ELIZABETH – About 30 mostly Hispanic leaders led by Congressman Albio Sires, D-Hudson, rallied on the steps of City Hall today to condemn the U.S. Justice Department for continuing to prosecute U.S. Senator Robert Menendez.
“It is shameful,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex. “More importantly, it is scary.”
The speakers said the Justice Department’s prosecution of Menendez, the nation’s highest-ranking Hispanic elected official, symbolizes the Trump Administration’s disdain for immigrants and minorities in general.
Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, D-Secaucus, who once lived in Menendez’ hometown of Union City, said the federal government’s actions were both “racially” and “politically” motivated.
Menendez was actually indicted on a string of bribery and corruption charges by the Justice Department under the Obama administration. The senator’s trial last year ended with a hung jury.
Prieto acknowledged that the indictment emerged on Obama’s watch. But he said things have now changed, referring to reports that 11 of 13 jurors who heard the case wanted to acquit Menendez.
Jury deliberations are secret, but a juror who was excused near the end of the trial said that the majority of the panel wanted to find the senator not guilty.
After the jury failed to reach a decision, many political and legal observers thought the government would not seek to retry the case. But the Justice Department earlier this month said it wanted a second trial. And in a move that enraged the senator’s supporters even more, the government filed a motion suggesting that Menendez’ lawyers were “racializing the case” by referring to Menendez’ Hispanic heritage. The senator, 64, was born in the United States to Cuban immigrants.
Sires said it is offensive and sadly ironic that the administration of President Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is essentially accusing the senator of playing the so-called race card. The congressman contended that the administration has struck an anti-immigrant stance since its inception and that putting Menendez on trial a second time is proof of that. Menendez was not present for the rally and Sires said he organized it without any input from the senator or his office.
An overriding concern for the group of local, state and federal officials is that Menendez is up for reelection this fall.
If not for partisan politics, “why would you do it (a trial) again?” Prieto asked.
Ruiz put it this way, “You don’t have to be an attorney … to realize what is happening here.”
Democrats now have 49 seats in the Senate and are hoping to gain two seats in the fall election to take control. That’s going to be difficult considering that many incumbent Democratic senators are seeking reelection in states won by Trump. The Democrats path to the majority would become even more difficult, if not impossible, if a weakened Menendez loses his seat to a Republican.
Sires admitted there is little the group can do to stop the Justice Department’s plans other than to continue speaking out.
Earlier this week, the judge dismissed seven charges against Menendez, but 11 remained. It’s unknown when a second trial will take place.
“They are trying to destroy his reputation, when they should be focused on his commitment to New Jersey and our nation,” said Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz, the state’s lone Latina mayor.
Speakers such as Patricia Campos-Medina of the Latinas United for Political Empowerment said Menendez’ appeal goes far beyond New Jersey. Campos-Medina, who lives in Califon, said the senator supports Hispanics and working people whether they’re in New Jersey, Virginia or the farms of California.
Using a bit of Spanish, she said that to Hispanics across the country, Menendez is “neustro Senador.”
She and others took particular umbrage at the charge Menendez was trying to use his heritage to “racialize the case.”
As Ruiz put it, the senator’s heritage is in his genes and can’t be ignored.