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The Beginning of the Bob Menendez Era in New Jersey Politics

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By now, you've heard of the senate race between appointed incumbent Bob Menendez and Republican scion Tom Kean Jr, but as someone on the ground here in New Jersey, I may be able to provide some context to what is shaping the direction of this close race and why Menendez will, in all probability, be a U.S. senator from N.J. for quite some time.

Menendez stated early in his political career that he wanted to be a U.S. senator, and his short timespan in this position has been described by The Philadelphia Inquirer and other news outlets as highly successful. When the e.coli spinach scare affected New Jersey's farming community, Menendez immediately petitioned the E.P.A. to protect the farmers' cash crop. When coastal oil drilling became a possibility within 100 miles of New Jersey's beaches, Menendez successfully blocked all drilling that could affect the shore's fragile ecosystem. And when it came to federal funding for Homeland Security, Menendez fought the Bush administration for full funding of New Jersey, one of the areas with the highest risk for terrorist attacks in the country. He procured hundreds of millions of dollars in much-needed, and previously promised, transporation funding for the state by holding up Bush's Transporation Secretary nomination, and he won.

On the campaign trail, Menendez is a deft, intellectual, technocrat, answering general questions about health care, foreign policy, and economic development with a candor and depth of knowledge that is rarely seen in a modern politician. Even the newspaper endorsements that have demurred Menendez in favor of his inexperienced opponent rate him as extremely intelligent and experienced. The problem with media representations of Menendez for the 2006 campaign, however, is that they have often merely repeated the talking points of the Kean Jr. campaign; factually speaking, of course, Menendez has not been indicted, let alone charged, with ethical wrongdoing in 30+ years in public office, and Kean Jr. has been scraping the bottom of the barrel -- working with convicted felons, producing a swift-boat type of film on Menendez -- in order to distract Garden State voters from the substantive issues of this election.

Menendez's environmental pedigree is matched by few, if any, politicians in the modern era. He, along with Congressman Rob Andrews, who is the heir apparent to Sen. Frank Lautenberg, should the latter retire, received a 100% mark from the League of Conservation Voters for the 109th Congress, has been called an "environmental champion" by that same organization, and has been endorsed by The Sierra Club and New Jersey Environmental Federation. To be sure, Kean Jr. is not an anti-environmental conservative in the mould of Pres. Bush, but his commitment to stop global warming has been called into question by the Sierra Club, and he refused to answer a question about the issue when posed by NJN News reporter Michael Aron.

With a victory, Menendez will be able to consolidate his hold on the junior senate seat for the state and will gain the advantages of incumbency. His stance on the Iraq War, which he voted against as a congressman in 2003, has made him an icon of the anti-war movement, and the current senate campaign has successfully matched Kean Jr.'s ideology on the Iraq War (he supports it) with that of Bush and Cheney. Menendez will legitimate his position as senator since he had perhaps been seen only as an appointed unknown who benefitted from close ties to Gov. Corzine, and I foresee a successful Menendez continuing as a New Jersey senator, his original ambition while growing up in the tenements of North Jersey, for many years to come.


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The author lives in Haddonfield, N.J., and is a graduate student in the English department at Temple University.

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