The conviction of Dr. Salomon Melgen, a friend and campaign donor to Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, looms heavily over the future of Hudson County politics. Melgen was convicted of Medicare fraud in a case somewhat related to the corruption charges pending against Menendez. Menendez has been charged with taking gifts from Melgen in exchange for Menendez’s help in dealing with Medicare issues.
Melgen, an ophthalmologist, was found guilty of stealing up to $105 million from Medicare by giving patients unnecessary treatments and tests.
Menendez (predictably) said the conviction of his friend will have no impact on the charges of corruption brought against him. He noted that Melgen’s conviction dealt with what went on in the doctor’s office and its practices, while the charges against Menendez raise questions about what role the senator played in providing constituent services for his friend.
A similar case in Virginia last year ended up with the acquittal of a politician facing similar charges.
A split view
Local political observers are split on Menendez’s future.
Some believe that the conviction, along with the recent refusal of the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene on Menendez’s behalf, spells trouble. Melgen could end up testifying against Menendez as part of some deal with federal authorities to reduce his sentence.
Menendez has consistently argued that he did his job as a senator and his actions were protected by the free speech clause of the Constitution, which also protects legislative actions. But the U.S. Supreme Court, however, refused to dismiss the charges against him on those grounds, setting the stage for what is expected to become a high-profile trial.
Some other political observers believe the Virginia case paves a road to acquittal for Menendez. But there is a lot at stake.
Menendez is up for reelection next year and is expected to win if he is vindicated.
But a conviction and forced resignation from the U.S. Senate could create a huge vacuum in political power in Hudson County, where he plays a key role and is seen the power behind many local leaders.
Some predict a massive political war in Hudson County if Menendez is absent from the scene, referring to similar turmoil in the past when Menendez abdicated his role on the local scene after first becoming U.S. Senator more than a decade ago.
The Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) lost significant clout after Menendez withdrew, and Menendez’s return helped restore some of its former glory.
State Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto currently chairs the HCDO and has had strong support from both Menendez and State Sen. Nicholas Sacco. That partly accounts for the regained strength of the organization. Factions have united that might come unraveled in any grab for power that might take place if Menendez is permanently removed from the scene.
Hudson County is largely spilt into fiefdoms, overseen by various municipal and county leaders.
The most powerful of these political bosses are North Bergen Mayor and State Sen. Nicholas Sacco, who is also mayor of North Bergen; State Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack, and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner and Rep. Albio Sires, who have influence in Weehawken, West New York and to some degree Union City, have long benefited from their close association with Menendez – although Menendez is also tied closely to Fulop and to some degree to Stack.
A still-larger question looms over the potential replacement for Menendez if he is found guilty and forced to resign before the 2018 election. Gov. Christopher Christie would name a temporary replacement, undoubtedly a Republican, and this might give that Republican candidate an edge as the incumbent.
With control of the Senate narrowly held by the GOP, Menendez’s resignation would give them a rare opportunity to gain an extra vote during a critical year before the midterm elections in 2018. Most experts believe that as many as 10 seats will be up for grabs in the 2018 Senate election. Some believe that the U.S. Justice Department, now overseen by a Republican administration under President Donald Trump, could make a deal with Menendez, either downgrading the charges or withdrawing them, on the condition that Menendez step down, and allow Christie to pick his replacement.
Christie has the power to pick anyone he wishes – including himself.
Democrats would be scrambling to find someone powerful enough to fend off the GOP challenge.
One person waiting in the wings is former U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli, who withdrew from his own reelection more than a decade ago.
If the election is between Christie and Torricelli, some believe Christie would win despite his low poll numbers as governor.
Other Democrats might seek the Democratic nod. Sires might take a shot. But so might Prieto, or any number of candidates from central or south New Jersey, seeing this as a rare opportunity to advance into the U.S. Senate.
Local impact of a possible Menendez resignation
More importantly, for Menendez to leave the local scene would create an opportunity for one of the political bosses to ascend to the top rung, and dominate Hudson County politics.
While Sacco and Stack have historically been seen as adversaries, a fight for power might allow Fulop to take control as a compromise. Most believe Fulop intends to seize control of county government to help make up for the loss of local patronage as a result of his downsizing of city government and doing away with the Parking Authority and Jersey City Incinerator Authority. It is possible that Fulop – who had once sought to become governor – might seek to become U.S. Senator as Menendez’s replacement. But who would trust Fulop after his last minute withdrawal from the governor’s race last year?
Sacco, on the other hand, might well seek to have Prieto run to fill Menendez’s seat, and so would pit Sacco-backed Prieto against Fulop, who would likely get the backing of Stack, leaving Sires and Turner, and other mayors to pick and choose which side they wish to be on.
A Menendez exit might also affect some local elections in Hoboken and Jersey City, where Menendez has in the past supported candidates, and in Bayonne in 2018.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org