By David Cruz
Bob Menendez finally broke his silence, calmly explaining to CNN that not paying for those plane trips to the Dominican Republic with a major donor was an oversight that he corrected. But when asked about the charges that he consorted with prostitutes, Menendez got angry.
“It’s amazing to me that nameless, faceless individuals on a website can drive that type of story into the mainstream, but that’s what they’ve done successfully,” he snapped. “Now, no one can find them, no one ever met them, no one ever talked to them but that’s where we’re at.”
Menendez got his political start in Union City. He was mayor there from 1986 to 1992 and built a political organization that made him a congressman and ultimately a powerful U.S. senator. Around here, Menendez can do no wrong, no matter what the allegations are.
“That’s politics,” said Union City resident Juan Martinez. “Those are people who haven’t reached that level and want to damage him in some way. They want to get rid of him and his place.”
Resident Virginia Sanchez agreed. “To me, he’s a very good man,” she said. “He helped us when we had a problem getting my husband here from Ecuador.”
This is not the first time that the senator’s relationships with campaign donors have become the subject of public scrutiny. In 2006, a federal investigation started by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie failed to find any wrongdoing by the senator but exposed a pattern of cozy relationships with donors who later benefited from public resources. Menendez had always called that investigation politically motivated and the Justice Department later issued a letter completely exonerating him, so it’s no surprise that sources close to the senator say the latest allegations are part of an orchestrated smear campaign.
Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez represents part of Menendez’s old stomping grounds. She says the senator has weathered political attacks before.
“I don’t like to think of it as conspiracy theories or anything like that but to reach the levels that he has by working so hard, sometimes people can be jealous, for whatever reason,” she said. “I have faith that this will eventually blow over.”
Menendez didn’t say who he thought was behind the allegations. But sources close to him suggest those behind it could include narco-traffickers looking to scuttle a billion dollar port security contract awarded to Menendez’s friend, or right-wing Republicans here in the states or even the Cuban government, which Menendez has targeted with embargo legislation. There may yet be a formal ethics committee investigation into all this and Menendez’s reputation could be further tarnished by it all, but with six long years before he has to face voters again, the senator’s inner circle is hoping, if not yet betting, that he will survive.