Q&A with Senator Bob Menendez

With the TV in his office on Capitol Hill showing live shots of his peers on the Senate floor preparing their legislative case against Republicans for November, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) speaks about his role on the Senatorial Campaign Committee and on spending late August in Denver. The junior senator from New Jersey was elected to his first full term in 2006 after spending thirteen years in the House, rising to Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus as the highest-ranking Hispanic in congressional history.

Westword (Joe Horton): What is, in your mind, the significance of having the national convention in Denver this year?

Bob Menendez: Well, I'm proud that my party recognizes that the West is a place of importance and opportunity, as is evidenced by moving Nevada up in its primary process and choosing Denver as the place for the convention. And those aren't just about finding a great site to hold the convention, they are about commitments as a party to the importance of the western states and appealing to the issues that voters in the West are concerned about. And so I think Denver's a great city, traveled there several times when I campaigned for House members when I was in the House, but beyond being a great city for a convention, I think it's commitment to the West. I think that combination of having Nevada earlier in the primary process and making Denver the convention city is a recognition of the importance of the West.

You know, if you look at New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, they provided nineteen electoral votes -- the amount that George Bush won and John Kerry lost. And if you look at the margins by which he lost in those states, they were very thin. And so the reality is I think that after eight years of Bush and with a candidate who can appeal on many of the important issues as well as the independence that exists out in the West -- there's an independent streak in the West -- I think you can do very well.

WW: Speaking of those issues, with your position on the Senatorial Campaign Committee and looking at the West as unique voters, what kind of issues specifically do you see that are critical for Democrats to control or at least address going forward? You talk about those three states as being very critical states this time around, what are the issues that are important?

Menendez: Well, I think certainly there are overarching issues that are important whether it be the West or anyplace else, but if you look in Nevada, the housing foreclosure crisis has been one of the places it's hit the hardest. Right now, as we speak, we're on the floor trying to move some relief for people in that respect; it's at the core of our present economic challenges—an economy that doesn't work for working families—and turning that economy around [and] looking at healthcare issues as well. But then looking at more regional issues, for example, the foreclosure crisis in Nevada, how are we good stewards of the land [with] water issues, which are very important out in the West? And also many of our fellow Americans in the West, certainly in Colorado and elsewhere, are proud of the role they play in securing the nation, so how do we treat the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces of the United States? And I think Democrats on all of these issues have a good story to tell, whether it's our efforts on giving relief on the foreclosure crisis, whether it's the first new GI Bill since the last GI Bill that honors the men and women who serve our country in a way that is meaningful, whether it is being good stewards of the natural resources that we have. There's a lot of good stories to tell, based upon not what we say we will do but what we try to do.

WW: One of your principal issues and one of the issues that is important in those states in the West is immigration, illegal and legal immigration. Seeing the schism that has formed in the Republican Party about that issue, how do Democrats address that moving forward? You talk about having a good track record on a number of issues. What do you see as the Democratic track record on immigration?

Menendez: I think John McCain finds himself in a very difficult position. He finds himself [saying] that, "I was for it before I was against it and now I'm for it again." So I'm not sure that voters on either side of the divide on the immigration issue are going to necessarily have the strength of belief in the strength of character and commitment on whichever side he took at any given time on this issue. Whereas from the Democratic perspective, we've made our views very clear. We believe in strongly protecting the borders and enforcing our immigration laws but as we do that—and we have voted overwhelmingly for greater border patrols, greater technology, all of the things that one can do to protect the borders—at the same time, we've said look, part of the challenge is dealing with both the economic push-and-pull and making people who are undocumented legalize their status in this country. And so I think that certainly to those who have a broad mind on this issue, as most of the polling shows that a majority of Americans have, that in fact they will look at the Democratic view as one that is balanced, that is about security but is also about knowing who is here to pursue the American Dream versus who is here to destroy it.

And for Latino voters, certainly those who already are citizens, but [those] who have looked at the tone and tenor of the Republican language on this debate and find themselves insulted as a result of it because it increasingly goes beyond the undocumented in the country and attacks the very core of what many of us consider the language we see. The fact that US citizens and legal permanent residents are being detained in raids unlawfully and in violation of the Constitution has us alarmed as a community saying "is my citizenship a second-class citizenship in this country?" For Republicans, and particularly John McCain who bears the mantle now of his party and those actions, I think that works against them in these states.

WW: You were a strong supporter of Senator Clinton and Sen. Clinton's campaign, and she was very successful with Latino voters across the country, regardless of geographic region. As Barack Obama is now the candidate of the party moving through Denver and into November, how does he capitalize on that important voting bloc? Whether he struggled with it or whether she was particularly popular is up for debate, but how does he then carry that vote?

Menendez: As I have said to Barack since he became the presumptive nominee, and we've had two discussions, and I've said to him first of all, part of the challenge for Barack is that the community did not really know him. If you think about it, he's a relatively new figure on the national stage. So there's a lot of America who doesn't really know him has been captivated by both his story, his personal story, his appeal on issues as well as the mantle of change.

And so what he needs to do is to show his recognition both of the contributions of the Latino community, a recognition of their cultural influence, but most importantly a recognition of the challenges they face. And those challenges are within an American agenda. But they are disproportionate challenges. So if you're speaking to Latinos and you're talking about how this economy doesn't work for working Americans, but recognize within that context that Latinos are the highest percentage of any part of American society who in fact have higher unemployment than any other part of American society, you strike a responsive chord. If we talk about the 45 million Americans who have no healthcare and others who are a paycheck away from losing their healthcare, but you recognize that the greatest percentage of Americans who have no healthcare are Latinos, you strike a responsive chord. We want a world-class education for all of our children in America, and we need it for America to be competitive in a global economy, but again if you look at which group of Americans has the greatest percentage of high school dropout rates, it's Latinos.

So if you not only recognize those challenges within an American agenda, but at the same time speak to them and address how you'll meet those challenges, then I think you'll strike a very responsive chord and do very well in the community. So I think he has a great opportunity to galvanize better than the 60 percent that we have seen in the last several presidential elections. The Republicans never want to—nor do they believe that they can—win a majority of our community; their goal is always to win around 40 percent. And if we can do better than 60 and they do worse than 40, we win.

WW: Moving quickly to the Senate race in Colorado, Mark Udall and Bob Schaffer, how is that, in terms of your role as a national figure on the Campaign Committee, a key race statewide and nationally? What does the DSCC do to support the candidate or frame issues of that debate or, for voters in Colorado, how does this large body impact the "race down the street?"

Menendez: Well, the issues will be framed by Mark Udall as he sees fit because he's a Coloradan through and through, and I served with Mark in the House of Representatives and I don't think there could be a finer representative. So that won't be done from here, that will be done by what Mark believes Coloradans care about and how he'll address their hopes and dreams and aspirations as well as their challenges. But what the Committee will do is to help provide resources so that he can take the message he believes in that is important to Coloradans, to help deliver that message. It will help to develop organizational capacity at a time that more Democrats have been registered in Colorado as a result of the primary process. It will let its national donor base know that this is an election of national significance and to the extent that Coloradans are unhappy with the direction of the country, they will have an opportunity to send a United States senator who's not only a Coloradan through and through and understands the state's challenges as well as its opportunities, but [someone] who can be part of changing the economy, changing the healthcare, changing those things that are critical in a different direction of the Senate. Because not only will he of course be the senator from Colorado, he will be a United States senator and that means being part of moving a national agenda in a different direction that ensures better opportunities for our people and a different role in the world.

WW: What to you is a success in November and what to you would be a failure in November?

Menendez: Well a success in November would certainly mean electing a Democratic president, electing Barack Obama as president. It would mean picking up several seats in the Senate, including Colorado. And for that fact, although I have no role in the House of Representatives, I think picking up seats in the House of Representatives as well. Maintaining both majorities and building upon them, so that we can have the working ability, particularly in the Senate where filibuster rules allow the minority to thwart the will of the majority—not only of the Senate but the will of the majority of the American people as represented by the Senate— [to have] a working majority. Failure would be the inverse of that. Not electing a Democratic president, not making gains, [not] keeping the majorities in the House and the Senate and making gains at the end of the day.

WW: Where do you see the next growth spurt of the Democratic Party? Where do you see, whether it be in issues, whether it be in demographics, whether it be regionally, where does the Democratic Party grow in terms of support, numbers, control of the national agenda?

Menendez: I think it grows in the West, I think it grows in places like Pennsylvania and Florida. So, for geographics, those are places I think it grows. I think it grows in an issue basis on economics and healthcare as well as energy. Demographically, I think it grows with working-class voters who increasingly understand their economic plight is tied to a part of Republican philosophy that works for those at the top but not those at the middle and near the bottom. And it certainly grows with Latinos as we move forward, who believe in hard work and sacrifice but can only perform hard work and sacrifice if opportunity exists. I believe in the Democratic Party, [Latinos] have increasingly recognized, for those who have been here long-term understand the historical nature of the Democratic Party as it relates to creating that opportunity, and for new citizens who don't have the long-term historical view, the present Democratic Party as a continuing provider of that opportunity and also a defender of the recognition of the contributions of the community, both economically—a trillion dollar domestic marketplace—as well as in service to the nation, the many people who today are in uniform who are of Latino descent, both in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the globe. – Joe Horton

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes