Confronted by Lone Heckler, Menendez on Offense at NJEA Press Conference

UNION – Bob Menendez was in fine form, trashing opponent Bob Hugin every which way as he accepted the endorsement Thursday morning of the state teachers’ union.

His Republican opponent is morally corrupt, a “right wing corporate shill” and a man who would put “profits over people.”

It’s noteworthy that the rhetoric in the race is already getting harsh and it’s not even Labor Day yet.

Hugin was a financial supporter of Donald Trump, whose statewide approval rating in a recent poll was a mere 33 percent. While this is certainly fertile attack ground for Menendez, the senator expanded his assault by bringing up the name of Chris Christie, who remains persona non grata for many teachers. He noted that Hugin was a financial supporter of Christie’s abridged presidential campaign. And just in case anyone forgot, Menendez released a statement reminding one and all that Christie once said the teachers’ union treats students like “drug mules” and that the national teachers’ union deserves “a punch in the face.”

All this had the feel of your traditional partisan gathering, but then there was the guy yelling from the edge of the crowd. He wanted to know if Menendez had repaid the value of gifts he had received from Salomon Melgen. Hecklers are not uncommon, but this guy was particularly persistent. He also was holding aloft a copy of a letter from a Senate ethics committee admonishing the senator for accepting such gifts. While criminal charges over this incident against Menendez were dropped after a mistrial, he was still criticized by his Senate peers.

The heckler kept up his verbal blasts throughout the press conference and even afterwards as the senator posed for photos. And he was not alone. When a Menendez supporter yanked the letter from the heckler’s hand, one of two friends with him gave him another copy. The three men, all of whom appeared to be in their twenties,  declined to identify themselves or to say if they were working with the Hugin campaign.

This, of course, brings up Menendez’ chief problem in a race he normally would be expected to win without much trouble. It’s easy to ignore one loudmouth. It’s harder to ignore an issue that Hugin is bound to bring up in multiple TV ads between now and the election. And that is that Menendez is allegedly corrupt.

Walking to his car, the senator was asked when he planned to repay the money in question. He answered that details on how this will be done are still being worked out.

This byplay impacted, but didn’t overshadow the main event of the day – the endorsement of the New Jersey Education Association.

One expects the teachers’ union to endorse a Democrat, but this is still a meaningful development. The teachers’ union is seen as the most politically powerful public union in the state.

Marie Blistan, the teachers’ union president, said the organization’s 200,000 members are ready to work for Menendez between now and Election Day. She praised the senator for supporting public education, which she said the Trump administration is not doing.

Menendez was quick to agree, criticizing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for raising the idea of spending federal dollars to arm teachers.

“I never met a teacher yet who wants to be armed,” he said.

Menendez called New Jersey’s public education system “the envy of the entire nation.” He talked about his humble upbringing in Union City and how a teacher at his high school. which was Union Hill, stressed to him the importance of public service.

Hugin, interestingly, also grew up in Union City and is a product of the same public school system, although he attended another high school, Emerson.

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