Joseph Signorello is the 35-year-old mayor of Roselle Park, a municipality in Union county which some 14,000 residents call home. This young, small-town mayor, however, has big ambitions and has decided to bypass the usual cursus honorum of local, county, state, and maybe then to federal, jumping into the fray to challenge one of the most powerful US Senators in the country—Robert Menendez.
New Jersey’s senior incumbent senator occupies some heavyweight positions in the nation’s upper house. He serves as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and serves on the Banking Committee and Finance Committee. Menendez has a solid lock on the north-east of the state and has deepened the family’s roots in the national soil by paving the way for his son’s ascendancy to the House of Representatives.
A look over Signorello’s social media shows a man who is unquestionably Millennial, with concerns and frustrations that his generation feels are not being adequately addressed or understood by the ever-aging occupants of the congress: big tech regulation, climate change, student loan debt, FEC regulations with respect to online content. With the Silicon Valley Bank implosion bringing up Millennial Dread of 2008, he opposes bank bailouts because, like many of his generation, he saw the economy crumble just as he was coming-of-age. Compared to their Baby Boomer parents, Millennials have been financially hamstrung, with some of the lowest homeownership rates and highest per capita debt in American history. Insider NJ spoke with Signorello to get his insights on his campaign, the state of the nation, and how he plans to try to topple Menendez and bring fresh blood and new ideas to the upper house of the legislature.
The mayor’s idea to run for US Senate is not a new one. “I think it actually started six years ago, [Sen. Menendez] was under federal investigation. I was a little disappointed by how held-back and restrained the party was in the face of pretty serious allegations, and it’s not like he was absolved. It was a mistrial and he was still admonished in the Senate for wrongdoing, so, it’s not like there was a clean slate.” With the incumbent senator now facing another federal investigation, Signorello said he made up his mind. “I kind of had a gut-full and said somebody needs to do something about this.”
While Signorello was clear that he supports his fellow Democrats and wants to see them achieve electoral successes, he does not want to see elected officials harm the Democratic Party itself. He cited Minnesota Senator Al Franken as an example of what a leader should do once scandal hits. “Obviously, his scandal was much different. But in my view, he did the right thing for the party and stepped down and let that get filled by another qualified Democrat versus continuing to be a drag on the party or state.” Franken was brought down by allegations of sexual misconduct with respect to female USO performers entertaining American troops. He resigned in 2017 following pressure from the Senate Ethics Committee. Two years later, Franken regretted resigning and, according to the BBC, seven out of 36 Democrats who also called for his resignation said they regretted doing so.
The point Signorello made, however, was that it would be a better thing for the party, and by extension the country, to step aside rather than fight it out under such circumstances.
Signorello said that Menendez has a solid hold on key constituencies, and is certain that a Democrat will be elected to the US Senate, but that Democrat need not necessarily be Menendez again. “I think I’m a stronger candidate than Senator Menendez because I have less baggage and, forget about the baggage, people just want fresh faces. Look at Pete Buttigieg, going from mayor of South Bend to heading up the DOT—people like that. Senator Menendez has an iron grip on places like Bergen County, Hudson County, and Essex County. That needs to be broken. The battle plan has already been there from six years ago. Lisa McCormick spent under $5,000 and got 38% of the vote,” Signorello said, referring to Menendez’s 2018 primary, “[she] was competitive in almost every county outside of Essex. So I think that there’s a built in desire to move on from Senator Menendez that I can capitalize on.”
The path to victory, therefore, is to build up on where McCormack had gone and try to carry the day by overcoming the incumbent’s not-inconsiderable political weight in the urban north-east strongholds. “I don’t really care what people say, I’m a Union County Democrat. I’m a Union County Democratic chair. I understand how the party line system works. I don’t always agree with how the party line is awarded, especially in places like Hudson County, but I’m going to try to get the line in Bergen, Essex, and Hudson County. If I don’t get anything, I’m going to have to build my own infrastructure there.” Being the mayor of a town means overseeing and managing how real departments produce real results, so Signorello was sanguine about certain expectations with respect to the party machinery. “I think the very clear answer is, he’s going to win in Hudson County, Essex County, and Bergen County. I think I could win everywhere else. I need to make sure that I don’t lose that badly in places where he’s going to win and have a resounding win in those places where I should win.”
Campaign strategy aside, Signorello said that he did not represent a vastly divergent alternative to the policies of Senator Menendez, but there are some areas where the two are distinct. “As a 35-year-old, there are a couple of things that I think are important to start getting right for our generation. I do think we need some form of single payer health care. I’m not sure that Senator Menendez would speak out against that, but I know he hasn’t been exactly pushing that.” Without specifically naming him, Signorello indicated that Senator Bernie Sanders was the torchbearer for single-payer healthcare. “I would also say, as a 35-year-old who paid for college, a lot of my friends are saddled with debt. I think college affordability is one of the biggest issues that our nation is facing in terms of moving up and doing well for yourself. There are parents who are struggling with high prices for college and trade education. I think the government needs to pitch in more and I think colleges need to be realistic about what they’re charging in terms of tuition.” The mayor was not sure that Menendez would necessarily disagree on those issues, but he was disappointed, saying, “he hasn’t exactly been an outspoken voice on either of those fronts in the past.”
Millennials are approaching their forties now, long out of college, long-established members of the workforce, and, compared to previous generations, disproportionally fewer property holders in society. Millennials are a significant voting bloc and feel they’ve missed out on a lot of the opportunities past generations took for granted such as job security, home ownership, marrying young, and starting families. Almost all of these factors have economic origins, and Millennials got out of school, looking to plant their own roots, only to find the soil was ever-shifting sand.
“In general, with respect to Millennials, I graduated college right after the financial crisis—a lot of us did—with job markets being very slim,” Signorello said. “The cost of living is higher than it ever was. The cost to buy a house is way more expensive, even inflation adjusted, than it was for our parents or our grandparents. The debt that we’re saddled with is from college tuition prices being higher than they’ve ever been. Doing some of these things like alleviating costs from health care, or alleviating costs from education, would help us achieve the American dream of buying a home. Now, it’s not only the structural issues that caused this. Millennials like me are also getting married later in life, we’re renting and moving around more. But given economic headwinds that we face as a generation—people make fun of us, being the social-first generation, or being whiners or complainers. Look, we’ve gotten a tough deal.” Signorello believes that his perspective and experiences, as a younger potential member of the Senate, would be something voters would notice. Senator Menendez is 69. “I think it is going to be a differentiator, because there is no representation from my generation in the Senate properly. There isn’t a ton in the House of Representatives, either, so I do think it’s going to be a factor, yes.”
As a state which is largely represented by Democrats on the federal level—only Congressmen Jeff Van Drew (a former Democrat), Chris Smith, and most recently Tom Kean, Jr. hail from the GOP—Signorello said that, despite this, New Jersey’s federal leadership is not out in the lead as far as crafting policy. This is something he says he intends to change. “I say this over and over again. New Jersey is one of the bluest states in the nation when it comes to federal elections. When we are talking about Democratic policies, we should be at the forefront of it, not the tail wagging the dog. I just wish we were starting and leading these policies versus just following.”
As Senator Menendez is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Signorello said that he found the incumbent to be “something of a hawk” and espouses a foreign policy which is out of step with the Democratic Party and New Jersey. He was critical of the senator’s approach to relations with Cuba and, in particular, the reluctance to engage with Turkey, a NATO member, on the level that he feels NATO partners should. “I don’t know if I see eye to eye with him 100% on foreign policy… We should support NATO countries to the best of our ability. I know he has issues with some of the internal policies of Turkey. Turkey is a NATO ally. We are looking to, as a country, supply them with weapons so they are no longer dependent on Russian weapons systems. Although I do take issues with some of these humanitarian policies that President Erdogan has taken, there needs to be a hard choice. You’re with us or against us and we’ve made promises to provide them with American-made weapons that we need to fulfill. I think it’s embarrassing that folks like [Menendez] are not holding up our end of the bargain.”
The internal situation within Turkey was not so much a primary consideration, as a security partner, for Signorello, as to their disposition towards the greater alliance. “If they are no longer aligned with the West and with NATO, then they shouldn’t be in NATO. But if we’re going to provide weapons to NATO partners, then we need to uphold our promises to do that.” Signorello added that he was not implying Turkey shouldn’t be a NATO ally.
As far as the Russian invasion of Ukraine is concerned, Signorello said that he felt the current American response and support was “adequate” for the moment. He spoke about his time living in Germany and said that Russia is feeling “phantom pain” for having lost its superpower status when it held 15 countries in its grasp as the Soviet Union. “As the defender of the free world, the United States has its place to make sure that foreign aggressors do not interfere with healthy democracies, so I hope that we continue this level of support. Woe to the country that messes with NATO. There have been no direct attacks on NATO countries, but we should support NATO countries to the best of our ability.”
Closer to home, Signorello said that he was “terrified” for the country in the years ahead, given the dangerous levels of partisanship and the rising political violence experienced across the nation. “The future of our democracy cannot be a zero sum game. There are too many people who have historically been Republicans that don’t want to see the Republican Party wiped to oblivion, and I want to see a healthy and lively Republican Party because we shouldn’t have a one-party system.” Signorello said that there was no comparison between the extreme fringes of the Left and the Right. On the Democratic side, he said, “You may not agree with them, but the worst they want to do is give you health care and support gay rights. I’m sorry. But on the Republican side, they have a fundamental issue with individual freedoms and individual liberties, and that’s a problem for me. I hope one day we have a system where there’s a healthy Republican Party, or just a healthy conservative party that spins out of this. Trump can have his own party if he wants to. But long story short, we need to do our part as Democrats. When people talk about Democrats being corrupt and saying government spending is going to rise, it doesn’t look the best when we’re sticking our nose up, or pointing our finger at the other party while not cleaning up our own house when it comes to things like inappropriate contributions.”
Though Menendez has some $5 million cash on hand, according to ELEC, and Signorello’s campaign is just beginning, time can make all the difference for a challenger, combined with how the incumbent weathers his next federal investigation. While the primary elections are still a way off, it remains to be seen if there will be a repeat of the 2018 primary, or if the scrappy small-town mayor will be able to break the high water mark previously set by McCormick, and end up facing a Republican challenger in the general election.