Will NJ Latinos rally around Sen. Menendez? Why some leaders are staying on the sidelines

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When U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez lashed out at the criminal charges filed against him during a news conference on Monday, he did it in English and Spanish.

It was a reminder that the Cuban American Democrat holds a historic place among Latinos in New Jersey, as the first Hispanic representative from New Jersey ever to serve in Congress. Menendez, during a news conference in his hometown of Union City, suggested his ethnicity may have something to do with the forces arrayed against him.

But if Hispanic leaders in New Jersey are any guide, the community has yet to rally around him. Instead, his legal predicament has some in the Latino community taking a wait-and-see approach rather than issuing calls for resignation or forthright support.

The Latino Action Network and the Latino Coalition of New Jersey, two advocacy groups based in Central Jersey, issued a joint statement on Monday saying that while they are “deeply concerned and disheartened” by the indictment, they “support a comprehensive investigation into these charges.”

Menendez, they added, has “the right to the presumption of innocence under our criminal justice system.”

Javier Robles, the president of the Latino Action Network, said in an interview with NorthJersey.com that issuing the statement was not easy for his organization, as it has worked with Menendez in the past on issues such as immigration.

“We are not saying, ‘Don’t resign,’ but what we are saying for our organization at this point [is] it’s probably best to put out a semi-neutral statement saying that we are deeply disappointed in what has happened,” Robles said. “Obviously, we are not happy that someone that we consider a steward of the Latino community is being indicted on criminal charges.”

Lazaro Cardenas, the deputy director of the Latino Coalition of New Jersey, said any calls for Menendez to resign are “premature,” and he should have the opportunity to defend himself in court.

“Whether those accusations are true or not, they’re disturbing to all of us, I think, regardless of who we are. But he’s entitled to a day in court,” said Cardenas, a real estate lawyer. “He’s entitled to a defense, and let’s see what’s out there.”

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Keeping a Latino in the Senate

Asked about Menendez’s claim on Friday that he was the victim of a smear campaign against a “first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings” who became senator, Robles did not dismiss it.

“As a professor, as someone who has taught classes about underserved groups, including Latinos, and someone who has been in Latino movements in New Jersey for the past 30 years, I don’t necessarily discount those [kinds of] facts and statements,” said Robles, a professor in Rutgers University’s Kinesiology and Health Department. “Generally speaking, the Latino community, as has the African American community and other underserved groups, have suffered historically by being falsely accused.”

Menendez's political career spans nearly a half-century. He was elected mayor of heavily Latino Union City in 1986 and joined the state Legislature the following year. In 1992, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming New Jersey's first Latino congressman. In 2006, he earned the same distinction in the Senate when he was appointed to fill an open term.

If Menendez were to step down, as many of his fellow Democrats have urged, Robles said, he hopes whoever fills the post would be fully aware of the importance of the Latino constituents they serve. Latinos now make up about a fifth of New Jersey's population and annually spend $2 trillion in the state, Robles said.

He added that he prefers the vacant post to be filled by a Latino and suggested two people who have worked extensively in the Latino community: Patricia Campos-Medina, the president of Latina Civic, an organization that supports Latinas who run for office in New Jersey, and Laura Matos, a partner at MAD Global Strategy Group, a public affairs and public relations firm based in Summit.

New Jersey is one of 37 states where a Senate vacancy is filled temporarily by gubernatorial appointment until the next general election.

Alexandra Acosta, one of the co-founders of the SOMOS New Jersey Political Action Committee, a Bergen County-based grassroots group that elevates Latino voices and representation, suggested other Latino candidates who could fill the seat if it is vacated: state Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz and state Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, both of Newark, and Julio Marenco, who serves on the North Bergen Board of Commissioners.

Acosta, a Closter resident who runs a political consulting firm, said she is not surprised Menendez is fighting the charges against him and not planning to step down. She noted another Latino politician who is currently under indictment — New York Republican Rep. George Santos, who is still serving in office — as well as former President Donald Trump, who has remained defiant despite a series of criminal charges.

"I think that gives elected officials that built-in excuse," Acosta said. "I mean, look, we have George Santos. How are you still a congressman?"

She said she sees Menendez finishing his term, which ends in 2024, due to the time it will take for his case to go through the courts. But she hopes it will be his last term.

"Whatever the outcome of [his case], throughout the process there will be a distrust that is going to occur," Acosta said. "No, I don't think he should run again."

Ricardo Kaulessar covers race, immigration, and culture for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: kaulessar@northjersey.com

Twitter: @ricardokaul

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Senator Menendez indictment: NJ Latino leaders dismayed