New Jersey: Kyrillos Can Beat Menendez

The New Jersey Miracle — the election of Chris Christie as governor — may be about to have a sequel in the very real chance that Republican State Senate leader Joe Kyrillos could upend Democratic incumbent Bob Menendez in the U.S. Senate race this year.

Stranger things have happened. The latest statewide surveys all show Menendez far short of the magic 50 percent of the vote, which incumbents must poll in order to be safe. Indeed, the Quinnipiac Poll taken on April 3-9, 2012 (among 1,607 registered voters) shows Menendez ahead by 44-35, indicating real vulnerability. A March 5-11, 2012 poll by Farleigh Dickenson also showed Menendez way under 50 percent, leading Kyrillos by only 43-33 (400 registered voters).

And it looks like Kyrillos might have the money to launch a successful challenge. The tally for the end of the first quarter of 2012 shows Kyrillos raised $1.7 million over the three0month period — equaling Menendez’ performance for the quarter and now has a tidy $1.4 million cash on hand. Menendez, as an incumbent, has much more — almost $10 million — but Kyrillos’ fundraising and the polling data combine to make one sit up and take notice.

Kyrillos has developed quite a reputation in Trenton for shepherding Christie’s program through the State Senate. Notably, he helped push the governor’s pension reforms and property tax and spending cap through a Democratic Legislature. He opposed implementation of Obamacare in New Jersey and has a long record of opposing tax hikes.

Menendez needs beating. In addition to his solidly liberal voting record in the Senate — he backed Obamacare and almost everything else the president has proposed — he has always typified New Jersey Democratic machine politics at its worst. He was recently, if inexplicably, cleared of charges of conflict of interest. He had collected $300,000 in rent from the North Hudson Community Action Corporation, an anti-poverty group, after he secured millions of federal financing for the organization.

But Menendez’ conflicts go deeper than that. He has a nasty habit of getting campaign donations from companies for which he secured earmarks of taxpayer money. In amassing his current war chest of almost $10 million, he has benefited from $8.1 million in contributions from lobbyists or principals in firms that have received earmarks from his hand.

These recipient/donors include some very charitable sounding entities that look good on any earmark.

How wonderful that the good Senator got $300,000 for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. How odd that he ended up getting $60,000 from them in campaign donations. His 2.4 million in earmarks for the Robert Woods Johnson University Hospital seems commendable until you realize that they expressed their gratitude by donating $130,000 to his campaign.

In all, Menendez ranked 9th in earmarks among one hundred Senators in 2010 — the last year during which earmarks were permitted — sending $239 million of our money in 206 different earmarks to firms or lobbyists that donated to his campaign.

Particularly controversial were his efforts to secure $30 million in federal funds for a 437-acre waterfront development in Bayonne. The first major contract went to a company that hired Donald Scarinci to lobby for it. Scarinci, a long time friend of the Senator, was generous enough to donate — along with his wife and law firm — $40,000 to the Menendez campaign. The contractor also hired Carl Goldberg, Menendez’ former campaign treasurer, as a partner, and a portion of the bonds for the project were underwritten by Dennis Enright, another Menendez contributor. Kay LiCausi, a former Menendez congressional aide, also lobbied for the project.

Menendez has never been indicted. But we each need to judge for ourselves how clean he really is in view of this dismal record of exchanging federal funds for campaign dollars.

In a Democratic state, Menendez should be just as invulnerable as, say, Corzine was. But just as Christie won, so might Kyrillos.

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