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Inside Rep. Rob Menendez's fight to be more than a 'nepo baby'

Photo collage of Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, Rep. Rob Menendez, and his father Sen. Bob Menendez.
From left: Rep. Rob Menendez, Sen. Bob Menendez, and Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla.
  • Rep. Rob Menendez — son of the scandal-plagued Sen. Bob Menendez — faces a tough reelection race.
  • Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, styling himself as an anti-machine candidate, could defeat him.
  • The younger Menendez is out to prove that he can win without his father's political support.

When Rep. Rob Menendez decided to enter politics, his last name was undoubtedly his most valuable asset. Now, it's his greatest liability.

Sixteen months into representing a House district in New Jersey just across the river from Manhattan, Menendez is staring down a well-funded, formidable primary challenge from Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who styles himself as a progressive urbanist and — perhaps more importantly — is not the son of Sen. Bob Menendez, who's been all but permanently sidelined by his lurid corruption scandal and could face time behind bars.

Polling has shown that the younger Menendez could lose, and the congressman has to contend with two dueling headaches ahead of the June 4 primary: separating himself from his scandal-plagued father, and surviving the loss of the state's long-standing "county line" ballot system, which has helped party bosses essentially coronate candidates like Menendez for decades. Running for reelection under what he calls "the most unique set of challenging circumstances you can imagine," Menendez is out to prove that he's able to stand on his own, and that he's more than the "nepo baby" caricature that's dogged him for his entire life.

"For all the times that people have said that I've only been able to accomplish something because of my father, that's now clearly no longer going to be the case when I win reelection," Menendez told me in April, as we sipped beers at the back of a Jersey City pub. "That's what's so exciting about this election."

Aside from the last name, one could be forgiven for failing to recognize the congressman as the senator's son — the 38-year-old Menendez comes across as a charming, wonky frat bro. "The best way I've heard myself described is as a geriatric millennial," he told a gathering of voters in Hoboken the day before we sat down. He sports a hi-top fade haircut, wears Nike Air Force 1 sneakers with his suits, is a skilled extemporaneous speaker, and carries himself with the self-assuredness that comes with growing up in a politically powerful family. Indeed, Menendez has never known a time when his father was not an elected official.

A 21-year-old Rob Menendez looks on at his father's 2006 Senate election victory party.
A 21-year-old Rob Menendez looks on at his father's 2006 Senate election victory party.

His political survival now depends on separating himself from his father, a task that's clearly both politically and personally difficult for him. Menendez, who has not been implicated in his father's scandal, euphemistically refers to the ongoing criminal proceedings as the "challenges he's facing" or his "legal troubles," sometimes flashing a nervous grin when the topic comes up. He won't even comment on his father's stated intention to run for reelection as an independent if he's cleared of the corruption charges facing him, a move that could jeopardize Democrats' chances to retain the seat.

"I don't have the capacity to think through, well, what if, what if, what if," Menendez told me. "There's a lot that I have to deal with right now."

'This is a true test for democracy'

The younger Menendez's entry into politics was swift. In 2021, he was nominated by Gov. Phil Murphy to serve as a commissioner overseeing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Six months after Menendez assumed that office, Rep. Albio Sires announced that he would not seek reelection and immediately endorsed the younger Menendez to succeed him. The rest of New Jersey's political establishment quickly followed, including local party organizations, and Menendez sailed through the primary in his deep-blue district with nearly 84% of the vote. Contrary to even some of his supporters, the congressman seems to have difficulty acknowledging how easy it was for him to get to Congress.

"I think sometimes people look at the result, and look at the support that we ended up with, and they say, oh, well this was all packaged together, this wasn't competitive," Menendez told me. "But you know, we treated it, and we ran it, like a real spirited race, like we were 30 points down every single day."

Mayor Bhalla told me that he began contemplating his primary challenge shortly after the elder Menendez was first indicted in September. As a congressional candidate, he's emphasized that Hoboken hasn't had a single traffic death in over 7 years under his "Vision Zero" strategy, earning the city plaudits from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and a bevy of positive national headlines. Fluent in the language of contemporary urbanism, Bhalla frequently invoked phrases like "daylighting" and "bumpouts" and "class two bike lanes" and "signalization" during our conversation.

His candidacy is also historic: If elected, he would be only the second Sikh American ever elected to Congress, and the first one to wear a turban. That facet of his candidacy has also contributed to his ability to outraise Menendez so far — an analysis of Bhalla's contributions shows that the vast majority of his $1.6 million war chest has come from South Asian American donors around the country. A coffee table in his mayoral office features a smattering of books on Sikhs, urbanism, and the city where he's been mayor since 2018.

Bhalla at an event in Jersey City in February.
Bhalla at an event in Jersey City in February.

Bhalla is slightly to the left of Menendez — the mayor supports Medicare for All, the congressman does not — but there's not a ton of daylight between the two on policy matters. They're also largely on the same page on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Bhalla told me that like Menendez, he would have voted for a recent bill to provide more military aid to the Jewish state.

Sitting in his recently opened campaign office, the mayor told me that the most important facet of his candidacy was his fight against New Jersey's party boss-driven political culture. Beyond his bid to unseat Menendez, Bhalla is also staking much of his candidacy on his opposition to the "county line" system, which has been struck down for this primary — and possibly forever — as a result of a lawsuit filed by Democratic Rep. Andy Kim in the midst of his short-lived Senate primary campaign against First Lady Tammy Murphy. "This is a true test for democracy, to see whether or not we can bring a voice to average residents," said Bhalla, deriding the "top-down party boss-led power" in his northern New Jersey district.

Bhalla filed an amicus brief in that lawsuit after coming out against the line, which has been proven to give a massive boost to those who receive the endorsement of local party organizations. Having been endorsed by those organizations, Menendez was set to benefit from the line this primary. Now that the candidates will compete under the "office block" ballot format used by every other state, Bhalla's chances of unseating the congressman have dramatically improved.

"This election is really a choice between a record of progressive accomplishments versus sort of the epitome New Jersey bosses," said Jersey City Councilman James Solomon, a Bhalla supporter who has long opposed the county line system. "With the congressman, you've got somebody who partnered with his dad's political machine to basically intimidate his way into Congress, is the best way I can describe it."

But the mayor hasn't always been a fierce opponent of bossism. Before beginning his crusade against the line in January, Bhalla sought the endorsement of the very party organizations he's now criticizing, in an effort to give him the unfair advantage he now opposes. Bhalla has also acted as a party boss himself, using his influence to place his former chief of staff in an advantageous position on the ballot in a 2023 state assembly race.

The younger Menendez at an event in Washington, DC shortly after his election in 2022.
The younger Menendez at an event in Washington, DC shortly after his election in 2022.

Menendez was eager to highlight that hypocrisy in our conversation, deriding Bhalla as a "political opportunist" who was "calling every single mayor, asking them to put him on the line" after Senator Menendez was indicted and the congressman's own machine support appeared less than certain. "This idea that he is someone who's always fought the line is absurd," Menendez told me. "When he didn't get the line, then he pivoted."

"Once the idea of abolishing the line wasn't just a pie-in-the-sky dream, but could actually happen, I stood up and spoke out," Bhalla told me of the apparent hypocrisy. "I'm still waiting for Rob Menendez to do the same."

To that point, I pressed Menendez four different times on how he felt about the "county line" system, the ultimate fate of which is still being litigated. Each time, he declined to clearly state whether he preferred keeping the system — which largely helped him get elected in the first place — or favored its abolition. The congressman insisted that he wanted "clarity on the issue" and that he wasn't outright opposed to the abolition of the line.

"I guess the reason that my answer is not satisfying to you is because I may overvalue consistency," said Menendez. "The decision's done, and I'm actually really good with it, because we're going to win, we're going to have a decisive victory, and no one's going to be able to say it was only because of the line, or it was only because of my father."

'I mean, definitely the name helped'

It's been a nasty primary race, and there's still a whole month left. Bhalla and Menendez have swiped at one another on social media over gold bars, Sam Bankman-Fried, Bhalla's 2022 endorsement of Menendez, and more. The congressman has been particularly incensed by Bhalla's efforts to tie him to his father's corruption scandal.

During Bhalla's opening speech at a candidate forum in Jersey City — the duo's first joint appearance at such an event this cycle — Bhalla argued that the district's constituents were suffering from a lack of "connective tissue" with their representation in the House, prompting eye-rolls and smirks from Menendez, seated just feet away.

One constant, yet confounding subplot of the drama of this primary has been Bhalla's tensions with his own city council. Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, an opponent of the line who also backed Kim over the governor's wife in the Senate primary, has endorsed Menendez, calling the mayor a "terrible candidate" who has been "dishonest all the time" during his tenure.

The day before I spoke with Menendez, Fisher organized a town hall-style event for the congressman in her apartment complex — a waterfront property that once served as a warehouse for the Lipton Tea Company. Five of Hoboken's nine city council members attended, two of whom told me that they view the mayor as uncompromising, headline-obsessed, and inaccessible. "Everything here is a headline or a deadline driving the process," Councilman Paul Presinzano said of Mayor Bhalla. "His agenda has been: me, me, me."

It's a perception that Menendez has also leaned on, aided by the conspicuous — and at times, disruptive — presence of a documentary film crew at the Jersey City candidate forum, which Bhalla quickly departed as Menendez stayed to shmooze with voters. "He has a camera crew following him, okay!?" Menendez exclaimed to me. A Bhalla campaign spokesman told me that film crew had reached out to the mayor's team, and that they're profiling several South Asian candidates running for office this cycle.

The meet-and-greet, where Menendez easily fielded pre-filtered questions from a crowd of roughly 100, illustrated the challenge the congressman faces in making his case for reelection: his record is thin, and he has yet to put his name on any major legislation, owing to being a freshman member of the minority party. Menendez talked up his constituent services operation, saying that he had solved over 1,500 cases — mostly immigration-related — and had brought back millions of dollars in federal funding to the district. He also talked about landing a "highly coveted" spot on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, touted his efforts to make the nuts and bolts of government work, and even provided an anecdote about how his elementary school science fair was anonymized as a result of claims that his father — then the mayor of Union City — was somehow exercising influence over the judges to help his son win.

Yet the congressman is still adjusting to the reality of running in an environment where the power of the machine has been diminished, speaking more about the "durability of the relationships" that he's built than the notion of grassroots support that other politicians, including Bhalla, typically invoke. In front of voters in Hoboken, he spoke at length about how he believes Congress should be "the most boring institution in the entire world," expressing irritation at the fact that his one of the few viral breakout moments of his tenure — referring to Donald Trump as "Orange Jesus" during a House Homeland Security meeting in February — got "exponentially more attention than doing the real work."

Menendez looks on as Bhalla's opening remarks at a Jersey City candidate forum are filmed by a cameraman.
Menendez looks on as Bhalla's opening remarks at a Jersey City candidate forum are filmed by a cameraman.

"Listen, it's a new type of campaign for him," said Fisher, explaining why she helped organize the event. "He hasn't created the brand to win an election in a way that he has to do with this year, versus how he's done it in the past. That's the difference between having the benefit of the line, and having to run on your own record."

And despite their misgivings with Bhalla, several of the Hoboken city council members tended to squirm a bit when I asked them about their mayor's primary critique of Menendez — that he's only in Congress at all due to nepotism and the power of the county line.

"Do I think it was nepotism? I mean, definitely the name helped," said Presinzano.

"The politics behind it, that allowed him to run in a way that made it difficult for other people, had nothing to do with Rob's willingness to say yes," said Fisher. "Rob's been in the seat now for a year and a half, and he's absolutely earned the right to be reelected."

'I also trust people to distinguish between us'

With the sudden end of Tammy Murphy's Senate bid and the resulting collapse of the "county line," the race to represent New Jersey's 8th district is poised to be the first real test of what the state's post-line politics will look like — and whether the Menendez brand is permanently dead.

One common refrain I heard from Menendez's backers is that he doesn't have to do this, that continuing to seek office in this environment — and while raising two young children — is proof of the congressman's commitment to public service. To that point, Menendez's financial disclosures show that he made more than $456,000 in 2021 from practicing law, more than two and a half times the $174,000 salary he makes as a member of Congress.

There are a variety of factors that will work in Menendez's favor in this primary, including the endurance of well-organized turn-out operations run by Democratic machines in places like Union City. He's also maintained the support of several other members of the New Jersey delegation, along with House Democratic leadership, despite those same lawmakers' months-old calls for his father to resign.

"He's really talented — a leader who has done nothing but earn my confidence," Sen. Cory Booker told me, while praising Bhalla as an "an extraordinary leader as well" who's a "longtime friend."

Rep. Rob Menendez and Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla
Menendez and Bhalla at an event in Hoboken in August 2022, before Menendez was elected to Congress.

Bhalla also hasn't gotten help from other reform-minded candidates. Kim has declined to endorse either Menendez or Bhalla, while Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop — a 2025 gubernatorial candidate who's positioned himself as anti-machine — has simply declined to endorse Menendez rather than affirmatively back the mayor.

At the same time, the elder Menendez's trial is set to begin this month, guaranteeing that as they head to the polls, voters in New Jersey will once again be reminded of the gold bars, the wads of cash stuffed into pockets, and the allegations that the senator corruptly carried out the interests of autocratic Middle Eastern governments.

"Some people may be impacted by my father, and the challenges that he's having, and I understand that," Menendez said at the Hoboken meet-and-greet. "But I also trust people to distinguish between us."

Read the original article on Business Insider

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