Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Hometown Advantage

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Hometown Advantage

Article excerpt

It's been more than a decade since Sen. Bob Menendez has called Union City home. But despite federal corruption charges, he still has a strong support base among the predominantly Hispanic community known as Havana on the Hudson.

Still, while his supporters say he understands the plight of the Latino community and has worked on its behalf locally and nationally, most recently by pushing for immigration reform at the federal level, some question whether he allowed the power of his office go to his head.

"It has saddened me, what happened to him. He's intelligent, but the power, that is the problem," said Teresa Hernandez, 61, of North Bergen, who was waiting for a bus in front of Celia Cruz Park in Union City. "He was too sure of himself. And he was there too long in that spot, and he probably didn't think that could happen to him."

But Hernandez, who remembers when Menendez had a congressional office at Bergenline Avenue and 32nd Street in Union City, before he moved to the Senate, said the charges that Menendez faces, in her opinion, don't amount to corruption.

"He paid favors with favors,'' she said. "That's politics here and everywhere."

Menendez is accused of accepting bribes in the form of flights on private jets, lavish vacations and campaign contributions from Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye doctor. In exchange, prosecutors allege, Menendez used his position in the Senate to promote Melgen's business interests by trying to help him keep $9 million that Medicare said he overbilled the government and to discourage the federal government from donating equipment to the Dominican Republic, where Melgen had a port security contract. Menendez is also accused of helping to secure visas for Melgen's girlfriends from Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Ukraine.

Both men pleaded not guilty to the charges in federal court on Thursday. Menendez has maintained that Melgen is a longtime friend and that he has done nothing wrong. And he blames the federal investigation on political adversaries who are trying to tarnish him.

School board at 20

Menendez, 61, now living in Paramus, is the son of Cuban immigrants. Union City earned the nickname Havana on the Hudson because it became home to the second-largest Cuban population -- behind Miami -- following the nearly six-year revolution against the government of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista that ended in January 1959. With more than 66,000 residents living in a little more than a square mile, it's also the most densely populated city in the country. According to the last census, 85 percent of the population is Hispanic and about 15 percent is white.

Menendez has a reputation of being a fighter that dates to his first foray into politics as a 19-year-old college student pressing for Union City to move from an appointed school board to an elected one. …

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