Bob Menendez on Friday issued two statements about his indictment. Both were defiant – he’s not quitting – and both mentioned his Latino roots.
Here’s one of them:
“It is not lost on me how quickly some are rushing to judge a Latino and push him out of his seat. I am not going anywhere.”
Attributing calls for his resignation to his Latino background seems like a stretch.
But let’s go back nearly 50 years when Menendez’s background as a Cuban-American was as relevant as could be. With Menendez’s political career resting on a ledge, it’s instructive to review how it began.
Like Menendez, I grew up in Union City, a congested, but colorful community, in Hudson County. I got interested in local politics at a young age, which was common for the region.
So when the 1974 city board of education race rolled around, I was a very interested observer.
From a local perspective, this was a big deal. It was the first time Union City had elected board of education members; previously they were appointed. In fact, Menendez as a very young man was instrumental in bringing the elected school board to fruition.
Now we come to the city politics of the era.
William V. Musto, or Bill, was the political power in town. He was both a mayor and a state senator when something unforeseen occurred in 1970. Musto and his running mates lost reelection to the city commission to a group known as Project ’70.
They considered themselves, “reformers.” – ethically a grade or two above the seemingly-corrupt political machine that Musto headed. In the context of Hudson County, political reformers need to be viewed skeptically, but that was their calling card when they won office to four-year terms on the commission.
The 1974 city commission race was in May and Musto was already preparing to run again for mayor and oust the Project ’70 reformers.
The school election was three months earlier in February. So the school board race was a dry run for May with each side fielding five candidates.
Here’s where we come to the nub of this tale.
The perception is that young people entering politics do so with a degree of idealism – a belief in principles and values over practicalities. Being “right” is its own reward.
So it was surprising that Menendez, who was then 20-years-old, cast his lot with the machine. He ran with the support of Bill Musto. There was nothing idealistic about the Union City or Hudson County Democratic organizations.
Musto’s school board ticket, by the way, seemed like it was out of central casting. It included a doctor, a funeral home director, a teacher, a police officer and a 20-year-old Cuban-American.
Two comments here. One is that the police officer ultimately was convicted of corruption.
The other gets into Menendez’ ethnic background. Union City at the time “was changing,” as folks would say. The city’s population, which was traditionally mostly German and Italian, was becoming more Latino, or at the time, Cuban.
So, the Musto team wanted a Cuban on the ticket and Menendez was an ideal candidate. He was articulate, poised and mature for his age.
The rest is history,
Menendez and the rest of his school board team of candidates won. A few months later, Musto did indeed beat the reformers and become mayor again.
Time moved on.
Menendez became board secretary, a very influential post for a young man.
Things eventually “went off the rails.”
As is well known, Musto was indicted on corruption charges with a number of others – see the police officer above. Menendez, courageously, testified against him. His own career then evolved from mayor to the state Legislature, to the House, to the Senate and now … who knows?
Menendez often talks about his humble beginnings – mentioning that he grew up in a tenement. His old residence on Hudson Avenue is pictured here as it looked a few years ago.
He did it again on Friday with this statement about his adversaries.
“Those behind this campaign simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a U.S. Senator and serve with honor and distinction.”
There is some truth here, but in the beginning, Menendez sided with the political establishment.
We must end with an anecdote that illustrates the odd view some Hudson County politicians have of themselves – and of wrongdoing.
The aforementioned Musto, the man who steered the young Menendez’ into politics, served a bit more than three years in federal prison.
Notwithstanding a conviction for corruption, Union City officials in 2011 named a cultural center after William V. Musto.
One can only imagine what honor Menendez may eventually get.