“People have been making allegations against Bob Menendez since he was on the school board. Time and again it’s been proven untrue,” said Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes (D), a longtime party activist in New Jersey.
Menendez faces a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into free trips he took to the home of a major campaign donor in the Dominican Republic. (He has since repaid $58,500 for the costs of two round-trip flights on a private jet.) Conservative news outlets also accuse Menendez of having sex with underage prostitutes, a charge he strongly denies.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) defended Menendez on Sunday. “I have confidence he did nothing wrong,” Reid said on ABC’s “This Week.”
And New Jersey Democrats are paying little attention to the probe. They are more focused on Gov. Chris Christie, their high-profile GOP nemesis, who is up for reelection this year and is often mentioned as a 2016 White House contender. Christie enjoys a 74 percent approval rating, according to a recent poll.
Before his rise to national GOP stardom, Christie was a political cult hero in New Jersey for his tough-on-corruption prosecutions as U.S. attorney during George W. Bush’s presidency. One case involved a high-profile probe into Menendez that became public in October 2006, just before the senator’s heated election against Thomas Kean Jr., the son of New Jersey’s popular former governor and a close ally of Christie’s. The case centered around allegations that Menendez steered federal funds to a nonprofit group run by a friend, with the organization then renting space in a building Menendez owned.
The investigation produced no charges, and Menendez won by nearly 10 percentage points. State Republicans consider it the moment Menendez dodged an ethical bullet, but Democrats point to the probe as an example of Christie’s overly aggressive prosecutorial nature.
Hundreds of those Democrats gathered Saturday for a rally in the New Brunswick High School gymnasium to launch the gubernatorial campaign of state Sen. Barbara Buono, their nominee to challenge Christie. The 59-year-old is the daughter of an Italian immigrant butcher, and her stump speech struck a populist tone by promising economic renewal. Buono told supporters that under Christie, the middle class has “gotten nothing — nothing — but sound bites and empty promises from a governor who seems more intent on courting his right-wing base than tending to the needs of the middle class and working poor.”
Christie spokesman Mike DuHaime dismissed Buono as “part of the problem of high taxes, runaway spending and irresponsible debt for nearly 20 years in Trenton.” As for Menendez, Christie told reporters last week that it would be “inappropriate” to opine on the accusations.