Rob Menendez’s Family Name Fueled His Rise. Will It Also Be His Undoing?

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The question at a recent candidate forum was simple enough. What would you do to help move New Jersey past its notorious culture of cronyism and corruption?

But for Representative Rob Menendez, answering it required some revealing rhetorical acrobatics. While he agreed that corruption was “definitely something we are challenged with here,” he conspicuously avoided the one case that has transfixed his home state for months: the indictment of Senator Robert Menendez, his father.

The sweeping bribery charges, involving gold bars and piles of cash, have already likely ended the senator’s storied political career. Now, his son is scrambling to make sure his House seat does not become the next casualty as he stares down a serious primary threat in June.

Representative Menendez, 38, has not been accused of wrongdoing and is not implicated in the case. But his chief opponent, Mayor Ravi Bhalla of Hoboken, has turned the Democrat-on-Democrat race into a referendum on the Menendez family and on New Jersey’s machine-style politics, betting the name that helped fuel the congressman’s rapid ascent may also be his downfall.

The timing could scarcely be worse for the Menendezes. The final days of the primary are playing out at the same time that Senator Menendez, 70, is on trial in Manhattan, generating damaging daily headlines just across the Hudson River from his son’s district.

Internal polls show a statistical dead heat.

“It’s a real problem for Junior,” said Albio Sires, an ally who held the congressional seat for 16 years between the elder Menendez, who served in the House before joining the Senate, and his son. “Unfortunately, his father’s caught up in this stuff, and people are trying to paint him with the same brush.”

Representative Menendez has tried to distance himself from his father’s predicament. After appearing on the ballot in 2022 as Robert Menendez, like his father, this year he will appear as Rob Menendez. Posters across the district display his first name alongside President Biden’s in big block letters; “Menendez” appears in smaller type below.

In an interview after the forum in Jersey City, Mr. Menendez accused his opponent of “political opportunism” and predicted that voters would be more interested in his loyal Democratic record than guilt by association.

“We’re two separate people,” he said of himself and his father. “This is Hudson County. People can tell the difference between what is noise and what is real.”

And yet, even some of the congressman’s own allies said in interviews in recent days that they were worried the task may be more difficult than he has let on.

A former private equity lawyer, the younger Mr. Menendez has only the sparest record to fall back on. He had never held elected office before his father helped clear the field for him last time. And he has remained loyal, saying last fall that he has “unwavering confidence” in his father’s “integrity and his values.”

“He’s a one-term congressman; it’s not like he’s had 20 years to get stuff done,” said William O’Dea, a Hudson County commissioner who supports Mr. Menendez.

Making matters more complicated, party leaders trying to rescue Mr. Menendez will not have access to one of their most reliable voter persuasion tools — thanks again to Senator Menendez.

Historically, party leaders in New Jersey have been allowed to design ballots to benefit their favored candidates by grouping them together on a single line. But the practice, known as “the line,” was declared unconstitutional in court this year after a Democrat running to succeed Senator Menendez filed suit. No one in the state knows how the redesigned ballots will effect voting patterns.

Mr. Menendez does have certain advantages. Nearly every major New Jersey Democrat still backs him. Even his detractors concede that he is a genuinely nice person. And he is the only Latino running.

But it is all a far cry from where Mr. Menendez hoped to be at this point.

His district is overwhelmingly Democratic, and its voters have long held his family in high esteem. Senator Menendez got his start here in the 1980s, climbing the political ladder on the strength of his shrewd political instincts and the votes of a large population of Cuban exiles.

Today, the district remains 51 percent Hispanic, but it also includes communities in Jersey City and Hoboken where white-collar Manhattan office workers live in glass skyscrapers.

When Mr. Menendez decided to run for office, his father’s clout helped him jump ahead of a long line of Democrats who coveted the House seat.

Now, Senator Menendez is largely a pariah, after prosecutors accused him and his wife, Nadine Menendez, of selling out his office to Egypt and to New Jersey businessmen in exchange for lucrative bribes. Senator Menendez and his wife have pleaded not guilty, and he has said he might launch a long-shot bid for re-election in November as an independent.

Representative Menendez has been nowhere near the courtroom where his father is being tried, and Senator Menendez has steered clear of his son’s events.

“We have a great track record to run on,” Mr. Menendez said in the interview. “The stuff that’s happening across the river, none of it involves us.”

Still, he continues to benefit from his father’s influence. The campaign is largely being run by the senator’s former political advisers, including Brad Lawrence and Michael Soliman, and financed by his loyal donors.

One of them, Philip Christopher, said he recognized there was little that he could do for the senator, whom he once called the “most valuable asset of the Greek American community.” But he said adherence to the Greek concept of “philotimo” — which he described as “love of honor” — had led him to hold a fund-raiser for his son.

“There is a sense of sympathy that the son may pay for the sins of his father,” Mr. Christopher said. “We think he’s a very capable young man.”

Mr. Bhalla, 51, does not see it that way.

Mr. Bhalla had supported Mr. Menendez for Congress in 2022, and the two men largely agree on policy issues, from expanding abortion rights to supporting immigrants. But on the campaign trail, Mr. Bhalla, the first Sikh to lead a New Jersey city, has cast himself as a reformer offering voters a choice at a moment when New Jersey’s Democratic establishment appeared to be on the ropes.

“We don’t have to live under these conditions anymore, where our representatives are handpicked whether or not they are qualified to serve in office,” he said in an interview, charging that Mr. Menendez’s career was built on “blatant nepotism.”

Mr. Bhalla has raised more money than Mr. Menendez and, like his opponent, has benefited from super PAC spending. In one ad, Representative Menendez’s face is superimposed on an apple.

“They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, so it’s no wonder that Rob Menendez is defending his father’s corruption,” a narrator says, before calling the congressman “rotten to the core.”

In recent weeks, though, Mr. Bhalla has also been contending with his own brewing scandal. In a lawsuit, a former Hoboken employee accused Mr. Bhalla of interfering in a cannabis licensing process to benefit the wife of Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City. The suit claimed that Mr. Fulop repaid the favor by granting Mr. Bhalla’s law firm a city contract.

Mr. Menendez has rushed to capitalize, launching a website to amplify the claims and paying for a TV spot that calls the mayor “a party boss running government like a petty dictator.”

Mr. Bhalla called the claims “pure fiction” concocted by a disgruntled former employee to kneecap his campaign. But members of the Hoboken City Council and a former mayor, Dawn Zimmer, have said the allegations are serious enough to warrant an investigation.

Mr. Fulop, who has also denied wrongdoing, suggested in an interview that he had doubts about Mr. Bhalla’s campaign for other reasons.

“The election is basically going to be decided based on whether voters believe that Rob has put his father’s interests ahead of the constituents,” said Mr. Fulop, a longtime Menendez enemy who has stayed neutral in the race.

He added: “I just don’t know if Ravi has articulated that in a way that is compelling to the electorate.”

Voters have been pelted by a stream of campaign mailers from both candidates and inundated by ads on social media. Still, many say they remain undecided and unswayed, one way or the other, by the Menendez family’s long political history.

“Is that his father?” Ana Ji, 43 of Jersey City, asked about the connection between the senator and the congressman.

Peter Allen-Lamphere said he had already mailed in his primary ballot, casting largely symbolic votes for underfunded candidates running from the far left.

“I will not be sad if Menendez loses, that’s for sure,” Mr. Allen-Lamphere, 43, said as he held his 3-week-old daughter in front of an ice cream shop in Jersey City.

But he passed over Mr. Bhalla, too, in favor of a long-shot challenger, Kyle Jasey.

“I’m somebody,” he said, “who would like to see a different direction in politics in general.”