The Senate had moved on, but Robert Menendez had not.
A month had passed since the bill he co-wrote establishing a congressional review of an Iran nuclear deal passed on a veto-proof vote, generating an unusual spate of bipartisan back-patting. And there was the Democratic senior senator from New Jersey last week, giving a lunchtime floor speech detailing centrifuge procurement and ballistic-missile ranges and the uses of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride — and casting new doubts on President Obama’s efforts at nuclear rapprochement.
“I intend to come to the floor again and again to hold Iran accountable for its actions, to keep a laserlike focus on the mullahs in Tehran,” he said. “Because I fear that when that spotlight is off . . . Iran will pull back into the shadows. And I ask my colleagues: When that happens, and if it goes wrong, what will we do then?”
It was the latest demonstration that Menendez, who is under criminal indictment, has remained comfortable asking pointed questions — even as he faces more than a few himself.
On Tuesday, he continued his defense against 14 counts of political corruption, with his lawyers arguing to a federal judge in Newark that Menendez’s trial, set to begin in November, should be moved to Washington.
That, they argue, is in part to allow Menendez to continue carrying out his official senatorial duties. The argument did not convince U.S. District Judge William H. Walls, who ruled that the trial “will certainly not be better off in the District of Columbia.” But there is little doubt that Menendez has remained an active player on Capitol Hill despite the charges hanging over him.
Menendez stepped down from his post as ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after the April 1 indictment. But he has refused to skulk in the shadows, instead continuing to help manage the Iran bill on the Senate floor.
During the Iran debate, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the committee, paid tribute to Menendez on the Senate floor: “Without his efforts, we wouldn’t even be in a negotiation right now, and I cannot thank him enough for his positive contributions.” After the bill passed in May, according to two people in the room, Menendez won a standing ovation in a Democratic caucus meeting for his role putting it together.
Menendez has also recently flexed his muscle on closely watched trade legislation, using his post on the Senate Finance Committee to block deals with countries not certified as combating human trafficking — a provision that, even before the trade deal’s recent trouble in the House, threatened to upend the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
And the son of Cuban refugees remains the most strident voice against normalizing relations with Cuba — a stance that, like his positions on Iran and trade, has put him deeply at odds with Obama and has fueled suspicions back in his North Jersey political cradle that the indictment is simply payback.
Menendez said in an interview last month that he has found motivation in his responsibilities to the people of New Jersey and a wider community of American Latinos — and in his faith in himself. “I know that I’m innocent, and I know the truth will prevail and I will prevail as well,” he said.
Although Menendez has managed to maintain much of his power and his profile in the Senate, what may be more remarkable is the support he has retained in his home state, even outside his natural political base.
A Monmouth University poll taken in May found that residents who are familiar with the charges think Menendez did what he is accused of — using his office to benefit Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor and businessman, in exchange for gifts, travel and more than $750,000 in campaign donations. But by a 2-to-1 margin, the poll found, New Jerseyans of all political persuasions think Menendez should be allowed to stay in office and fight.
David Redlawsk, a Rutgers University political science professor and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, said Menendez appears to be benefiting from a deep sense of innocent until proved guilty and the relatively convoluted nature of the charges. For instance, Menendez is not accused of taking cash. He has argued that the trips and other items were simply gifts from a longtime friend.
“This is much fuzzier than much of the almost routine corruption in New Jersey,” said Redlawsk, who conducted an earlier poll with similar findings. “To many people . . . the feeling is, ‘Isn’t this just politics?’ ”
Interviews with numerous friends, political allies and former employees also credit the goodwill built through years of savvy alliances, close attention to his constituents and plain old hard work.
“We never went to a movie and ate popcorn,” said Donald Scarinci, a lawyer who grew up in Union City with Menendez and remains one of his closest friends. “We always did serious things. We always talked about serious things.”
That drive propelled Menendez down a methodical path that began as a student tired of paying for his schoolbooks.
He won a school board seat, then rose to the Union City mayor’s office — after famously testifying in federal court against the former mayor, a mentor — then to the New Jersey State House and eventually to Congress, where he has served since 1993.
Some of Menendez’s deep well of support can be attributed to the attention he pays to his constituency, starting with the working-class neighborhoods packed atop the Hudson palisades where he grew up.
Vincent Prieto (D), speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly, recalled how Menendez moved swiftly earlier this year to protest a proposed cut to PATH train service between New Jersey and New York City.
The cut to overnight service would have affected relatively few people — mostly service employees who work in Manhattan hotels, restaurants and offices. But at a January news conference, Menendez threatened to revise the Port Authority’s federal compact. The proposal was dropped a week later.
“Those 2,000 riders mattered,” Prieto said. “They mattered to Bob, each and every one of them. That ride back home was everything to them.”
Roger Matos has met Menendez only once. More than a decade ago, he cut the then-congressman’s hair in a shop on Bergenline Avenue, weeks after arriving in New Jersey from Cuba. “I sent a picture to my mother,” he said.
When he heard Menendez might be in trouble earlier this year, he printed a portrait of the senator and taped it to the mirror of his modest West New York barbershop. The week after the indictment, patrons filed through one afternoon voicing support for the embattled senator.
“They actually elevated this guy,” said Felix Roque (D), who is West New York’s mayor and a barbershop regular. “He’s an icon. That’s how every Latino knows this guy.”
Although it is little surprise that the Cuban exiles of Union City and West New York see political payback at play — at an April gathering of several dozen former political prisoners, all said that Obama had personally ordered the indictment — what is more surprising is the extent that the feeling is shared elsewhere in the state.
The Monmouth poll found that half of those familiar with the indictment think it is the result of retaliation from his political enemies; only about one-third say it is not related to politics.
“There’s a strong belief that he is being actually almost persecuted,” said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D), who called it “remarkable” that Menendez has retained significant support. “He’s a fierce fighter and has fought many battles on behalf of constituents, and people respect that.”
While Menendez’s base is in the northern part of the state, he has amassed considerable support elsewhere, due largely to a conscious effort to introduce himself to South Jersey and shore voters in the years after then-Gov. Jon Corzine tapped him to fill the Senate seat he vacated in 2006.
One of his first staff hires was Karin Elkis, a South Jersey native who had managed in-state affairs for Corzine and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D). She took him to areas well outside his political comfort zone — honeybee farms in Salem County, briefings at Joint Base McGuire-Dix, cranberry bogs in Burlington and the fish docks at Cape May.
“You have to earn your love down here,” Elkis said. “He earned it by being here.”
With the possible exception of his stalwart backing of Israel, no issue has garnered him more acclaim throughout the state than his advocacy for homeowners affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Last month, in an underground room in the Capitol, Menendez convened a meeting of a Sandy task force he created. At the makeshift dais sat four senators — Menendez and fellow New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, plus Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — flanking W. Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“It’s extraordinary to have the director of FEMA for two hours,” Menendez told a crowd of several dozen.
Most in the audience were storm survivors, pressing the federal and state governments to make good on insurance payouts, and for two hours the senators and advocates for the Sandy victims grilled Fugate and a deputy.
Afterward, members of the audience, many of them registered Republicans from the state’s most conservative areas, sang Menendez’s praises.
“His whole staff, his office responds to everything,” said Doug Quinn, a financial adviser — and a registered Republican — from Toms River. “It’s the one thing that’s restored our confidence in government.”
Although that is an endorsement any incumbent would savor, Menendez’s political future is likely to lie with a jury, whether in New Jersey or in Washington. With federal authorities threatening his reputation, his livelihood and decades of work, Scarinci said, Menendez is certain to fight to the end.
“That’s how he is — he’s a dog on a bone,” Scarinci said. “He was a dog on a bone with Sandy. He’s a dog on a bone with Iran. He’s dog on a bone with Cuba. He’s always been a dog on a bone.”
Although Menendez is one of the least wealthy senators, he has hired a high-priced legal team led by storied defense lawyer Abbe D. Lowell. Tuesday’s venue hearing is the first round in what is expected to be a long and contentious series of pretrial disputes.
Menendez said he is confident he will prevail in court, regain his post atop the Foreign Relations Committee and represent New Jersey for years to come.
“Look, I have fought my entire life for what I believe in and for everything I have ever achieved — and most of the time, against some pretty tough odds,” he said. “So that’s just who I am.”