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Senator Menendez: Just another crook? Another Swift-boat victim? Or Perfect for New Jersey?

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Republican attack ads have turned what should have been a romp for the incumbent Democratic Senator, Robert Menendez into a close race. The Republican candidate, Tom Kean Jr. is the son of Tom Kean, the popular and well-respected former Governor of New Jersey and 9- 11 Commission Co-chairman. But the heart of Kean's campaign is incendiary ads claiming that Menendez is corrupt. The conservative Free Enterprise Fund Committee, funded by Republican homebuilder Bob Perry of Houston, who backed the "Swift Boat" ads that helped sink John Kerry in 2004, has reinforced Kean's TV messages. Last week, the FEFC launched a Soprano's-style ad in several New Jersey counties to highlight Menendez's "shady record as a politician."

Obviously, such a campaign takes a toll on independent voters. But many liberals now wonder if Menendez isn't a typical corrupt politician. The media has given credence to these charges. The New York Times opposed Governor Jon Corzine's appointment of Menendez's to the Senate in January, implying that Menendez was just another corrupt New Jersey political boss. Tom Edsall in the New Republic reported, "Menendez was widely seen as a machine politician from a corrupt, urban county..." The Newark Star-Ledger, warned that Menendez was "one scandal away from becoming the next Bob Torricelli"--the scandal-plagued senator who was forced to drop out of the 2002 race a little over a month before election day.

But I know Menendez, and he is not what he is being made out to be. I have been active in public interest work in New Jersey for over 35 years as the executive director of Passaic County Legal Aid Society, Co-chair of New Jersey Citizen Action and an organizer for the New Jersey Tenant Organization. I have met, lobbied and followed the record of most of New Jersey's prominent politicians and party bosses. There are party bosses in New Jersey. Menendez is not one of them. Menendez stands out as one of the few politician in New Jersey who has cares about public policy and and understands the complexity of the problems facing our state. He took leadership on many controversial issues. As a state legislator, he wrote laws that spurred the use of fiber optics technology. In Congress, he helped keep New Jersey's seaports competitive by speeding dredging permits and expanding economic development programs. Ask him a question concerning the affordable housing crisis in New Jersey, as I did at the candidate's forum, and he'll give you a detailed explanation about Section 8, CDBG, the HOME program and he'll tell you what policies work and which ones don't.

He has staunchly supported campaign finance reform, affirmative action, abortion rights and gun control. Menendez voted against the war when it was unpopular to do so, and voted for John Kerry's phased withdrawal even though only 13 Senators were willing to endorse that position. Menendez also voted against Justice Alito's nomination, even though he was under tremendous pressure to support him the New Jersey-born Alioto. According to opinion polls, New Jerseyans supported Alioto's nomination by a 2-1 margin. Most public interest groups, including the Black Ministers Council, the Sierra Club, and ACORN, have enthusiastically endorsed Menendez.

Unlike Kean, Menendez was not born into politics. His father, who committed suicide when Mr. Menendez was 23, was a struggling carpenter. His mother was a seamstress. After a stint on the Union City school board, Menendez became an aide to Union City's mayor, William V. Musto. The two were close but Musto, along with several other Union City leaders, was indicted on federal corruption charges. Menendez testified against him. Kean has charged that Menendez testified against his former boss to keep himself out of jail. But the New York Times and Star Ledger found that the evidence did not support Kean's charges. But the four assistant United States attorneys who prosecuted Musto repudiated Kean's charges. The prosecutors described Menendez's actions as ''gutsy'' and ''courageous.''

After the New York Times, Newark Star-Ledger and Philadelphia Inquirer had rejected Kean's charges, he dropped them, but he then tried out another "scandal." Republican U.S. Attorney Chris Christie subpoenaed the records of a nonprofit community agency in Hudson County that had paid Menendez more than $300,000 in rent. With Menendez's help, the same agency had received millions of dollars in federal grants. Kean accused Menendez of charging more that property was worth. But Menendez claimed he was charging less than the market would bear. He also said that the house ethics committee had approved the rental arrangement. Kean claimed that because of the deal, Menendez was "under federal investigation."

But Menendez is not "under federal investigation." The prosecutor served subpoenas on the nonprofit group, not Menendez. And on September 20, Ellen L. Weintraub, a former lawyer for the House ethics committee, said she would have advised Menendez that leasing property he owned in Union City to a federally funded Head Start office was not a conflict of interest. Weintraub, who is now a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, also said it would not be a conflict under House rules for a member of Congress to advocate for and vote for federal funding for an organization to which he rented office space. According to a 1996 news account of the story in the Jersey Journal, the lease rate of $9.30 per square foot was less than the market rate at the time. The specifics of this accusation have slowly faded from the Kean campaign, but not the false accusation that Menendez is "under federal investigation."

New Jersey's reputation for corruption in government is legendary; the state has been rocked by one scandal after another. And Menendez has had to rise through this system. In doing so, he became close to some unsavory characters. Menendez helped a local mobster serve prison time near the home of the mobster's son. A close friend and fund-raiser, lawyer Donald Scarinci was secretly taped in 1999 using Menendez's name to help persuade a Hudson County vendor to hire a subcontractor. Menendez now recognizes that even though it was not illegal, he should not have rented the building to the head start program. But Menendez, in his long career as assemblyman, mayor, congressman and senator, has never been accused of a crime or even cited for an ethics violation.

Menendez and New Jersey may not be perfect together, but as Voltaire has written, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Like most progressives in New Jersey, I see Menendez as a flawed but principled progressive who rose through the ranks, faced tough challenges and successfully gained power. There is no evidence that any of his actions resulted in Menendez gaining personally. He has used his power to advocate for the poor and the common good. So, I am urging all my friends and others to vote for him, enthusiastically.
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John Atlas is President of the Montclair, NJ based National Housing Institute and contributing editor of Shelterforce magazine. He is the author of the forthcoming book SEEDS OF CHANGE.The Story of Acorn, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty (more...)
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