GOP Tars N.J. Democrat with Corruption Question

Democrats are hoping to win key Senate races, in part, because Republicans are mired in ethics problems. It's just the opposite in the New Jersey Senate race. Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez is battling charges of corruption coming from his Republican challenger, Tom Kean Jr.

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Now in many states, Republican congressional candidates are on the defensive over corruption scandals, but in the State of New Jersey it's incumbent Democratic Senator Robert Menendez who is battling charges of corruption coming from his Republican challenger, Tom Kean Jr.

NPR's David Welna sent this report from Livingston, New Jersey.

DAVID WELNA: Turn on your TV in New Jersey and there's a good chance you'll hear about the Democrat, whom New Jersey Governor John Corzine appointed to replace him in the Senate.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man: Kickback schemes. Federal criminal probes. That's what you get with Bob Menendez.

Mr. TOM KEAN JR. (Republican Senatorial Candidate, New Jersey): I'm Tom Kean Jr. and I approved this message.

WELNA: Kean, who is the 38-year-old son and namesake of New Jersey's popular former governor, has hammered 52-year-old Menendez, the son of poor Cuban immigrants, for months over a real estate deal involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent payments to Menendez from a federally funded non-profit group. Last week during the campaign's final debate at a local radio station, Menendez lashed out at Kean for actually calling him corrupt.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Senator ROBERT MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey): This is the way he started right after the primary. This is his campaign to smear. This is the problem…

Mr. KEAN JR.: Oh come on, Bob.

Sen. MENENDEZ: …because you're wrong…

Mr. KEAN JR.: Come on, Bob.

Sen. MENENDEZ: …on all the issues…

Mr. KEAN JR.: That's untrue, Bob.

Sen. MENENDEZ: …and you know it.

Mr. KEAN JR.: You're doing anything you can to distract from the fact that you're under federal criminal investigation. These people…

Sen. MENENDEZ: That's just simply not true. You can say it as many times as you want.

Mr. KEAN JR.: These people thought you did such a good job.

Sen. MENENDEZ: It's simply not true.

WELNA: Rutgers University congressional expert Ross Baker says while there is a federal probe of the rent deal, only the non-profit group has been issued subpoenas. Still, Baker says recent high-profile scandals involving New Jersey Democrats make Kean's corruption charges plausible to voters here.

Professor ROSS BAKER (Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University): It just never seems to stop, so it is an issue and I think that it does give a Republican traction in the state in which the Democrats have had to corner for sure on corruption.

WELNA: Baker says voters are also confused about just which Tom Kean is running: the former governor and chair of the 9/11 Commission or his son. In a move spotlighting the family name, Kean held a news conference last Wednesday at Kean University, built on land his family donated at the Kean Hall Conference Center in Kean Hall. And he brought with him a special guest.

Mr. KEAN JR.: My father, Tom Kean Jr.

(Soundbite of clapping)

WELNA: Even the candidates seem confused about who's who. His father's actually Tom Kean Sr. At his first public appearance with his son in the campaign, Tom Kean Sr. proclaimed Menendez guilty by association.

Mr. TOM KEAN SR. (Former governor of New Jersey): You know, I've known Bob Menendez for a long, long time. He comes out of a corrupt culture. I mean as you and I look at the state of New Jersey, Hudson County, traditionally their reputation is the most corrupt county in the state. He's the leader of that county, and the political leader of that county.

WELNA: But while the Kean's focused on corruption, Menendez was going after Kean for his support for the war in Iraq and his ties to President Bush. That same day, Menendez held his own news conference to underscore Kean's stance on the war.

Sen. MENENDEZ: Tom, your position on Iraq is clear no matter how you try to hide it. You have supported George Bush's war from the beginning, and you support a status quo approach today.

WELNA: That evening before a packed candidates forum at a synagogue here in Livingston, Menendez accused Kean of wanting to keep U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely.

Sen. MENENDEZ: We have a fundamentally different view and I believe that we need to transition out of Iraq, $380 billion later.

WELNA: Kean, though, derided pulling U.S. troops out.

Mr. KEAN JR.: It's unrealistic. I want to get our troops out at of harm's way as quickly as humanly possible. But we cannot allow Iraq to devolve into a humanitarian crisis. We cannot allow for its become a terrorist haven, because that could be destabilized the Middle East. We cannot allow for a failed state.

WELNA: That failed to move Anna Berlanrud(ph) of Maplewood, whose son returned last week from his third tour of duty in Iraq. She said during a meeting with parents of troops in August, Kean showed little interest in what was really going on in Iraq.

Ms. ANNA BERLANRUD (Resident of Maplewood, New Jersey): But he did say, though, that knowing everything that he's learned, had he been in the Senate back in 2002, yes, he would have voted to go and he thinks that the war is of vital interest to the United States.

WELNA: Marty Rossberg of Teaneck stood by Kean on the war.

Mr. MARTY ROSSBERG (Resident of Teaneck, New Jersey): I'm not going to say there weren't mistakes. Clearly, mistakes were made and now we have to deal with where we are right now. And I think most of the citizens of the country want us to leave. The question is how we leave.

WELNA: In the end, voters here will have to decide which is more troubling: the corruption charges against Menendez or Kean's support for the war and the president.

David Welna, NPR News, Livingston, New Jersey.

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