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Voters Wanted a Revolution. How'd They Get Stuck With Corrupt Bob Menendez?

The Democratic elites would rather save themselves than save the country.

"I’ve long argued that if you claim to be a progressive but look the other way on political corruption in your own party … you’re not a true progressive." (Photo: AP)

"I’ve long argued that if you claim to be a progressive but look the other way on political corruption in your own party … you’re not a true progressive." (Photo: AP)

You say you want a revolution? Then you definitely want to see more candidates like Michael Starr Hopkins, a 31-year-old public defender and occasional TV political pundit who — for a brief month or two in late 2017 — toyed with throwing a large wrench into the creaky, oil-leaking machine that is New Jersey’s Democratic Party.

Hopkins’ scheme would have made him not just the youngest U.S. senator since a (former) whippersnapper named Joe Biden back in 1973 but an ardent advocate for progressive causes such as ending the college-debt crisis, supporting a Medicare-for-all health-care system, and legalizing pot.

Menendez, whose greatest achievement has been showing that taking freebies like jet travel and swank vacations from a millionaire donor seeking political favors is no longer a felony in America’s comatose 21st-century democracy.

And here’s the beauty part: A Hopkins campaign — with just a slight nudge from the far-too-influential powers-that-be in the Garden State — would have given New Jersey’s rank-and-file Democrats hope of wiping the slate clean from the embarrassing tenure of their incumbent Sen. Robert Menendez, whose greatest achievement has been showing that taking freebies like jet travel and swank vacations from a millionaire donor seeking political favors is no longer a felony in America’s comatose 21st-century democracy.

Late last fall, Hopkins — who lives in Jersey City — raised about $50,000 from small donors for an insurgent challenge to Menendez. Then he went to major party backers and power players like then-Gov.-elect Phil Murphy and Menendez’s Senate colleague Cory Booker, a 2020 presidential hopeful, to sell them on the power of a fresh face. There would be no sale. Hopkins couldn’t get past the front door.

“They were all very clear that they were backing Menendez — and that was decided even before the Justice Department decided not to prosecute him” a second time after a November hung jury, Hopkins told me this week. He said that many bigger Democratic donors told him they feared “retribution” if they bucked the establishment and gave Hopkins any money. The would-be insurgent abandoned his Senate campaign before it ever got off the ground.

As a journalist just across the Delaware River, I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know about Hopkins’ failed candidacy until I read about it this week in a devastating takedown of New Jersey Democrats by Pulitzer Prize-winning troublemaker Glenn Greenwald over at The Intercept. Nor did I know anything about a Rahway publisher who got her name on this past Tuesday’s primary ballot but raised less money than the Federal Election Commission threshold of $5,000.

That means New Jersey voters knew nothing about Lisa McCormick, either, and yet an astonishing 157,983 people voted for her — correctly assuming that this anonymous, faceless person on the ballot had to be better than another six years of the lingering stench of corruption that is Bob Menendez.

McCormick actually ended up with close to 38 percent — a huge protest vote, indeed, and one more sign that the most enthusiastic and more progressive-minded of the millions who’ve marched, sat-in, speed-dialed their Congress member or rung doorbells since President Trump was elected in November 2016 have hit a giant speed bump on the road to a Resistance nirvana.

Lisa McCormick, campaigning in Jersey City last week, won nearly 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote against Robert Menendez despite very little money and no name recognition. JULIO CORTEZ / AP Photo

That speed bump would be the stubborn, close-the-ranks circular firing squad and self-protection racket that is your modern Democratic Party, a group that was best described this week in an article on Slate as “a gerontocracy,” a kind of autocracy of old people — and older ideas.

Actually, the entire sentence from Slate’s Osita Nvanewu is so good that it bears repeating: “The Democratic Party is a gerontocracy driven primarily by careerism and convenience.” Nvanewu’s piece is largely a lament about another key primary race on Tuesday that all but guaranteed reelection for California’s Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who’ll be 91 at the end of her next term and who merges her occasional standard-issue liberalism with support for the surveillance state and — until this year’s primary challenge — the death penalty.

Cue the Larry David music, because the message from entrenched Democratic leaders to the grassroots that was energized both by the shock of Trump’s election and by modern progressive ideas like universal health care and college opportunity has mostly been, “Curb your enthusiasm.”

He’s a reliable liberal vote on many issues, but his agenda as a top Democrat on foreign policy dovetails closely with the goals of Israel’s reckless Benjamin Netanyahu, including a “no” vote on a nuclear peace deal with Iran.

In the Golden State, the former Philadelphia columnist Steve Lopez, now with the L.A. Times, bemoaned the low voter turnout in the primary and the lack of interest from people he spoke with. “We are in the middle of a national shouting match about the direction of the country, and there are no good excuses for making excuses about not voting,” he wrote. I couldn’t agree more — but how can everyday people get excited about voting if they don’t feel there are real choices?

Nowhere was that more evident than New Jersey’s Second Congressional District, which  centers on the Jersey Shore, where the retirement of GOP Rep. Frank LoBiondo has created a major pick-up opportunity for the Dems. The party — led by South Jersey boss George Norcross — went all-in with arguably the most conservative prominent Democrat in the entire Garden State in State Sen. Jeff Van Drew. He was endorsed by the eight county chairs (giving him top ballot position) and with the help of party insiders raised $650,000 from donors who apparently weren’t so troubled by his votes against gun control or gay marriage and then  crushed a divided opposition.

A Democrat like Van Drew in 2018 makes you wonder what people are really resisting.

But Menendez is in a league of his own. The facts of his corruption case that finally went to a jury last fall are pretty clear. A Florida eye doctor named Salomon Melgen donated or helped raise $750,000 for Menendez’s campaigns and provided the senator with lavish gifts like private jet travel to Florida, the Caribbean, and Paris, and stays at a posh getaway in the Dominican Republic, while Menendez used his clout as a senator to go to bat for Melgen in disputes with federal Medicare regulators, with the State Department over a port issue, and even to get visas for Melgen’s relatives.

And yet the outcome of the powerful senator’s trial seemed preordained when the Roberts Supreme Court decided to narrow the definition of bribery to fit on the head of a pin — a stunning instance of the powerful protecting the powerful at the expense of the people. The hung jury that voted 10-2 for acquittal on the key charges and then the Justice Department’s decision not to retry cleared Menendez criminally — but not morally.

I’ve long argued that if you claim to be a progressive but look the other way on political corruption in your own party … you’re not a true progressive. That said, it’s not as if Menendez’s Senate record is so great that it’s worth overlooking a few sleazy gifts. He’s a reliable liberal vote on many issues, but his agenda as a top Democrat on foreign policy dovetails closely with the goals of Israel’s reckless Benjamin Netanyahu, including a “no” vote on a nuclear peace deal with Iran.

Rather than express humility over his narrow escape from Leavenworth, Menendez responded to 2017’s hung-jury news in the style of his fictional fellow New Jerseyite Tony Soprano, albeit with less class. “For those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat,” Menendez pronounced outside the federal courthouse in Newark, “I know who you are and I won’t forget it.’’

Now he was speaking the family’s language. Norcross studied the angles and endorsed Menendez instantly, and Murphy, a Wall Street progressive who sees himself as benevolent philosopher-king, and Menendez character witness Booker, who can talk like Che Guevara when he’s not out raising money from hedge-funders, were close behind. New Jersey primary voters were denied a real choice.

Now the irony is this: With Trump’s disapproval in New Jersey at more than 60 percent, the Democrats could probably hold this seat by running a ham sandwich. But what the party is putting on the table for November is a greenish, moldy ham sandwich that got stuffed in the back of the fridge and forgotten about for a few months.

Remember, Menendez was just rejected by 38 percent of his fellow Democrats (and independents) against a candidate who spent less than $5,000. His GOP opponent, Bob Hugin, is a pharmaceutical executive and Trumpite planning to spend $7.5 million of his own wealth on what suddenly looks like a more winnable race. That said, I doubt the Republicans can win in New Jersey — “In New Jersey what’s worse: corruption or Trump? I’d say Trump,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report, and she’s probably right — but now the Democrats are going to have to waste millions defending the seat of a guy who never should have been on the ballot in the first place.

Hopkins told me he spoke with a lot of Democratic voters on Tuesday and they said, “Given a choice between him and a Republican in the general, they would bite their tongue and do it” — vote for Menendez — “but they weren’t excited and didn’t think he should be running.”

Of course, the entire scheme for taking America back from Trumpism in November depends on one thing: voter excitement. But the Democratic elites would rather save themselves than save the country. It would be nice to think that Tuesday’s protest vote sent such a powerful message to Menendez that he’ll step aside, hop on his friend Melgen’s jet and fly off into the sunset. But that would allow the Democratic bosses like Norcross to pick his replacement. Is anyone else picking up the stench of rotting ham?

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Will Bunch

Will Bunch

Will Bunch is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of its popular blog Attytood.

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