By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006
HACKENSACK, N.J. If there were a drinking game whose rules required a swig each time Tom Kean Jr. asserted that his Senate race opponent is "under federal criminal investigation," you would be drooling drunk 10 minutes after meeting the guy.
Kean says "under federal criminal investigation" about once every 28 seconds, uttering the words as if they were tragic and beyond dispute. After a day in Kean's company you are prepared to think terrible things about Robert Menendez, the Democratic incumbent.
So when Kean is asked over a recent lunch if he has unfairly benefited by sharing the name of his father -- the beloved ex-governor of New Jersey and 9/11 commission chairman, Tom Kean Sr. -- it is no surprise that he answers this way:
"Do people want me to change my name?"
"My opponents will do anything they can to distract from their own flawed candidate. Bob Menendez is under federal criminal investigation. As far as I know, he is the only candidate for Senate under federal criminal investigation."
In a typical year, the vicious, pile-driving style of New Jersey politics is a dispiriting spectacle for the voters of the state and a kind of Ultimate Fighting amusement for everyone else. But this year is different. This year, the Democratic Party needs six seats to take control of the Senate, and just about any way you run the numbers, the party will fall short if it does not win in New Jersey. Victory here does not assure the Democrats the keys to the upper chamber, but the pros will tell you that without New Jersey, the party doesn't have a real chance.
That fact has handed 38-year-old Thomas H. Kean Jr. -- until now a semi-obscure state assemblyman and the scion of a multi-generational political dynasty -- a breakout role in the midterm drama. Not since 1972 has a GOP candidate won a Senate seat in New Jersey (although the state has put several Republicans in the governor's chair during those years).
But Kean has this race squarely in the "too close to call" category, thanks to name recognition, vigorous campaigning and dogged repetition of that "investigation" mantra. An Oct. 12 poll by Quinnipiac University gave Menendez a slight but statistically almost insignificant edge, 49 percent to Kean's 45 percent.
"He has a really powerful name," Clay Richards, a Quinnipiac pollster, says of Kean. "And whether or not these charges against Menendez are serious, they are hurting him."
The whole investigation matter, which we'll get to, is hardly as cut and dried as Kean indicates. But Kean, who looks like a Mountie and fights like a Crip, isn't selling honesty and integrity so much as a brand name that represents honesty and integrity. It's a pitch with resonance in this state, where politicians routinely scamper offstage chased by ethics charges and mortifying headlines.
Kean's political lineage includes a grandfather who served in Congress for 20 years, as well as a great-grandfather and a great-great-uncle who both served in the Senate. Theodore Roosevelt is a relative, too. And Tom Kean Sr. occupies a hallowed place in the state's history, widely viewed as a man of rectitude who, at least for a few years in the 1980s, restored pride to the state.
"The Kean name suggests a time when things were going pretty well for New Jersey," says Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst with the Cook Political Report. "And Menendez has for years been a powerful figure in Hudson County, and in New Jersey 'Hudson County' is a code word for corrupt, machine-driven politics."Name-Brand Offspring
Americans love a good up-from-nothing bootstrap bio, but when it comes to politics we tend to become shameless nepotists. This political season alone, Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr., the son of a former governor of Pennsylvania, is threatening to unseat Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. In Tennessee, Harold Ford Jr., the namesake of a long-serving congressman, might trade up his House seat for a Senate office. Frank Murkowski, the governor of Alaska, lost his bid for reelection in a September primary, but his daughter Lisa Murkowski still holds the Senate seat -- formerly his Senate seat -- to which he appointed her in 2002. And Jimmy Carter's son Jack, an investment banker who has never held political office, is running for Senate in Nevada.
To say nothing of the White House incumbent.
Kean is no neophyte, but it's unlikely we'd be talking about him were he born to a different family. (It's pronounced "Kane," by the way, which somehow makes it blue-bloodier.) Polls in the state earlier in the year found that as many as one in four voters had mistaken junior for senior, a confusion that after a few months of ads and debates has now all but vanished.
Kean shrugs off the impact of his name. "When my father ran for the state Assembly, the headline said, 'Kean's Son to Run for Assembly,' " he says, over lunch one recent day, reciting one of his favorite refrains. "When my grandfather first ran for Congress, it was 'Kean's son to run for Congress.' "
Kean is sitting at a diner, refueling between campaign events. He has ordered a salad -- "The wetter the better," he tells the waiter, which means heavy on the dressing -- and talks about his past, his family and his positions. He is tall, smart and so cautious that on a few occasions he stipulates as "off the record" thoughts that are almost laughably benign. He has a slight speech impediment that muddles his R's, so that when he laments corruption in the state it sounds a little like "cowwuption." When he pauses between points, his mouth freezes momentarily into a smile.
What you learn is that Kean, like his father, is a moderate, pro-choice Republican. He is against the Bush proposal to provide illegal immigrants with a path toward legal status and eventual citizenship, in favor of federal funding stem-cell research and against a timetable for troop withdrawal in Iraq. He denounces taxes and champions the environment. He has called for the resignations of both Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, which is perhaps wise given that the president's approval ratings languish in the high 20s here, according to some polls. When Vice President Cheney came in March to stump on Kean's behalf, Kean didn't attend the event because, he said, he was stuck voting in the state Assembly.
So, would the candidate welcome a campaign visit from President Bush?
"He has an open invitation," Kean says.
Okay, but would you welcome that visit?
"He has an open invitation," Kean says, following up with that rictus of a grin. "The president's schedule is far above our pay grade."Lost in Translation?
Earlier in the day, Kean went to a Korean senior citizen home in Palisades Park, where he spoke before a crowd of a couple dozen who had gathered for their daily lunch. He was introduced in Korean, and when the applause faded he quipped, "Thank you for what I hope was an inspiring introduction." Then he started his stump speech, which drew only blank stares until he was interrupted by an elderly Korean woman who asked for the microphone and offered to translate.
"Last year, 57,000 more people left the state than moved in," he thundered. Then he handed off the microphone and nodded during the translation, which seemed to go on for a really long time.
"That is not the state that I grew up in or that you moved to," he declared.
"We cannot afford the status quo. The status quo is making this state unaffordable."
"Status quo" baffled the lady with the mike, so Kean patiently searched for a different phrase. This was the very definition of a tough room -- a somewhat indifferent crowd, few of whom understand a word you're saying.
Kean smiled confidently through the whole experience. His strength is radiating intelligence and incorruptibility, and he appears to genuinely enjoy people. Like his father, part of his appeal is a reassuring lack of panache that veers to the stolid. He can also be dry to the point of humor-impaired. Driving away from the senior citizen event, this reporter joked that the Korean emcee had told the audience that Kean is fond of Kim Jong Il.
"Where did you learn Korean?" he wondered.
Asked during a recent radio debate to name his greatest weakness, Kean said, "I can't tell a good joke."
"Was that a joke?" the moderator asked.
Other times, he sounds like he's been body-snatched by his own sound bites, especially when there are cameras rolling. After lunch, he spoke at a forum organized by a real estate business group, and on his way out of the building, he was stopped and asked a question by a local TV reporter.
"Corruption is costing the people of the state of New Jersey too much money," he said, as if reading a cue card. "We can no longer afford a United States senator who is under federal criminal investigation. We can no longer afford a United States senator that steers hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer monies into his own pocket."
Kean was referring to the $320,000 in rent that Menendez earned over nearly a decade, starting in the mid-'90s, by leasing a Union City property he once owned to a nonprofit that accepted federal grants. The allegation is that Menendez might have improperly benefited by steering money to the nonprofit, which was then able to pay its monthly rent.
Word of an investigation into this deal was published in September in the Star-Ledger of Newark, which reported that U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie had subpoenaed records related to the lease. In a subsequent TV interview, Menendez seemed to confirm the basic details when he told George Stephanopoulos on ABC News's "This Week" that he welcomed the investigation and looked forward to "its successful conclusion." Later, Menendez told reporters that he'd misspoken, noting that not every subpoena leads to an investigation.
Whatever it's called, the timing of these news reports had Democrats, and even some impartial observers, grumbling about possible political motives, largely because Christie is a Bush appointee, and because in 1999 he gave money to Kean's unsuccessful campaign for Congress. A spokesman for Christie declined to discuss the investigation or even if there is one. It isn't clear whether Menendez broke any laws; he asserts that a House ethics attorney blessed the deal while Menendez was a congressman in the 1990s.
"It's just mindless negativity," says Matthew Miller, referring to Kean's "investigation" talk. "A few weeks ago, Kean had a slight lead and then he went into this mindless repetition and he's gone backward. Hopefully, [the Kean campaign] won't be smart enough to realize that voters want a candidate who'll tell them what he'll do as U.S. senator."
The Menendez campaign has been counter-slinging with allegations of campaign contribution improprieties and charging that a Kean benefactor is embroiled in an Iraq oil-for-food scandal. The point -- for each campaign, apparently -- is just to tag the other guy as a weasel, as often as possible.'No-Nonsense Guy'
At moments over lunch, Kean sounds like he's actually trying to seem dull. He says he never had a rebellious phase, and that "Field of Dreams" and other sentimental sports flicks are his favorite movies. Of his days as a fraternity brother at Dartmouth, Kean says, as blandly as possible, "I very much enjoyed it."
You'd think, at minimum, he might have grappled in some compelling way with the patrimony of his name. His grandfather, reputedly the first senator to denounce the Holocaust, dedicated a book he wrote called "Fourscore Years" to his descendants in the hopes that they would make their ancestors proud. No pressure there!
Or you might expect Kean would have some good yarns or funny anecdotes about growing up the son of a venerated politician, with a state trooper or two in the house all the time. Maybe that was . . . different?
"They were as respectful as humanly possible," Kean says of the in-house cops. As for his treatment by peers in those days, no biggie. "Kids are kids. When I was in camp, I was in camp. When I was in school . . ." Kean went to Pingry, a private school in northern New Jersey. At Dartmouth, where he majored in history, he was considered a thoroughly decent and likable character who was not exactly a dynamo.
"I wouldn't say he's the most charismatic guy," says Tom Parker, the Psi Upsilon president the year Kean graduated and a friend who has helped with fundraising calls. "You don't meet him and say he's Ronald Reagan. But he's a straight, no-nonsense guy."
After graduation, Kean worked at the Environmental Protection Agency, where he met his wife, Rhonda. (The couple now have two daughters, ages 7 and 3.) He then went to work for Bob Franks, the Republican congressman in the district where Kean grew up, and later studied and taught foreign relations at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University.
"I was surprised when he said he wanted to get into politics," says Tom Kean Sr. on the phone, speaking in that Yankeefied accent he picked up attending boarding school and camp in New England. "He was more on the path of a scholar. I never encouraged my kids to get into politics at all. I sort of kept them away from it. I didn't take him to political events. I didn't move into the governor's mansion. I had a rule: no reporters in the house."
At the same time, Kean Jr. is one of those people who from an early age seem to have lived with a political future in mind. That's hardly a sin, and given that politics is the family business, hardly a surprise. But he doesn't quite buy it.
"I always knew that I would give back," he says. "My mother and my father both believe you have to work hard and give back. That's why I was a volunteer firefighter, that's why I worked in a homeless shelter. I always knew I'd give back, elective office or not."
For the moment, he is the principal beneficiary of his noblesse oblige. Last week, Kean announced that he had lent his campaign $400,000 -- money that will be used, among other things, to buy air time for his latest ads. One of those ads shows flickering video of Menendez projected on a concrete wall, as if it's cinema night at the local penitentiary. A voice-over accuses Menendez of helping mobsters and consorting with a cocaine trafficker and notes in bright bold letters that Menendez -- take a swig -- is under "federal criminal investigation."