Hurtling Toward Election Day: Hugin V. Menendez, the Latest Menendez Ad, the Alvarez Aftermath, and Murphy’s Trip to Germany

“We were in a small cafe
You could hear the guitars play
It was very nice
It was paradise”

 – Berlin, Lou Reed

To his political enemies, Phil Murphy’s trip to Berlin was the equivalent of De Gaulle’s evacuation of Paris.

His administration was falling apart, his political enemies enlivened by the prospect of hearings – this time wholly bipartisan; they even had Michael Critchley – and the Governor was hightailing it to those idyllic surroundings of his former ambassadorship.

For a whole host of reasons, “We’ll always have Berlin,” seemed more appropriate in this particular case then “We’ll always have New Jersey,” and yet Murphy antagonists indeed tried to muster an atmosphere of finality about his tenure here. The Democratic establishment for the most part reluctantly went after Governor Chris Christie, dragged into full blown outrage over Bridgegate only after the national media fully engaged. The same establishment that later fought this sitting rookie Democratic Governor on the budget this past season, however, already had a runway of opposition, now strengthened by Republicans and the #me2 movement. It was all-fronts mobilization.

And Murphy was gone for nine days.

Sources say his allies debated internally over his course of action. Should he cancel the economic trips to Germany and Israel in order to confront the stories about his administration serving as a refuge for the likes of Al Alvarez and Derrick Green? Most definitely, a wing argued. But they lost.

The Governor’s departure three weeks prior to federal elections also created questions about his 11th hour political commitment to U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who appeared to be in a statewide dogfight with Republican challenger Bob Hugin, not to mention congressional battleground district Democrats. But if someone like Republican Jay Webber wanted to talk about what he called “kitchen table economic issues,” while charging CD-11 rival Democrat Mikie Sherrill with running a campaign of narrowed special interests, maybe Murphy on a 24-7 economic message wasn’t politically outrageous.

Still, in the aftermath of the story about Katie Brennan’s allegations of sexual assault against Alvarez, who received a $140,000 per-year job in the administration, Murphy’s presence here seemed almost required.

“What the hell is he doing?” said one lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I want to like the guy, but come on.”

For the moment, formation of a joint legislative committee to examine hiring practices within the Murphy Administration gave the Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) wing of the party the apparent upper-hand, as statehouse sources tore apart Murphy’s pick of Peter Verniero to head up an independent investigation as little more than a gloomy trip back to the racial profiling cases of the 1990s, cynically repackaged with more big Democratic Party law firm – than town marshal gold star – luster.

They looked responsive, the legislature. Engaged. Engaging. Unwilling to adopt a different set of rules than they had applied to the Kavanaugh charges. And “not one of them is standing up for Murphy,” a statehouse source noted.

Murphy World looked like they were in “we’ve done everything we could” mode, by comparison, somewhat beset by those old internal fractures, with former campaign manager Brendan Gill and his allies mildly bifurcated from Chief of Staff Peter Cammarano.

“The irony is they’re gonna want Pete to walk the plank over this one,” one source griped, insisting that Alvarez, Green and former Deputy Chief of Staff Adam Alonso were never close to the COS, just campaign holdovers that made his life more difficult than anything – and perpetuated certain bureaucratic fractures. But after the budget debacle, Cammarano’s pulse for sticking around to babysit the so-called kiddie patrol hardly looked to be racing anyway, the source added.

If Murphy had left behind an administration hobbling on the heels of The Wall Street Journal story, others looked to have no choice but to dig in and fight through an upsurge of questions.

For the moment, Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez said she felt obligated to take the lead in defending her office against suggestions that her team blew the Alvarez case.

She sent an email out to staff today, which read in part:

“There has been a great deal of information and misinformation being put out in media reports regarding this Office and I feel the need to address it. …The truth will ultimately come out but in the meantime we need to stay focused and stay diligent in our commitment to our work and the residents of Hudson County.”

Then there was Menendez, in a single digit contest, hit with an Alvarez-augmented ad by the Hugin Campaign widely disparaged as mired in the untruths, notably by The Washington Post.

The ad, which dredged up discredited allegations made by Dominican prostitutes, seemed to galvanize New Jersey’s senior senator, who last night huddled with Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis and other Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) types to make his closing weeks-case for local shoe leather prior to convening a press conference today in which he excoriated Hugin.

The FBI did mention Dominican prostitutes in an investigation of Menendez, but did not include anything in that regard in its 14-count indictment, and though Republicans in battleground districts leaped on the narrative…

“Tom Malinowski likes to say that his Democratic Party is ‘the party of law enforcement in this country that is willing to trust the FBI over Fox News,” said Jim Hilk, campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7). “These allegations against Sen. Menendez were found to be credible by President Obama’s Justice Department and backed by corroborating evidence. So the question for Tom Malinowski is: does he believe Bob Menendez or does he believe federal law enforcement?”

…Menendez saw fit to use Hugin’s ad to issue a counterpunching ad of his own:

It was getting rougher than usual.

The GOP, sunk in perpetual gloom over Trump, thrown into silent disarray by the Kavanaugh appointment, Hugin himself the portrait of  flummoxed, Hamlet-like inaction in those days, now had a leg into the outrage in the aftermath of Alvarez.

Hugin seemed to overreach in his ad.

And Menendez – his neck on the line, after all – would venomously and righteously capitalize.

Menendez thrived on such moments.

His battleground down-ballot Democratic Party associates could do without them.

And Murphy?

Murphy was in Germany focused on the New Jersey economy.



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