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:
Menendez divorced his wife in 2005 (he was a congressman at the time), and that divorce may or may not have had something to do with an alleged affair with one of his employees, Kay LiCausi. The New York Times reports that after working in Menendez’s office, LiCausi became a lobbyist, and her alleged lover steered hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of contracts her way.
Chris Christie, at the time a federal prosecutor, helped spearhead a corruption investigation of Menendez in 2006. Rumor has it that Christie produced more than 200 witnesses for a grand jury, but no charges were pressed. “The question comes to mind, how many more investigations can this guy withstand?” wonders one Garden State insider. “It’s not like he is unfamiliar with our friends in the FBI.”
Menendez comes off as a bit of a bully. He’s been known to call his opponents’ donors and say, “This is Bob Menendez. Do we have a problem?” Adds another source: “He’s known for being very vindictive, very nasty, very tough. It’s common for folks to be afraid of not donating to him for fear of being subject to his wrath.”
He made headlines when one of his interns, a Peruvian sex offender, was arrested for being in the country illegally. The Associated Press reported that the Department of Homeland Security ordered federal agents to postpone the intern’s arrest until after Election Day.
There’s more, of course. The above list is but a glance.
If the prostitution to-do shakes out in his favor, Menendez’s career will be a textbook example of how to masterfully balance corruption and success. “Bob Menendez is like the Pig-Pen of New Jersey politics,” says another source, who has known the senator for years. “There’s always this cloud that just kind of follows him around.” That’s why his circle wasn’t shocked when allegations that he slept with prostitutes surfaced.
Menendez’s detractors also won’t be shocked if he weathers this latest unpleasantness and is reelected in six years. He may be in the headlines, but he remains safely ensconced in the Hudson County Democratic machine.
Menendez, for his part, calls the allegations a “smear.” He’s indignant about the investigations into his character. But his reputation has hardly been spotless.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.