Sen. Bob Menendez has enough signatures to run as an independent despite his bribery trial

WASHINGTON — Indicted Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., has collected the necessary signatures to run for re-election as an independent, five people familiar with the matter said.

Menendez needs 800 signatures by Tuesday to gain ballot access in November and hopes to reach closer to 10,000 signatures by then, said three sources with knowledge of his plans.

One of the sources, who previously worked for Menendez, said Menendez, who is on trial on federal bribery charges, wants the number of signatures to be a “statement” in and of itself, “to show the level of support he still has.”

Menendez’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

If he is successful, Menendez would most likely face Democratic Rep. Andy Kim — who is considered to be the front-runner to replace him — and a Republican. The primary, in which Kim will face Patricia Campos-Medina and several Republicans will contend for their party’s nomination, is Tuesday.

Anthony DeAngelo, Kim’s senior adviser, said in a statement: “People are fed up with a broken political system that only benefits the well-off and well-connected and fuels corruption. Voters deserve better and they’ll have a chance to vote for change next week and this November.”

Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, have been charged with 18 counts of bribery and corruption. Prosecutors accused Bob Menendez, the former chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of acting as a foreign agent, and he stepped down from leading the committee while his trial proceeds.

His federal criminal trial just entered its third week and is expected to last at least until July. No law prohibits him from running for federal office even if he is convicted, but he has said his independent run is contingent upon his exoneration.

NBC News has reported that Menendez was considering a run for his Senate seat as an independent and that doing so would allow him to continue to raise money to cover his legal bills, which have already cost him $2 million.

Two people close to Menendez say he has “unfinished business” in Washington and doesn’t want his legacy to end with a criminal trial. “He’s not going down without a fight,” one of them said.

Menendez could file to run as an independent at any time but is likely to wait until Tuesday to submit his signatures because his son, Rep. Robert Menendez Jr., D-N.J., is running for re-election in a competitive primary that will take place the same day, two sources with direct knowledge of his thinking said.

The senior Menendez’s controversial bid could interfere with his son’s re-election efforts, and Menendez Jr. has already been targeted with attack ads related to his father’s case. That’s one of the reasons Menendez decided to run as an independent — so he and his son wouldn’t need to share the same ticket, a person with direct knowledge of his thinking said.

Another reason Menendez wants to gather more signatures than is required is that he expects some of the signatures to be challenged. Under New Jersey law, any voter can sign an independent ballot petition as long as the person hasn’t already signed a petition for one of the two major parties.

Despite his legal troubles, Menendez still enjoys support from Democrats in the north and central parts of the state and from its many Latino voters, said Agustin Garcia, Menendez’s longtime friend who is helping him gather signatures.

“Everybody wants [the Latino] vote, and Bob has been a forefront of defending their rights,” Garcia said. “Maybe that’s what Latinos need — they need independent voices.”

Garcia, who grew up with Menendez in Union City, New Jersey, and now lives in Miami, told NBC News that he personally organized about 20 people in the state to collect signatures for the senator’s independent run, including six of their Lambda Theta Phi fraternity brothers. He said he believes Menendez will be exonerated.

Some Democrats in Hudson, Essex and Passaic counties have also been helping Menendez with his re-election campaign behind the scenes, said Garcia, who said he has spoken to Democratic officials in the area. A former Menendez aide also said Democrats throughout the state have been quietly helping him win back his seat.

Menendez allies noted that although Kim is likely to be the Democratic nominee, some party bosses still haven't endorsed him. Kim this year successfully challenged the state’s unusual ballot design, which groups all party-backed nominees together with other candidates off to the side, dealing a blow to the state’s political machine.

Joseph Barreto, founder of the SOMOS New Jersey Political Action Committee, which aims to increase Latino representation in the state and is backing Campos-Medina in the primary, said a lot of Democrats in the state still have strong ties to Menendez.

“Menendez still can wield that power that he still has people beholden to him, you know, different things, favors. He’s been around so long that God knows who was placed where, who got a job or things like that, and that’s where all this comes into play.” he said.

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