Perhaps the most surprising thing about the allegations that Senator Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) was flown by a donor to the Dominican Republic to have sex with prostitutes is how unsurprising they were to, well, just about everyone in New Jersey.
Inside the Beltway, however, Menendez paints himself as the classic American success story. He was born in New York City to immigrants. His dad was a carpenter and his mom was a seamstress, and they had left Cuba a few years before Castro rose to power. The family moved to Union City, N.J., and young Bob flourished; as a senior in high school he was student-body president, and he got his law degree from Rutgers in 1979.
In his early years, Menendez found himself quite a mentor: William Musto, a New Jersey political force whose career came to a bit of a halt when he went to prison. (Musto managed to win his last election the day after being sentenced to seven years.) Suffice it to say that Menendez’s political career began with his relationship with a man who has both an eponymous cultural center and a rap sheet. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Menendez was a “frequent guest” at Musto’s home for decades.
A few years after law school, Menendez ran for mayor of Union City — against Musto, no less. He lost. Four years later he was back at it, though, and won, after Musto left office before the election. Since then, it’s been nothing but ascent — from city hall to the state general assembly to the New Jersey senate to the House of Representatives to his current gig in the U.S. Senate.
But Menendez never really left behind the Hudson County style of politics.
Hudson County is sort of the Mos Eisley Spaceport of New Jersey. It’s always been corrupt in the same way that Paris has always been glamorous — none of the Jersey insiders who spoke with me for this piece really knew when Hudson County got so foul, but they all knew it had been that way for decades.
Frank Hague, who ran the county for more than 30 years in the first half of the 20th century, was fond of saying, “In Hudson County, I am the law!” Another anecdote runs that Brendan Byrne, a former governor of the state, liked to joke that he wanted to be buried in Jersey City so he could remain an active voter.
The county often draws comparisons to Tammany Hall and the late Richard Daley’s Chicago. In 2009, a sting run by the FBI, IRS, and New Jersey’s district attorney resulted in the arrest of 25 county leaders, who were charged with almost every white-collar crime you can imagine.
One New Jersey politico describes the political culture as incestuous. Contracts go to officials’ favorite lawyers, architects, and engineers, who in turn make hefty campaign contributions. It’s not the kind of place you trot out when you’re trying to sell people on the strengths of democracy.
Today in Hudson County, Menendez is the boss, and he’s had his share of misdeeds, scandals, and not-so-closeted skeletons. His greatest hits: