Can a Political Machine Save Bob Menendez’s Son, Rob?

Jury Deliberations Continue In The Corruption Trial Of Sen. Menendez (D-NJ)

Bob Menendez arrives in federal court in New Jersey last year accompanied by his son, Rob.
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Hudson County, New Jersey, is one of the country’s last remaining redoubts of old-fashioned machine politics where, just across the river from the city, political bosses control patronage and can funnel loyalists to the polls for their preferred candidates. Its most powerful figure is Robert Menendez, the New Jersey senator now facing corruption charges in federal court.

When Menendez’s successor in Congress, Albio Sires, decided not seek another term in 2022, almost instantaneously, every major political figure in the county — including Sires — decided to back Menendez’s 36-year-old son, Rob, who had never before run for office.

Two years after he was elected on the strength of his name, Rob Menendez might lose for the same reason. He is facing a well-funded challenge in the Democratic primary this June from Ravi Bhalla, the two-term mayor of Hoboken who is going after the congressman as a corrupt nepo baby. Menendez, he says, shared “the same consultant … the same donors, same corporate PACs, the same lobbyists” with his father. The congressman is “nothing more than old wine in new bottles … it’s getting more of the same, but just from another generation,” he says.

Rob Menendez spent his entire youth watching his father’s rise to power. He was not even 1 year old when Bob became mayor of Union City in 1986 after testifying against the prior mayor’s corrupt political machine while wearing a bulletproof vest in federal court. He was 2 and a half when his father first paired his mayoralty with a seat in the state legislature in 1988. By first grade, Bob was building his own organization as he made it to Congress. During the summer before Rob went to high school, his father was floated as a potential running mate to Al Gore. Rob was in college at the University of North Carolina when Bob became a senator and immediately took a job at the politically connected law firm of Lowenstein Sandler after graduating from Rutgers Law School. In 2020, Rob was floated as a potential mayoral candidate in Jersey City against incumbent Steve Fulop (who has pointedly refused to back Menendez’s congressional bid) and got his first job in government from Governor Phil Murphy, who appointed him as a Port Authority commissioner in 2021. He was elected to Congress in 2022 with minimal opposition and has become a dependable and loyal member of the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill.

Even though he is mayor of Hoboken, Bhalla isn’t beloved there and several members of the city council have backed Menendez. Running in a majority-Hispanic district in New York City’s pricey television market, it will be expensive for either candidate to advertise and do so in both English and Spanish ads. This makes it more difficult for Bhalla to introduce himself to voters outside of Hoboken, though arguably it makes it more difficult for Menendez to differentiate himself from his father. (Menendez’s campaign declined to make him available for comment.)

Normally, a primary challenge against a candidate backed by a machine would go nowhere, but the political landscape in the Garden State is unrecognizable compared to just a few years ago. Bob Menendez is now a political pariah as he faces criminal indictments for allegedly being a foreign agent of both Egypt and Qatar. The power of machines has been permanently weakened after Tammy Murphy, the machine-backed wife of the governor, dropped out of the race to replace Mendendez last month. Most of all, the most powerful tool for machine politicians to sway voters, the ballot line, has been invalidated by a federal judge as a result of a lawsuit filed by Andy Kim, the progressive congressman who forced Murphy out of the race. (The ruling is being appealed.) “The line,” as it’s known, is a unique feature to New Jersey politics that gave preferred placement on ballots in primary elections to the candidates endorsed by county party chairs. Endorsed candidates all ran together in a single column rather than having candidates grouped by the office in which they sought.

Even Bhalla concedes that the differences between the two “aren’t that stark” and that this is a race about Menendez and what he calls a toxic political culture. “I often say that my biggest liability in my ability to rise up in Hudson County politics is that I’m qualified,” he says. Quoting an unnamed fellow elected official, he says “the selection” of Menendez to fill the House seat was “rank nepotism.”

With Kim now cruising to the Senate nomination and the senior Menendez exploring a campaign as an independent while headed toward a criminal trial scheduled for May, the congressional primary will be a critical test of the strength of Jersey machine politics. Even with the end of “the line,” political bosses are by no means extinct in the district, even if they are endangered.

In Menendez’s native Union City there still is a powerful Democratic organization led by Brian Stack, who serves simultaneously both as mayor and state senator. North Bergen has Nicholas Sacco, who is still mayor but had to finally step down as state senator as well after getting redistricted with Stack. The area has a warren of tiny, dense municipalities with a large number of political patronage jobs. As one plugged-in Hudson County Democrat noted, “it is the last bastion of real political-boss-driven politics there. There are incredibly popular, well-liked mayors who really can deliver thousands and thousands of votes and have large volunteer organizations and put hundreds of people on the streets.”

This is in contrast to the district’s southern portion, where white-collar workers who commute at least part time into Manhattan fill the apartment towers that line the Hudson River in places like Jersey City and Hoboken. These voters may not be uniformly pro-Bhalla, but they don’t have the same connections to the county’s traditional power brokers

Menendez needs a last hurrah from the machine politicians who were long loyal to his father. In a low-turnout election such as the primary, the machine’s ability to bring voters to the polls can be decisive. In an increasingly nationalized political landscape, he has to hope that at least some politics are still local.

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