MENENDEZ: Now that he's in, Menendez says he's out

MENENDEZ:  Now that he's in, Menendez says he's out

December 15, 2006 Star Ledger Tom Moran

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez stands today on the political mountaintop, fresh from his victory in the fall election and finally in the office he's sought since he was a teenager living a Union City tenement.

But his emotions are not what you might expect.

He is bitter about the last election. He is vowing to divorce himself from the daily tussle of Hudson County politics.

And he's telling his daughter, a Harvard University graduate who is considering a career in politics, to find another profession.

"I'm disillusioned with politics," Menendez says. "This election magnified my distaste for the process."

In his first in-depth interview since winning re-election, Menendez described this moment as a turning point in his life.

Sitting at a conference table in his Senate office in shirt-sleeves, he seemed relaxed, having survived an avalanche of personal attacks that made this the ugliest campaign in many years.

In Washington, Menendez is in wonk heaven, a place where he's always wanted to be. The politics here is partisan, but it is a tea party compared with Hudson County. And because he doesn't have to run for office again until 2012, he can focus on writing bills and guiding them through the labyrinth he's learned to work during his 14 years in Congress.

There is, of course, another side to this man. It is rooted in the brutal ward politics of Hudson County, where he grew up elbowing his way to power, making as many enemies as friends. Whether he can shake that, as he says he will, is an open question.

Unlike most members of Congress, Menendez kept his hand in local politics long after leaving for Washington. He took sides in all the big political fights, from nominations for county executive to the smallest mayor's race.

His detractors see that as evidence of a thirst for power. But there is another reason for a Congressman in the 13th district to keep an eye on the home turf.

Hudson County is controlled by a handful of Democratic mayors, each with their own personal machine. And their allegiances can shift with the wind.

"Hudson is very Byzantine in that way," says state Sen. Bernard Kenny. "You ignore local politics at your own peril here."

We saw that six years ago, when enemies of Menendez decided to go for the head shot by replacing him with Robert Janiszewski, then the county executive, who had cultivated the support of several mayors.

"Bob was always worried about Janiszewski stabbing him in the back," says Albio Sires, who replaced Menendez in Congress. "It's always a risk."

Menendez got lucky that time. Janiszewski was caught on tape taking a bribe in an Atlantic City hotel room, and he wound up in jail. Still, the episode was telling.

Now that Menendez holds a Senate seat, he won't be so vulnerable. The local machines in Hudson don't have the heft to mount a statewide challenge.

So Menendez says that from now on, they can work out their problems on their own.

"I'm out of it," he says. "Do you understand? I'm out. They can create their own leadership now, and they'll be fine."

A federal grand jury is still looking at his decision to rent his childhood home in Union City to a non-profit group, and maybe that explains at least part of his eagerness to divorce himself from Hudson County politics.

The bigger question is whether Menendez can really make the change. Did he stay involved because he had to protect his flanks? Or was it something pounded into his DNA by the years of fighting to get to the top?

Either way, he understands that you can't climb to the heights he's achieved without getting beaten up.

That's the message he's delivered to his daughter. And the fact that he's warning her away, even in his moment of triumph, is another sign that our politics are broken in a big way.

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