POLITICS

Robert Menéndez, Latino Rainmaker in the Senate

Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., speak to reporters regarding the FAA Bill on Tuesday, May 6, 2008 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Major legislation to make the flying skies safer faltered in the Senate Tuesday; the vote was 49-42 to proceed with the Aviation Investment and Modernization Act, 11 short of the 60 needed.  (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., speak to reporters regarding the FAA Bill on Tuesday, May 6, 2008 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Major legislation to make the flying skies safer faltered in the Senate Tuesday; the vote was 49-42 to proceed with the Aviation Investment and Modernization Act, 11 short of the 60 needed. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)  (AP2008)

In what is shaping up to be one of the most momentous mid-term elections in recent memory – one in which Hispanic voters may play a crucial role – the Democrats have pinned their hopes of retaining the Senate on a Latino, Robert Menéndez.

In fact, Menéndez, the powerful Cuban-American Democratic senator from New Jersey, finds himself at the confluence of several critical intersecting strands.

As chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he is a chief architect of the Democratic Party's no-holds barred fight to keep control of the Senate. As the only Hispanic voice in the Senate, he is key to mobilizing Latino voters who could play a decisive role in a number of important contests.

“Menendez is playing a crucial role in the midterm election,” said Peter J. Woolley, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. “The president’s agenda hangs in the balance with the balance of the senate.”

Although Menendez has been focused on helping his party battle Republicans, no matter what happens in the mid-term election, Menéndez will still be a powerful force in the Senate, where in four years he’s distinguished himself as a shrewd politician and party loyalist. He’s a close ally of President Obama and is well-known across the country as a skillful fundraiser and talented campaigner.

He’s also the go-to man in the Senate on Latino issues, a task he says is not always easy

“Clearly, being the only Hispanic U.S. Senator is a challenge because every issue confronting the community often ends up coming to me because I have an understanding of the community,” Menendez said in an interview. “When (former U.S. Senators) Mel Meléndez and Ken Salazar were in the Senate, we all shared the obligation and duty. Now it all ends up on my doorstep.”

He says he enjoys fighting for a cause he cares about, but the demand placed on him to champion every Latino cause can often be taxing.

“I call it,” he said. “A joyful burden.”

The Quiet Latino

There are plenty of Hispanic politicians who have had a rapid rise to power in recent years – including Henry Cisneros who served in the Clinton Administration and sitting New Mexico Governor and former presidential candidate Bill Richardson – only to see their political clout dim.

Menéndez’s climb to political influence has been more measured, but is indisputable.

“Menéndez is in the position he’s in because he’s an excellent public speaker, a good strategist and he’s well-versed in national and foreign policy,” Woolley said. “That’s helped him rise to prominence in his party.”

Menéndez, who is chairman or a member of a slew of Senate committees, spent two decades in local and state politics before getting elected to U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. He spent 13 years as a Congressman before he was tapped for an open Senate seat four years ago.

“He’s a highly respected senate leader on a number of issues people care about,” said former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. “He’s earned his respect and stature in the Senate by being hard working and being committed to good public policy.”

But the road hasn’t been without its bumps for Menéndez.

Four years ago, while he was running for election in the Senate, then U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie ordered federal investigators to subpoena documents from a non-profit agency that rented from one of his buildings, and who he helped fund while in Congress.

No charges were filed in the investigation, and Menéndez’s has said it was an election ploy by a partisan federal prosecutor, who is now the state’s governor. His evidence: Years earlier he had cleared the arraignment with a lawyer for the Congressional ethics office.

Experts say if he wants to keep rising politically, he needs to transcend his star power to the Midwest and West coasts, where he is less known.

“I would think he’d be in a more prominent position nationally if he made a concerted effort to reach out to the Latino groups west of the Mississippi,” said John A. Garcia, research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. “He doesn’t seem to be doing that.”

But, raising his profile nationally could hurt his political base in New Jersey, where he could face a tough re-election fight in two years if there is no upswing in the economy, and if the Christie, a rising Republican star, decides to run.

The Hispanic Challenge

While Menéndez embraces his role as party leader, he is more cautious of his role as standard bearer for Hispanics. His allegiances, he says, must first lie with his constituents in the Garden State and his role in his party. “I have New Jersey and I have my national role” in politics, he said.

Whether it’s tackling high school dropout rates, fighting discrimination of Hispanic farm workers, immigration reform or even a diversity survey for Fortune 500 companies, Menéndez said, Hispanic groups go to him for guidance and help. They want him to champion every Latino issue

“It’s a big challenge,” he said.

Menéndez treads the political waters carefully – some say too carefully – to push global issues that impact not just Hispanics but a broader range of constituents, from banking regulation to transportation funding to foreign relation. And while that has helped raise his profile in the Democratic Party, and made him popular in New Jersey, it has ruffled feathers among some Hispanics who view him as their only voice in the Senate.

“He’s mostly an obstacle ,” said a Hispanic political analyst who, like others, did not want to be quoted criticizing the senator. “Who just wants to impose the Democratic Party on the community.”

Menéndez argues that in promoting the Democratic Party agenda in the Senate, he is in fact promoting issues that affect Hispanics. And even if it might not be visible on the outside, Menéndez says he does work behind the scenes to make fellow party members have a better understanding of the community and to give Hispanics access to key policy makers they otherwise would not have had.

More recently, the usually behind-the-scenes political player came out to publicly rally for immigration reform. Menéndez, along with Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2010, which if passed would grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants.

One area where Menéndez said he did all he could to help Hispanics was using his position as chairman of the DSCC to cultivate a new generation of Latino politicians to run for Senate. But, he said, there were too many hurdles that blocked his success.

Many local and state elected officials, he said, had not elevated themselves into the kind of popular statewide figures needed to be viable candidates. Many had made few, if any, donations to political candidates, a necessary step to cultivate support. And some prominent Latinos wanted to focus on their business rather than step into the minefield of national politics.

“It takes an enormous amount of money to be elected to statewide office,” he said. “I’m trying to get the (Latino) community to be engaged on the giving side. The question of political giving is relatively new to them.”

There is only one Hispanic senate candidate running for office, Republican candidate Marco Rubio in Florida. And obviously, Menéndez had no hand in grooming Rubio. Next month, he plans to step  to give up his chairmanship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to focus on his reelection bid.

"I've spent a lot of time campaigning for Latino candidates, and speaking to groups across the county to have them understand our role, the importance of the electoral process," he said. "Public policy has a real affect on their lives...Greater participation is important to us. We have to try and nurture that work with groups and build a foundation for a growing cadres of individuals."