U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) kicked off his re-election campaign against state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-13) for a new term in the U.S. Senate at Union City High School (UCHS) the morning of May 21, surrounded by thousands of high school students waving campaign signs. “I went to high school in Union City, but it sure didn’t look like this,” Menendez announced.
“Six years ago, I announced the start of my campaign for senate at Union Hill High School, which is my alma mater.” He received a few boos from Emerson fans – before the current high school complex opened, the students were split between two rival institutions.
Menendez grew up on Hudson Avenue a few blocks from the school and raised his children Alicia and Robert Jr. in the city. His children, all grown up now, showed the students a video of their father eating breakfast at the Kennedy Boulevard IHOP and singing to the wait staff there.
“I have been fortunate to have visited many places in this great nation and around the world, but I always hurry to come back home.” – Robert Menendez
A veritable who’s who of local Democrats sat in the first two rows of the large gymnasium in support of Menendez’s campaign, including Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healey, Rep. Albio Sires (D-33), U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Jersey City Councilman Steven Fulop. Union City Mayor and State Senator Brian Stack was one of the few chosen to introduce Menendez to the crowd.
A surprising number of local politicos did not make an appearance, including North Bergen Mayor and Sen. Nicholas Sacco, West New York Mayor Felix Roque, Secaucus Mayor Mike Gonnelli, Hudson County Democratic Organization Chairman Mark Smith, County Executive Tom DeGise, Sen. Sandra Cunningham, and Assemblyman Charles Mainor.
Union City roots
“My parents did not have nor did they seek an easy life,” Menendez told the crowd. His mother was a seamstress in New Jersey factories and his father was, he said, an itinerant carpenter. “We never had more than just enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table. What we had was worth more than what we liked.”
He told the students that education is the key to having a better life, and recalled that he himself was an introverted and shy student, but thanks to his teacher Gail Harper and many others who taught him, he was able to break out of his shell and become the public servant he is today.
“My parents taught me to never start a fight, but they also taught me that when fairness or justice were threatened, you had to fight back,” Menendez added. “When people tried to take advantage of you, you had to fight back.” This is why, he said, he fights for the New Jersey middle class.
Menendez deemed the high school “home to all kinds of great achievement” and congratulated UCHS English as a Second Language teacher Kristine Liguori-Nazzal for being selected as Hudson County Teacher of the Year.
“[The American Dream suggests] success is possible because the same rules apply to everyone,” Mendenez said, “But I’m afraid that’s not necessarily the case today.” He asked the students to imagine a football game on the rooftop stadium where Union City’s team had to run 20 yards for a first down, whereas the opposing team only had to run five.
“That’s what it’s like for the middle class these days,” he said.
Playing by the rules
“Having the same rules for everyone simply means having the same shot. A fair shot,” Menendez said. “So the question is, will the rules be fair? Will the rules help the middle class, or will they hurt them?”
Some of these “rules” he went on to discuss pertained to pet issues such as college loan rates, domestic abuse, juvenile diabetes, equal opportunity education, equal wages for women and men, adequate healthcare coverage, and senior and social security benefits.
“For too long Wall Street played by a different set of rules,” he said. “They got to gamble with our economy and the middle class got stuck with the bill.”
And, of course, he said, there’s the matter of unemployment.
Menendez reported that for 26 consecutive months, America has seen job growth, which he noted as an indicator of a recovering economy. But, he said, there is a lot more work to do.
“In these tough times nothing is more important than fighting back to make and save good jobs,” he explained. “A good job is about more than making a living. It is about making a life.”
He called New Jersey the “medicine chest” of the nation, citing his role in obtaining $53 million in tax credits for 133 of the state’s biotech companies that have created jobs.
“We cannot return to the failed policies that brought us to the verge of a new depression in this country,” Menendez said. “We need to move forward, not backwards.”
Menendez announced toward the end of his speech, just as attention was beginning to wane, “Todos estaban conmigo en esto momento haciendo historia (‘those who are with me are making history this moment’).” His sudden launch into Spanish brought the students to their feet.
“The promise of tomorrow is a bright light that shines on each of you,” he said. “And as your United States senator, just know this: I have your back.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org