Brian Varela’s chances of winning the Democratic Congressional primary against the son of a powerful United States senator were always extraordinary.
His main opponent, Robert Menendez Jr., was the handpicked darling of New Jersey’s Democratic elite. mr. Varela had trouble hiring field workers willing to risk offending Hudson County’s famously cutthroat political machine. And he sold his house so he could borrow his campaign $600,000.
Still, the Hudson County Democratic Organization, which supports Mr. Menendez, didn’t take any chances.
The 589 signatures Mr Varela collected to get on the ballot were challenged in court and about two-thirds were declared invalid, an aggressive political tactic that disqualified him from the race. Another candidate, Eugene D. Mazo, an electoral law expert who had hoped to run under the slogan, “No to cronyism. No to Menendez’, was similarly knocked out of the fight.
Two other lesser-known opponents remained on the ballot, and Mr. Menendez, a 37-year-old attorney who has never held public office, took an easy primary win last month.
Barring an unlikely win in November by his Republican opponent, Marcos Arroyo, in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by five to one, Mr. Menendez will join his father, Senator Robert Menendez, in Congress next year.
Mr Varela, 33, said he did not regret running.
“I don’t think anyone should be able to just march into Washington, DC, because they’re anointed,” he said.
History is filled with examples of other famous families who have held power in Washington for generations, including the Bushes, Kennedys, Cheneys, and Gores. But in the Eighth Congressional District — a densely populated region of northern New Jersey known both for its sordid history of political corruption and for its grim economic challenges — the Democratic Party’s decision to support Menendez has seen partisan politics at its worst. represent .
Unlike his father, who climbed New Jersey’s political ladder step by step—from the Union City school board to that city’s mayor’s office to the state legislature to Congress—Mr. Menendez has no voting or policy history to to investigate.
But once Deputy Albio Sires indicated he was stepping aside, a cascade of powerful Democrats, including the governor, Mr. Menendez quickly backed up, even though he hadn’t officially entered the race.
One editorial called the process “dirty,” and another said the swift approval of a candidate who “had never run for dogcatcher” was a symptom of the state’s political dysfunction.
“At the national level, it’s all about: ‘Are we losing our democracy?’ said Ryan Dowling, 42, a Democrat who, like Mr. Menendez, lives in Jersey City. “And at the local level it’s just – ‘Why even vote?'”
Gov. Philip D. Murphy has said his support for Menendez had little or nothing to do with the family name.
In a radio broadcast in June, Mr. Murphy that Mr. Menendez was “an excellent lawyer” with “a great personality”, adding: “When you have such a talent it’s really impressive, you can have his family ties are held against him too.”
mr. Menendez said he had not taken anything for granted during the campaign and had worked hard to gain approval from a range of individuals, unions and advocacy groups.
“All I can do is work as hard as I can,” he said. “That’s what I did every day. I’m not going to stop. I will not stop after November.”
Anna J. Brown, the chair of the political science department at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, said the bare-bones display of cronyism carried an insidious risk: erode citizens’ already fragile trust in government.
“It adds to that sense of powerlessness,” says Professor Brown. “People just give up because they don’t really think their voices are being heard.”
“Is that really what we want now?” she added. “I do not think so.”
The Eighth Congressional District includes parts of some of the state’s largest cities: Newark, Jersey City, Elizabeth, Hoboken, and Union City. The poverty rate is 20 percent higher than in the rest of the country, and nearly half of the population is foreign born.
It is filled with residents who, like Mr. Sires, have fled Cuba, as have more recent arrivals from Mexico and South America. About 54 percent of residents speak Spanish at home, according to census figures.
It is a language that Mr. Menendez does not know, but which he says he was trying to learn.
“That’s something I’m working on because it’s important,” he said in an interview at a campaign event where most people didn’t speak English.
“Of course, he will be a safe vote for the Democrats,” Oseguera said. “But on the issues where we should be leading the way – will he be a leader?”
Mr. Menendez grew up in Union City and joined a law firm known for its political influence in New Jersey, Lowenstein Sandler, after graduating from Rutgers Law School in 2011. Just over a year ago, after being nominated by Mr. Murphy, he was appointed to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a position he plans to relinquish if he wins in November. He and his wife have a 2-year-old daughter and are expecting a second child in September.
At Lowenstein Sandler, Mr. Menendez worked primarily with clients in the private equity market, with a focus on venture capital funds led by managers from underrepresented groups, said Gary M. Wingens, the firm’s managing partner.
If elected, Mr. Menendez will leave a job that paid $456,000 last year, according to a federal financial disclosure form.
“He doesn’t do this so late in his career after he’s made his fortune,” said Mr Wingens, adding: “I think he comes from a very sincere place: actually wanting to help people.”
Menendez does not detract from the influence his father still wields in a district he represented for 13 years. But when asked about his political role model, he prefers to talk about his grandmother and her decision to flee Cuba to start a new life in Union City.
His eyes sparkle as he talks about his mother, who worked as a teacher, and the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas; he has indicated that gun control would be a priority if elected.
“The idea that in America’s most populous state, anyone – without any limit of common sense – should be allowed to carry a concealed weapon is astonishingly irresponsible,” he said in a statement after a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling and the ability of New York to restrict gun licenses.
Only a handful of children have served in Congress at the same time as their parent, and there are no such couples in the current 117th Congress, according to the Library of Congress. Several voters said the father-son partnership would be an asset to the district.
Yadira Guillen, 72, of Union City, said Senator Menendez had been a strong politician who “always fights for us.”
Ms. Guillen, who immigrated from Nicaragua decades ago, said she thought it likely his son had learned similar leadership skills. “His son is very good too,” she said. ‘Will – I think. I hope so. We have confidence.”
One endorsement Mr. Menendez sought, but failed to win, was from the New Jersey Working Families, a left-wing group that filed a lawsuit to abolish the state’s unique ballot-design system, which cuts candidates backed by provincial government officials. leaders have an often overwhelming advantage. During an interview with a Working Families panel, Mr. Menendez asked about the last protest he attended.
He told them it was when he was in high school. Sue Altman, the state director for the Working Families, said the revelation sparked a sharp wit from the back of the room: “That wasn’t a protest. That was a pep talk.”
The group did not support anyone.