Menendez will become one of the architects of national politics as he helps shape the future of the Democratic Party.
"Congressman Menendez is a strong and effective advocate within Congress and within our national party," said Gov. Jim McGreevey in response to Menendez's narrow victory. "He possesses the highest standard of integrity, decency, and leadership qualities."
Menendez won his seat by one vote, 104 to 103, over Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. The competition was, according to national political observers, between two extremely popular candidates.
"I now know the value of each vote," Menendez said later during a gathering of Democrats in Hudson County.
Although Menendez had predicted a larger margin of victory, he celebrated the fact that he had received "the support of a broad cross-section of the Democratic Caucus."
For ordinary folks in Hudson County, the title may seem a bit vague when compared to more public power positions. But for Hudson County, Menendez's new role can mean significant influence over how funds are allocated and gives the county a very important voice when it comes to future governmental plans.
"Bob led our successful gubernatorial campaign in 2001, and he helped to provide the leadership for Senator Frank Lautenberg's victory in the recent election," McGreevey said. "As a national Hispanic leader, he also brings a valued perspective which will be critical for congressional leadership."
Menendez spent a significant amount of time during the last few months campaigning for other Democrats, a possible reason why he won the seat. In November, he won his sixth term in the 13th District with 80 percent of the vote. But he said touring the country opened his eyes to numerous issues that Democrats need to address.
"As I traveled across the country campaigning for colleagues and challengers, I was reminded why we are Democrats," Menendez said. "Whether it was listening to the families of our soldiers struggling to make ends meet despite the sacrifice of their loved ones, or the college student graduating under a mountain of debt with diminishing prospects of a good job, or the family making difficult choices in their own budgets while trying to realize their dreams and their children's dreams, I was reminded of why we are Democrats. For that senior who has to choose between putting food on the table, paying rent, or having life saving, life-enhancing drugs. For that child who goes to a school with overcrowded classrooms, mobile units, or uncertified teachers. For all those Americans who fear the next attack or threat, and for those first responders who will be the ones to deal with it."
State Sen. Bernard Kenny and Chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization said the new role makes Menendez a national figure and a spokesperson for the Democratic Party.
"This is extraordinary," Kenny said. "And this happened because Bob Menendez was able to appeal to a cross section of the party."
An up and coming star
Menendez maintains his position as the highest-ranking person of Hispanic descent in either major party. Two years ago, he was considered for the Democratic nomination for vice president, and many believe he will be a future candidate for U.S. Senate. Menendez was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. He was elected as vice chair to the Democratic Caucus in 1998, the first Hispanic and first New Jersey congressman to be named to the seat.
Former Vice President Al Gore complimented Menendez during the Clinton Administration.
"Congressman Bob Menendez has never been one to stand back and let things happen," he said recently, noting that Menendez had achieved the elected leadership position because of "his hard work, his skill as a legislator ... and the esteem in which his colleagues hold him."
Menendez has previously been chief deputy whip for House Democrats, a member of the International Relations Committee, and a ranking member of the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and trade. He also served on the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. He is New Jersey's Senior Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and serves on the Subcommittee on Aviation and the Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment.
Before being elected to Congress, Menendez served on the Union City Board of Education, as mayor of Union City, and as a member of the state Assembly and Senate.
What is the Democratic Caucus?
The Democratic Caucus is a powerful tool in Congress. They have weekly meetings in which Democrats plan strategies and provide their voting members with information and other tools in their effort to pass legislation.
The Caucus nominates and elects the House Democratic Leadership, approves committee assignments, makes Caucus rules, enforces party discipline, and serves as a forum to develop and communicate party policy and legislative priorities.
As chairman of this Caucus, Menendez will oversee at each weekly Caucus meeting, follow ongoing legislative battles and develop agendas for the Democratic members of Congress. He will be in charge of issue-oriented task forces, the yearly Caucus Issues Conference, periodic special events, and continual member-to-member communication.
The Democratic Conference first met on April 2, 1796 to oppose a treaty with Great Britain that did not adequately protect American sailors. Since then, the Caucus has functioned as a key vehicle for developing Democratic policy and strategy. During its early years, it was responsible for the nomination of presidential candidates Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Caucus helped keep the Democratic Party united against Republican attempts to derail the New Deal social reforms of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Menendez takes control of the Caucus at a critical time for Democrats, because the role of the Caucus has always been to help rally the Democratic forces.
"After the devastating 1980 elections cost Democrats the White House and the Senate, the Caucus assumed a permanent position as a forum to discuss, formulate, and communicate party policy," said Ross K. Baker, Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University. "The Caucus has served as a vehicle where ideas are discussed broadly, helping to resolve differences with the party in order to achieve a united front when legislation comes to the House Floor and to achieve legislative success."
With the recent mid-term loss of the U.S. Senate and the inability of the Democrats to make gains in the House of Representatives, the Caucus may once more play an important role in reshaping the vision and policies of the Democratic Party.
Menendez will be an instrumental player in shaping those changes and helping the party implement the changes in the future.
"Of this there is no doubt: This is a pivotal time for our party and this was an important election," Menendez said. "I look forward to implementing my Caucus reform plan, which will empower individual members to have a real say in the Caucus and the leadership, because the only way to win a majority is to unlock the potential and ideas and insights of each of our members. I look forward to working with our leadership to accomplish this."