The trajectory of Latinos’ political influence can’t be charted without including Sen. Bob Menendez, who faces federal charges following a corruption investigation.
The New Jersey Democrat was the first Latino to serve in House leadership when he became the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus in 2003. He is one of three Latinos in the U.S. Senate and the only one who is a Democrat.
So the Department of Justice’s announcement Wednesday that a grand jury has indicted him on charges that he improperly used his office to benefit a political donor carries with it significant ramifications for the Latino community and for growing effort to increase the numbers and political influence of Hispanics in Congress.
“He is clearly a very significant figure, being the lone Latino Democrat in the Senate and all the more so because there are two Republican Latinos in the Senate and one already has announced he’s running for president and another is about to,” said Roberto Suro, a professor of public policy and the director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California.
The effect of the indictment was already being felt. Soon after the announced charges, sources told NBC Menendez was already planning to step down as top Democrat of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The indictment alleges that between January 2006 and January 2013, Menendez accepted nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from Florida opthamologist Salomon Melgen, who also was indicted, in exchange for using his Senate office to benefit Melgen and to support visa applications for several of Melgen's girlfriends. The Justice department said Menendez did not report the gifts he recieved from Melgen.
A defiant Menendez said in a news conference Wednesday: "I am not going anywhere." He said he began his 40 year political career fighting corruption and that being under a cloud of accusations of corruption "is no how my career will end."
While Menendez has maintained his innocence throughout the Department of Justice's investigation that led to Wednesday’s indictment, at the least, he is going to be distracted, Suro said. Meanwhile Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, will be prominent Latino voices in their party as they seek the GOP's 2016 presidential nomination, Suro said. Cruz has already announced he is running for president and Rubio plans to this month.
Menendez has long held a place in the political landscape as a groundbreaker. He was the first Latino to serve in every level of government where he has held office.
Menendez, along with Cruz and Rubio, Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and a few others are generally seen more often on Sunday news shows. They are the voices of Latinos at the national legislative level, Suro said.
Menendez has long held a place in the political landscape as a groundbreaker. He was the first Latino to serve in every level of government where he has held office, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. He has held office as a school board member, local mayor, state legislator and member of the House and Senate.
“He’s been a forceful voice and effective voice on Latino issues every step of the way of his career and at the federal level,” Vargas said.
A son of Cuban immigrants who grew up in Union City, N.J., Menendez now hs been serving as the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In that role, most recently, he has opposed President Barack Obama’s policies on improving relations with Cuba and on Iran’s nuclear program.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last congressional session, when Democrats were the majority and held Senate committee chairmanships, Menendez called for improved investment in Central America security and development as a response to the surge of unaccompanied children and of families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In that role and his roles in Senate leadership, at one point steering the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that works to maintain the party’s majority in the Senate, Menendez has gone beyond the areas to which Latinos in Congress are often pigeonholed. He’s been able to do so, in part, because of the seniority he has built in Congress, a seniority that few other Latino members hold or will hold for a while.
“It takes a long time for somebody to get that kind of senior position,” Suro said. “Looking at the larger trajectory of Latino empowerment, if this takes him out of action, it would be a significant setback.”
His position is all the more significant considering that he represents a small part of the Latino electorate in ethnic and geographic terms. About 65 percent of the U.S. Latino population is of Mexican descent compared to about 4 percent that is of Cuban descent.
Menendez has gone beyond the areas to which Latinos in Congress are often pigeonholed. He’s been able to do so, in part, because of the seniority he has built in Congress, a seniority that few other Latino members hold or will hold for a while.
“He is a Cuban from New Jersey and a Democrat,” Suro said. The largest population of Cuban Americans are found in Florida and historically have been tied to the Republican party, although that has been changing in recent years.
While he has pushed his expertise into foreign affairs and the party leadership, Menendez has been a known champion on immigration reform. His name may not be as recognizable in the community as that of Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., on the issue, but he has played a key role in trying to move immigration reform forward and ensure such legislation includes a path to citizenship.
Menendez was one of the key leaders in the Senate’s Gang of Eight that crafted the sweeping immigration reform bill passed in 2013. Soon after news broke of Menendez’s indictment, Gutierrez issued a statement of support.
“Bob Menendez has never given me a reason to question his integrity, his dedication to honest public service or his commitment to public service,” Gutierrez said in a news release. “As a leader in the House and in the Senate, he has been a key ally in fighting for sensible immigration reform and a touchstone for all matters related to Latinos in this country.”
Jose Parra, a Democratic consultant who worked for Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Menendez is the key Latino on the Democratic side who understands the Latino community and brings his command of how the Senate works, its complex rules, procedures and traditions to the work of the body.
“It’s not just a question of whether this (indictment) hurts Menendez’s political career, it’s also how does this hurt the Latino community’s voice in the U.S. Senate,” Parra said.
Parra said he witnessed Menendez’s work behind closed doors and regards him not as simply a generalist who memorizes talking points “but someone who really, really learns the subject he’s dealing with.” That is true when it comes to understanding outreach to the Latino community and media, said Parra.
The indictment comes as Reid has said he does not plan to seek re-election when his term ends at the end of next year. His departure means there will be a shuffling of seats in the leadership, with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., possibly taking over as leader of the Senate Democrats. But the indictment throws into question where Menendez could end up in the hierarchy.
In addition, Reid has also been aggressive at Latino outreach and has become a champion of immigration reform – often consulting with Menendez on the issue.
“The combination of losing him and Reid is very, very unfortunate” if the charges stick, Parra said.
The charges “could lead to nothing,” Suro said. “But you can preoccupy and often make (someone) less effective for a considerable amount of time as you go through the process.”