Bob Menendez backers brace for battle: We dont believe charges – Politico
NEWARK, N.J.—Bob Menendez was just accused of trading his powers as a United States senator for jaunts to a posh resort home in the Dominican Republic, a $1,500 suite in Paris and more than $750,000 in campaign cash.
To which his many backers in his home state of New Jersey, which has witnessed more than its share of shady dealings by politicians over the years, say: And?
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If Menendez is going to face pressure to step down, it won’t be from constituents, at least based on the early read back home. He has a deep well of supporters who are loudly urging him to hang in there.
Menendez, perhaps the most powerful Democratic figure in this state, grew up in a working-class city just across the Hudson River from New York and made his mark in Jersey politics as a young upstart battling public corruption. Now he’s on the flip side, facing his own corruption charges centered on allegations that he improperly used his Senate office to aid a wealthy donor and close friend.
As he prepares for likely months of legal battles, Menendez’s Democratic backers said they were ready to stand by him through the ordeal.
“He’s going to fight this all the way, and I’m going to help as much as I can,” Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) said in a phone interview. Asked whether the senator should resign, Sires responded: “Why? He hasn’t been found guilty. And that’s not in Bob’s DNA.”
Menendez, in the estimation of fellow New Jersey pols, is the victim of a Justice Department run amok rather than a corrupt public official. And they‘re confident — for now — Menendez will ultimately prevail.
His backers were clearly organized and prepared to back Menendez with a public-relations offensive that began almost as soon as the charges were handed down. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) vowed that he “won’t waver in my commitment to stand alongside” Menendez. All Democratic members of the New Jersey congressional delegation defended the senator, and backers launched a website — IStandWithBob.com — and accompanying Twitter feed that promoted statements from the senator’s supporters.
“The reaction is, we don’t believe it. We don’t,” Felix Roque, Democratic mayor of West New York, New Jersey, said of the corruption charges in an interview here. “It’s a big game they’re playing, and we believe he’s an honorable man.”
Roque, who survived his own legal troubles when he was acquitted of federal hacking charges in 2013, added: “There’s gonna be pressure for him to fight this to the utmost. And knowing him, it’s in his chromosome that this guy’s a fighter.”
As a young up-and-comer in his gritty Union City hometown, Menendez was an aide to the city’s mayor, William Musto, until he testified against Musto in a 1982 racketeering trial that led to his conviction. Menendez would later become the city’s mayor, and work his way up through the ranks of the New Jersey General Assembly and state Senate before being elected to Congress in 1992.
“I publicly complained about illegal financial dealings in my city until the FBI investigated and the U.S. attorney filed corruption charges against the mayor and others,” Menendez recalled Wednesday. “I was called to testify for the prosecution. I received death threats. I wore a bulletproof vest for a month. That’s how I began my career in public service, and this is not how my career is going to end.”
In a 68-page indictment, federal authorities accused Menendez of accepting nearly $1 million worth of gifts and campaign donations from wealthy Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, a longtime close friend of the senator who was also indicted in the case. The 14 charges include eight counts of bribery against the senator, as well as allegations of honest services fraud—accusations that Menendez deprived his constituents of the “honest services” of his public office—and conspiracy.
Menendez is scheduled to appear in court later Thursday in Newark.
Responding to the charges Wednesday night at a downtown Newark hotel on Wednesday night, a defiant Menendez was surrounded by a mix of TV cameras and dozens of raucous supporters, including constituents who said Menendez helped them recover from Hurricane Sandy to Cuban-American political prisoners. The event felt more like a campaign victory rally than a news conference by an indicted senator.
“We support you!” one woman screamed, as Menendez tried to begin speaking. “Viva Bob!” some of his Spanish-speakers chanted.
“We call all these senators [and] they’re not proactive. Sen. Menendez gets it done,” said George Kasimos, who founded the group Stop FEMA Now, a local group that advocates on flood insurance issues. “He says, ‘What is your problem? I will do my best.’ Sometimes he can’t do it and we understand, but we know he’s swinging for us, and that’s really all we ask.”
In an eight-minute statement delivered in both English and Spanish, Menendez directed his ire at Justice Department prosecutors, calling them “dead wrong.” Aides said DOJ told the news media about the indictment before contacting Menendez or his legal team.
His supporters have also decried a stream of leaks about his case in recent weeks.
“It just seems to me that this is almost like Chinese torture,” said Sires, who has known Menendez for three decades. “Little drip here, little drip there, drip drip. It’s amazing. Someone should investigate why those leaks keep coming out.”
Menendez took some criticism from Republicans in the state. Joe Kyrillos, a state senator who unsuccessfully challenged Menendez for the U.S. Senate in 2012, called the indictment “another sad chapter for New Jersey and America.”
“Sen. Menendez needs to think long and hard about whether he can be an effective senator while simultaneously fighting serious federal charges,” Kyrillos said.
Still, within minutes of the formal indictment, a slew of supportive statements for Menendez —many from immigration activists and Latino advocacy organizations — flooded the inboxes of the media. Menendez was a member of the Gang of Eight that steered a comprehensive immigration overhaul through the Senate, and he was one of the more aggressive lawmakers to prod President Barack Obama to take executive action on immigration in November.
The indictment stung the state’s Hispanic community in particular. Several of Menendez’s Cuban-American backers showed up at Wednesday night’s news conference to show their support for the senator, a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s move to normalize relations with Cuba.
“I think this is really a big deal for us and what it means for the Latino community to have their senator, their champion on a national level being thrown through” the indictment, said Lucia Gomez-Jimenez, who is from Union City and is the executive director of La Fuente, an advocacy group based in New York. “I think Bob is going to come out clean from this, but yet you would’ve tarnished his name.”
Regardless, other Menendez allies say he won’t back down from his latest—and biggest—battle: clearing his name.
“Sen. Menendez is not going anywhere,” said Michael Soliman, a former state director for Menendez. “He will continue his fight for the people of New Jersey and has the time, resources and energy to do so.”