Veteran Politico from Monmouth County Seeks to Unseat Incumbent U.S. Senator

Joe Tyrrell | October 2, 2012 | More Issues
GOP’s Kyrillos faces tough task in bid to oust Democrat Menendez

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)
Robert Menendez and Joe Kyrillos are both fixtures on the New Jersey scene. Each has spent his adult life in politics, including decades in office.

But the political spotlight shines only so wide. Menendez,a Democrat from Union City, is known as one of an elite group of only 100 people in the nation: a U.S. senator, representing all of New Jersey. Kyrillos, on the other hand,is a Middletown Republican who is well-known in Monmouth County, part of which he represents in the state Senate in Trenton, but not very far beyond its borders.

In a campaign jostled and elbowed by presidential politics, Kyrillos, 52, finds himself in October, with little more than a month until the election, still trying to introduce himself to a wider audience of voters.

And he has a lot of competition. There is a baseball lineup worth of other contenders on the ballot – nine independent or minor party candidates, some with small organizations and a little money but others self-propelled, are also trying to catch the voters’ eye.

They won’t have the luxury of a television or radio spotlight. In the coming days, only the two major party contenders will share a series of stages in three debates, in which Kyrillos will try to improve his standing and Menendez will seek to widen his already substantial lead. The most recent poll, by Monmouth University, has Menendez ahead by 15 points.

The first scheduled debate is to air on NJTV, out of Montclair State University, at 8 p.m. Thursday. Others will follow on Oct. 10 (broadcast on New Jersey 101.5 FM) and Oct. 14 (sponsored by the League of Women Voters, to be broadcast on local ABC-TV affiliates and Univision).

While these will provide the first wide-ranging exposure for the candidates, they have not been campaigning quietly. Both major party candidates have been firing volley after volley of press releases, attending ceremonies and street fairs, and airing television and radio spots.

Despite the sniping that is part of any campaign, so far, the contest has not been overly nasty.

Kyrillos presents himself, in a phrase his wife Susan uses in a TV ad, as “a different kind of Republican.” Said the candidate in describing himself, “I’m the moderate in this race.”

Voters skeptical of whether a Republican would be willing to work with Democrats in Washington should look at his record, Kyrillos said, adding, “I’ve done it in Trenton.”

But given the tenor of national Republican politics and the views of a majority of New Jersey’s populace, Kyrillos also is taking time to reassure New Jersey voters, “I support equal pay for women. I support contraception … I can’t believe I have to talk about this stuff.”

Menendez, 58, has set himself a simpler task. In an economic downturn, and in light of the outsourcing of jobs that has continued through Republican and Democratic administrations, the incumbent’s theme is “fighting back” on behalf of the embattled middle class.

Throughout this year, he has pushed legislation to make easier for borrowers to refinance home mortgages that are “underwater,” with higher debt than the properties are worth after the bursting of the housing bubble.

“This would enable hundreds of thousands of families, who are responsible borrowers, to stay in their homes,” Menendez said.

It is a particularly significant issue in New Jersey, which is second only to Florida in the number of homes facing foreclosure. He does not need to mention that it is an issue on which the state has made some questionable choices: New Jersey has been the slowest in the nation to use its share of federal funds to help families stave off foreclosure.

For more than a year, Menendez and fellow Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) have been sparring with the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency over the state’s snarled Homekeeper program, which is currently sitting on almost $300 million in federal foreclosure aid.

Menendez, who chairs the Senate Banking Committee’s housing subcommittee, is also working on the issue in Washington. In September, he opposed an “outrageous” move by the Federal Housing Finance Agency to increase fees on borrowers in states where it takes banks longer to foreclose. He said the targeted states “have strong consumer protections to stop banks from wrongfully foreclosing,” which studies have found is still a widespread problem across the nation.

His positions on such issues fit the self-portrait that Menendez is presenting to voters: the son of immigrant parents, from Cuba, who grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood and has not forgotten his roots. They are the subject of one TV ad, shot in his Union City hometown.

Menendez started out in local politics backing colorful Mayor William Musto, but soon turned into a challenger. In 1982, he lost to Musto the day after the mayor was sentenced to prison on racketeering charges. But in the next election, in 1986, Menendez won the mayoralty.

He added an Assembly seat in 1987, then moved up to the state Senate. But he didn’t stay in Trenton long. After the redistricting that followed the 1990 U.S. Census created a majority Hispanic district, Menendez sought and won election in 1992 in the old 13th Congressional District.

After Jon Corzine was elected governor in 2005, he appointed Menendez to fill the remaining year of his vacant Senate term. Menendez won a full six-year term in 2006.

Kyrillos’ personal story is similar to that of Menendez, except that he is third-generation rather than second-generation: His grandparents all emigrated from Lebanon.

He got his start in politics working on the Reagan-Bush 1984 campaign, and was elected to the Assembly just three years later.

A commercial real estate broker, Kyrillos moved up to the state Senate in 1991, but failed the next year in his first try at a congressional bid, losing to U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th. Until this year, Kyrillos had not sought another seat, although in recent years, he has had notable roles in the campaigns of others, serving as New Jersey chairman for Mitt Romney in 2008 and in Chris Christie’s successful gubernatorial bid in 2009.

How to capitalize on those ties has been one of the trickier tasks facing Kyrillos. While trying to attract some of the glamour that attaches to his friend, the governor, Kyrillos also has found himself defending the poor performance of the [|state economy] while criticizing the weak national outlook.

Most of the focus is on the Democrat and Republican candidates, but there are nine others seeking to unseat Menendez.

Activist Daryl Mikell Brooks of Trenton is running under the banner “Reform Nation.” Describing himself as a “strict constructionist,” Brooks opposes liberal judges, would ban lobbying and says deficits are “crippling our future.”

“Greed in Washington and on Wall Street is filling Americans with disgust,” according to independent Gwen Diakos of Tinton Falls. She studied telecommunications and network management at DeVry University and American Sign Language at the University of Southern Maine, according to her website. She has worked for the Army. Diakos touts her standing as a nonpolitician. She opposes abortion.

J. David Dranikoff, 69, of Livingston describes himself as the state’s “first totally independent candidate” for Senate. He has a bachelor’s degree from C. W. Post and works in aftermarket auto sales. “It doesn’t matter to the fundraisers” which of the two major parties wins, because both have bought into the current system, he said.

Libertarian Kenneth R. Kaplan of Parsippany, who ran for Governor in 2009, carries the party’s Senate banner this year. The 64-year-old real estate broker has criticized the war on drugs and favors marriage equality. He graduated from both Brandeis University and New York University Law School, and is divorced with two children. Kaplan has been active with the Livingston Lions Club and Temple Beth Shalom.

Eugene Martin LaVergne, an attorney from West Long Branch, last year unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of the current system for apportioning the U.S. House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Late in the year, the state Supreme Court temporarily suspended his law practice and in January, the Monmouth County prosecutor’s office arrested LaVergne over alleged misappropriation of client funds.

Gregory Pason, 46, of Montclair promises to put the interests of workers and communities first and remain independent of the two major parties. As the standard bearer for the Socialist Party, he is emphasizing women’s issues, including his support of full reproductive rights as part of national nonprofit health care. A 1984 graduate of Mendham High School, Pason is married and has one son. The national secretary for the Socialist Party, USA, Pason is active in a number of causes, including Brandworkers International and Residents Against Racism.

Inder “Andy” Soni of Metuchen has a résumé that includes decades in banking since arriving from India in 1977, as well as his current position as CEO of a travel company. He wants to put that background to work to prevent another financial crisis. According to his website, Soni holds a master’s degree in economics and graduated from the American Institute of Banking in New York.

Robert “Turk” Turkavage, 57, of Cranford supports the entitlement and spending cuts called for by the Bowles-Simpson commission and calls for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He spent most of his working career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and retired last year after serving as vice president of fraud investigations for JP Morgan Chase and Company, according to his website. He has a degree in accounting and is married with three children.

Ken Wolski of Trenton is the candidate of the environmentally oriented Green Party. A nurse, Wolski is director of the Medical Marijuana Coalition of New Jersey. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Rutgers University and works for Patients Out of Time. He said the large amount of money now involved in mainstream politics makes the process “inherently corrupting,” because candidates are beholden to large donors.