The former Union City mayor, who now lives in Hoboken, won the primary by soundly defeating Democratic challenger Steven Fulop, a political newcomer who had been put up by the position by late Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham. Cunningham had been at odds with Menendez and his political backers for some time.
Menendez will now face Republican challenger Richard W. Piatkowski in November.
With 99 percent of the precincts reporting in the district, Menendez received 27, 369 votes while Fulop received 4,357 votes. In Menendez's hometown of Union City, he received 7,179 votes, whereas Fulop received 288. The closest that Fulop got to Menendez was in Jersey City, where he had a respectable showing, with 2,704 votes to Menendez's 4,979.
Other winners were those running on the Menendez slate known as the "A Team." Incumbents Joseph Cassidy, the county sheriff, and Donald DeLeo, the county surrogate, will also run in November. Cassidy defeated West New York Police Officer Richard Rivera 31,520 to 6,240. DeLeo beat John Caufield 31,605 to 5,968.
In other election races, Union City resident Tilo Rivas won 6,219 votes while challenger Jose Falto of Union City got 1,000 votes for the Freeholder Seat in the Sixth District held previously by Union City Mayor Brian Stack.
Also, Donald Payne won his seat unopposed in the 10th U.S. Congressional District with 2,727 votes and Steve Rothman won unopposed in the Ninth Congressional District with 5,682 votes.
This was also a presidential primary in which Democratic candidate John Kerry received an overwhelming majority of votes for the nomination, while his Republican counterpart President George W. Bush ran unopposed.
The Democratic primary is an important race because most registered voters in Hudson County are Democrats.
How opponents spent their day
"I've been up since two a.m. in the morning, picking up campaign literature and getting organized," said Fulop on Tuesday, as he walked into Public School No. 16 near his home in downtown Jersey City around 11 a.m. to cast his vote. "By six a.m., I was putting out door ringers with my name on them and I've had interviews all morning with different television stations."
Fulop said that he started campaigning in Hoboken, then moving to Jersey City, Union City, and coming back to Jersey City to vote. After voting, another trip to Hoboken was planned, followed by an afternoon in Perth Amboy, which is also in the district.
Fulop was asked whether his run for a Congressional seat was a harbinger of any future political aspirations. He remarked that his only thought was running for the seat in the 13th Congressional District and hadn't given any thought to any future political plans.
Fulop's campaign manager, Steven Newmark, confirmed as much. Newmark pointed out that him and Fulop worked full-time jobs, Fulop as an employee at Goldman Sachs and Newmark as a lawyer.
Menendez showed up at the Wallace School in Hoboken near his residence a little after noon. On this hot, humid day, the congressman appeared in his familiar blue pin-striped shirt with hair properly in place. Menendez was the center of attention as he came to cast his vote with his son Robert Jr., Hoboken Mayor David Roberts, and news crews.
Getting out the vote
Much of the work done in ensuring that candidates receive a vote is on the part of those people who may not get the attention or the accolades. They are the committee persons at the polling booths, who represent their communities and help out their neighbors by registering them to vote, or challenging those who are not eligible to vote.
Al Chowanec, or "Captain Al" as he likes to call himself, has been a committee person for 37 years in Ward E 21st District based in the Paulus Hook area of Jersey City. He lamented last week that no more than 10 percent of the registered voters in his area come to vote. Some cannot vote in the Democratic primary because they haven't registered in the party.
Muslimah Mays, the committee person for Ward F District 29 based in the Lafayette Gardens Housing Complex in Jersey City, became a committee person last year and was running again this year. She noted that even though she is running on the Cunningham ticket against the Menendez ticket, there was none of the animosity that usually comes about in elections.
"Those people that I'm running against saw me grow up," she said. "They looked after me. There's none of the drama that you usually see." Her opponents were Roy Williams and Denise Holmes, who live in the Lafayette Gardens Complex.
Going out to vote
Some Jersey City residents didn't have a choice between Menendez and Fulop, as only part of Jersey City is in that district. Democratic voters at Public School 30 in the Greenville section of Jersey City voted for Donald Payne and his ticket as he ran unopposed. In P.S. 16 in the Paulus Hook Section of Jersey City, voters had the opportunity to choose between Menendez and Fulop. At P.S. 25 in the Heights section of Jersey City, the choice was Steve Rothman.
While there was lamenting of the overall low turnout, with 17 percent of the registered voters in Hudson County coming out to vote on primary day, there was that a moment of pride on the part of one voter.
Ninety-year-old Gladys Howard, accompanied to her polling place on the Lafayette Gardens complex by her best friend Lucille Jones, said that she has been voting for as long as she can remember and has never taken it for granted.
"It's a privilege. It reminds me of how my parents who are from Virginia who couldn't sit in the front of the bus," said Howard.
It was expected that Menendez would cruise to an easy primary win by many of his supporters, who filed into Casino-In-The-Park in Jersey City's Lincoln Park starting around 8 p.m. A television in the waiting area was set on the New Jersey Network showing the election results for various seats across the state.
At one point, the results of the Menendez-Fulop race were shown, with only 11 percent of the precincts reporting. At the time, Menendez had 1,320 votes to Fulop's 40. "Man, that's a hell of a margin," one supporter said, watching.
Raul Perez, a retired NJ State Police officer and friend and supporter of Menendez for over 25 years, came to congratulate the man whom he said he always known and respected.
"I belong to a Hispanic police officers association in the state. And every year that we have a dinner, he had always shown up except for one time," said Perez.
By 9 p.m., many of the major figures in Hudson County politics began to appear. There was State Sen. and Hudson County Democratic Chairman Bernard Kenny of Hoboken hobnobbing in one corner. In another area, people were shaking hands and greeting Joseph Cassidy and Donald DeLeo.
What's a surrogate?
DeLeo the Hudson County surrogate (a judicial position whereby he presides over cases regarding wills and estates), first met Menendez over 20 years ago when DeLeo got involved in politics. DeLeo sees Menendez as someone who will continue to move up the political ladder.
"Given [Menendez's] record of making government work for the people, I definitely see him as well qualified to run for higher office," said DeLeo, who believes that Menendez can be a vice-presidential or presidential candidate in 2008.
Jersey City Councilman Junior Maldonado, who has known Menendez for almost 15 years, was campaigning with him in downtown Jersey City earlier in the day.
"He's still popular with the people. Everywhere in the ward that I represent [Ward E] there was an overwhelming show of love and support for the congressman," said Maldonado.
At the victory celebration, Menendez thanked everyone, from political chairmen and organizers such as Bernard Kenny and William Gaughan to longtime supporter Mike Gallo, who had passed away recently. He especially thanked his son, Robert Menendez, Jr., who during the day had helped out at the Hudson County Democratic Organization headquarters in Jersey City.
Menendez also looked forward to continuing his work in the 13th Congressional District for an eighth term, which will end in 2006.
"This is a victory not only for me but for the people of the 13th Congressional District, who we're going to continue to fight for on the issues of creating good paying jobs, creating greater health care, security, and making sure we continue to work to create educational opportunity for all our children," he said.
But Menendez would receive his largest applause when he spoke about being on Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry's team, which he will support.
After his speech, Menendez said that amongst the issues that he would be tackling during his new term would be to pursue an education bill that would enable students to receive more money for a college education.