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Menendez Emerges As Key Democrat

By LAURENCE ARNOLD, Associated Press Writer

December 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

WASHINGTON (AP) - The political career of Democrat Robert Menendez has been a series of firsts: First Hispanic elected to the New Jersey state Senate; first Hispanic from New Jersey elected to Congress; first Hispanic elected to House leadership.

Now the No. 3 House Democrat, Menendez has emerged as a key player as his party counters a strong push by Republicans for the support of Hispanics, who now rival blacks as the nation's largest minority group.

Republicans have made several overtures to Hispanics, including a Spanish translation after President Bush's weekly radio address. Bush, who speaks Spanish, has pushed for border reforms to speed commerce and visitors between the United States and Mexico.

Menendez, as vice chairman of House Democrats for the past four years, helped Democrats fight back. His "Latino Leadership Link," distributed each week while Congress is in session, includes talking points and news releases – in English and Spanish – on issues being debated by Congress and how they would affect Hispanics.

Menendez appears regularly on news programs on Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision. At news conferences, he fields questions in non-accented English and fluid Spanish. "I give the same answers, just so you know," he quipped.

"He'll be a national figure during this decade," predicted Juan Andrade Jr., president of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute. "He will have to be considered when future candidates for president look for balance on the ticket. The Latino vote is the sexiest thing in American politics today."

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore's campaign staff sought Menendez's input on potential running mates, giving him an opportunity to argue his way onto the ticket. Gore ultimately chose Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

Party leaders are making the most of Menendez's rise. Last summer, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe created a Hispanic Business Council and named Menendez its honorary chairman.

"For our party to have the highest-ranking Hispanic congressman, that's what the Democratic Party is all about," McAuliffe said at a recent reception honoring Menendez and Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat.

The son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez was elected to Congress in 1992. He has strong ties to organized labor and supports immigration, and he chaired a Democratic task force on homeland security after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

His district includes Liberty State Park in Jersey City and features dramatic views of the Statue of Liberty – albeit from the rear. "We say we stand behind the lady," he said.

The district also includes Union City, the largest community of Cuban-Americans outside Miami. Menendez was mayor from 1986 to 1992.

He was born in New York City in 1954, a year after his parents left Cuba. Other family members left in the "freedom flights" after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

Like many Cuban-Americans, Menendez supports the U.S. embargo against Cuba and condemns efforts to thaw relations with Castro's government. His absolutist position separates him from a few dozen House colleagues of both parties, members of a Cuba Working Group who consider the embargo a failure.

In November, Menendez won a promotion to chairman of the House Democratic caucus, defeating Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut by one vote – 104 to 103. The incoming Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, supported DeLauro.

"I think Bob has an independent streak in him, which I like," said Rep. Jim Davis, of Florida, co-chairman of the pro-business New Democrats. "I've always found him to be somebody who listens before making up his mind."

Menendez says he sees himself "at the center of the political spectrum, and to be honest, that's where I ultimately think the Democratic Party has to be."

As caucus chairman, Menendez runs the weekly strategy sessions of House Democrats. He says he will reform proceedings so leaders talk less and rank-and-file members offer more – a change he hopes will improve attendance, which typically hovers at around 30 percent.

Menendez has long aspired to the Senate, which has had only three Hispanic-American members, and none since 1977. But he has passed on three opportunities to run, opting to stay on course in House leadership.

Time is on his side. Menendez, who turns 49 on New Year's Day, is 13 years younger than Pelosi and Hoyer.

"Being speaker's a possibility," he said. "I also don't discount the possibility of running for the Senate sometime. You know, 49 is young. By the barometer of Strom Thurmond, there's still half a century to go."

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