WEST NEW YORK – Brian Varela is running an acknowledged uphill campaign against Robert Menendez Jr. in heavily-Democratic CD-8.
What has he learned so far?
“I have yet to run into someone who has said, ‘Yes, we love nepotism,’ ” Varela said Tuesday morning during a chat at a restaurant on Bergenline Avenue, the pulse of this Hudson County town.
That, obviously, is what his campaign is all about.
In some ways, Varela and Menendez Jr. are similar. They’re close in age – Varela is 33; Menendez, 36.
Both are successful. Menendez is an attorney; Varela, who calls himself an entrepreneur, started a digital marketing agency in 2016 and also owns three child care centers.
However, there’s a big difference.
Menendez is the son of Sen. Robert Menendez Sr. As soon as Rep. Albio Sires said he wasn’t running again late last year, the younger Menendez was endorsed for the seat before he even officially announced he wanted it. That didn’t happen until early January.
Varela, who lives in North Bergen, said a bit tongue-in-cheek that it was quite the coincidence that Menendez was quickly endorsed by just about all the luminaries of the state’s Democratic establishment from Gov. Phil Murphy on down.
“At the end of the day, that’s not democracy,” Varela observed.
Perhaps not. But in truth, there is nothing all that unusual about political nepotism. Children often follow their parents into politics, often occupying the same office as their parents. Think George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Mario Cuomo and Andrew Cuomo.
Spouses often replace their husband or wife. Both Democrats and Republicans play the nepotism game. It’s hard to see the practice, as cynical as it is, ending anytime soon.
The playing field here is a largely Hispanic district that travels south from North Hudson through Bayonne and then into Elizabeth. Republicans are not a factor. Sires won his 2020 election with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Conceding that Sen. Menendez is likely popular here, campaign material Varela was handing out today tied to the June primary didn’t even mention Menendez Jr.
Instead, if railed against the Democratic establishment.
“We are facing a massive machine,” it says. “A machine that is guaranteed 50,000 votes without knocking on a single door, making a single phone call, or spending a single dollar.”
His proposed remedy is a “grassroots” campaign that gets people to vote in the primary.
As he puts it, “Your Voice Counts,” or “Tu Voz Cuenta.”
Actual issues in a primary that will focus on machine politics probably won’t be that important. Varela shares traditional Democratic views about expanding health care and child care, but also says he’s able to compromise, which could be a valuable trait in the polarized political world of the day.
As we said, he likes philosophy, and on that score, Varela says some may consider a run against the establishment a bit foolish.
Life is short, he says, and what’s important is trying to make not only change, but “significant change.”
Few would quibble with the notion that beating the Democratic establishment in Hudson County would constitute “significant change.”