matters, and his son was eager to convey that he has been taking careful notes for some time now.

“I think he brings that New Jersey common sense to his role to try to be a good steward of our foreign policy, being a reliable voice for our allies,” Menendez said admiringly of his father. “That’s something that is an important quality that he brings to his job that I value and would love to advocate for as well.”

Among the senator’s most noteworthy causes is his fierce and longstanding opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. Menendez was the second Democratic senator to come out against the agreement as it was brokered by the Obama administration in 2015. If Iran were “to acquire a nuclear bomb,” he objected at the time, “it will not have my name on it.” Menendez has continued to express strong and occasionally strident reservations over the Biden administration’s efforts to negotiate a new deal with Iran, which remain ongoing.

For his part, Menendez Jr. said he “agreed” with his father’s approach in 2015 and is skeptical of the current discussions. “I remember sitting there in 2015 when he made his speech about his opposition to the JCPOA, and it was never about not pursuing diplomatic efforts,” he recalled of his father’s reasoning. “It was about coming to a real solution that would hold up to the test of time.”

Menendez suggested that he is now taking a wait-and-see approach, largely because he is not privy to details of the negotiations beyond what has been publicly reported. But he makes clear in a lengthy position paper that his conditions — including the imposition of sanctions, which had been lifted in 2015, “that limit Iran’s economic ability to financially support terrorist organizations” — would almost certainly put him at odds with the terms of any future agreement.

“The only way that we can hope to bring Iran to the table and dismantle their nuclear program,” he writes, “is to put heavy pressure on the Iranian economy and for the Iranian people to demand its leaders correct the country’s course.”

It is unclear whether he will be in the House if or when an agreement comes up for a vote, but Menendez said he remains confident in his father’s continued scrutiny of the emerging deal.

“I, for one, think that New Jersey has a really strong voice in the U.S. Senate, Bob Menendez, in ensuring that, if there is an agreement, if there is something in place,” he declared, “that it serves our strategic goals and ensures that Iran is no longer on a path toward obtaining nuclear weapons.”

Few people, if any, are in a position to make such a claim, JI suggested. He laughed. “It is what it is, right?”

Like his father, who is among the most outspoken supporters of Israel in the Senate, Menendez said he is committed to strengthening ties with the Jewish state, which he described as a “vital ally.”

“There’s been somewhat of a — how should I phrase it? — inconsistent approach to foreign policy through the last several administrations, and I think that’s left our allies in an uncomfortable position,” he explained. “You have to start by being very clear in your support for your allies, and I think being supportive of Israel is one of the most important actions any member of Congress can take.”

For Menendez, that includes voting for legislation to bolster the Abraham Accords — the series of agreements that established diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab nations — while continuing to provide U.S. security assistance, with no conditions. Menendez, who has never visited Israel but said it “would be a priority” if he is elected, also endorsed additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system that passed the House last September, despite opposition from an outspoken cohort of far-left critics.

“When you look at the action that Congress has taken, both in a bipartisan manner and also Democratic support, I think you continue to see that the majority of the party believes in a strong relationship with Israel,” he told JI. “Just because folks may be louder than other people, or they may be a loud segment of the party, does not mean that they are the majority of the party, and I think it’s not focusing on what’s in the U.S. interest and what we need to do to support our allies.”

Menendez expressed support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as he calls for a somewhat hands-off approach. In a lengthy Israel position paper, for example, he stresses that negotiations should be “brokered directly and in good faith between leaders on both sides,” rather than a third party. “America’s role,” he says, “should be to start the conversation and assist any way we can.”

Within his own district, which includes Jersey City, Hoboken and Union City (where his father once served as mayor), among other places, Menendez said he is interested in fostering economic ties between New Jersey and Israel, through partnerships with local universities as well as startups and innovation labs. “I think creating that dynamic could be something that would bring new voices, a younger generation,” he said, “into the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The pro-Israel organizations that have endorsed his campaign in recent months — including the political arms of Democratic Majority for Israel and Pro-Israel America, a bipartisan advocacy group — seem to think that Menendez himself is such a voice. “Like his predecessor, Congressman Albio Sires, and his father, Senator Bob Menendez, Rob is a staunch supporter of the Democratic agenda, including strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Rachel Rosen, a spokesperson for DMFI’s political action committee, said in a statement to JI.

Phil Goldschmeidt, a pro-Israel activist in northern New Jersey who says he is close with Menendez Sr., agreed. After Menendez Jr. announced his candidacy, Goldschmeidt — a member of AIPAC’s national council and a local leader with NORPAC, a bipartisan pro-Israel group — reached out to the campaign to request a position paper.

He liked what he read. “I’m a big fan of his father, particularly on the Iran deal, and I know his son, looking at his paper, is in line with that,” Goldschmeidt told JI. “My feeling is, to have two Menendezes in Congress would be a big win for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

“It’s a little difficult because it’s ‘Rob and Bob,’ — so, ‘R and B,’ rhythm and blues,” Goldschmeidt joked. “The Congress could use some of that stuff.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), a leading pro-Israel Democrat in the House, is also supporting Menendez. “It’s great to have Rob running here in New Jersey, fighting for families and local communities, and standing up for the historic U.S.-Israel relationship, which is critical to America’s national security and the global fight against terror,” Gottheimer said in a statement to JI. “I love Rob and he’s going to do a phenomenal job as a congressman in our delegation. That’s why I’m working so hard to get him elected.”

According to the congressman’s spokesperson, Gottheimer is, with NORPAC, currently organizing a local fundraiser for the Menendez campaign that is scheduled for May 19.

Menendez received his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina in 2008 and attended Rutgers Law School, his father’s alma mater. He has worked at the corporate law firm Lowenstein Sandler LLP since 2011, specializing in mergers and acquisitions and regulatory compliance, among other things. 

Last summer, Menendez was named a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Before that, Menendez had reportedly been weighing a mayoral bid in Jersey City, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

Menendez is one of three Democratic primary candidates who are jockeying for the seat, including progressive activist David Ocampo Grajales and public school teacher Ane Roseborough-Eberhard. Two other candidates dropped out of the race this week because they had not gathered the required number of signatures to qualify for the ballot. The victor is all but assured a smooth ride in the general election owing to the partisan makeup of the district, which was only slightly redrawn after New Jersey’s House maps were approved.

By most accounts, Menendez is heavily favored to win the congressional seat that had been occupied by his father between 1993 and 2006. The senator is a “hallowed name in that district,” said Alan Steinberg, a political columnist for Insider NJ, adding that Menendez Sr. had “fully regained his popularity” following a corruption scandal that nearly ended his political career some years ago. 

A spokesperson for the senator’s office told JI that Menendez was unavailable to comment for this article.

Menendez Jr., meanwhile, “seems to have the level of competence in terms of communication skills that you would expect of a candidate for Congress,” Steinberg told JI. “I don’t see any issues that will be used against him.”

But Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, believes it is too soon to draw any conclusions. “In New Jersey, a political party can certainly give enormous advantage to a primary candidate through preferential ballot placement, and, in the past, that was generally enough to scare off serious challengers,” he told JI in a recent email exchange. “However, the post-Trump progressive movement in North Jersey has been very strong, and they’ve been able to mount serious challenges to establishment candidates like Menendez.”

“Whether it’s a valid criticism or not, Menendez is going to be seen as a moderate establishment candidate, and the energy in the Democratic Party is very much on the side of liberal progressive insurgents,” Cassino argued. “He needs to either convince progressives that he’s one of them — which may not be possible — or be ready to take on challengers. The era of coronations, rather than competitive races, for new candidates in Jersey primaries is very much over.”

Still, Menendez is no doubt well-poised, thanks in part to a sizable campaign war chest. He has raised nearly $840,000 in the first quarter of 2022, with approximately $690,000 on hand, according to a spokesperson.

No matter how recognizable his name may be, Menendez said he is “working hard at it every day” as he engages with voters throughout the district, including Jewish residents who remain on edge amid a recent uptick in antisemitic hate crimes. Northern New Jersey has by no means been exempt from such incidents, Menendez notes, referring to the deadly shooting at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City three years ago, where six people were killed. 

“You have to be vocal and out front in opposition whenever there are any incidents of hate or antisemitism,” Menendez told JI.

Menendez believes voters have been receptive to his campaign, which is less “about a platform,” he notes, than “common-sense solutions for the issues that families, that workers, that small businesses are facing.”

“People still feel uncertain about the future,” he said, “and I think the conversations need to be focused around what the Democratic Party is going to do to assure that we get our footing back and have a strong foundation moving forward.”

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