The decision of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez to endorse Brigid Callahan Harrison for Congress in the 2nd district Democratic primary could be the settlement of an 18-year old political grudge.
When Menendez was a congressman in 2002, he ran for House Democratic Caucus Chairman – the number three leadership post – and beat Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) by just one vote, 104 to 103.
Patrick J. Kennedy, the husband of Harrison’s primary opponent, Amy Kennedy, was serving as a congressman from Rhode Island at the time.
Kennedy supported DeLauro against Menendez.
Menendez’s staff disputed the idea that the endorsement was tied to Kennedy’s vote against Menendez’s 2002 leadership bid.
“He’s known and worked with Brigid for years,” said Steve Sandberg, a Menendez spokesman. “He supports her based on that long-standing relationship and because he genuinely believes she’s the best to represent that district and the best chance for Dems to regain the seat.”
Long-term resentment, especially over intra-party battles, is fairly common in New Jersey politics.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) addresses the issue in his book, Why People Don’t Like You.
“Grudges are a complete waste of time, and they consume energy needed to be successful,” Bramnick wrote. “Get over it.”
House Democrats had several leadership contests after the 2002 elections: Minority Leader Dick Gephardt stepping down to focus on his upcoming presidential run, Minority Whip David Bonior leaving early to run for governor of Michigan, and Democratic Conference Chairman Martin Frost lost re-election to his Texas seat.
Nancy Pelosi defeated Harold Ford by a 177 to 29 vote to become minority leader. Steny Hoyer was elected whip and James Clyburn became caucus vice chairman.
How Menendez won leadership fight
Menendez had won the caucus vice chairmanship in 1998 when Barbara Kennelly left to run for governor of Connecticut. He was now ready to move up in the ranks of the House leadership, perhaps with a shot at someday becoming Speaker.
The winning vote was cast by Tom Feeley, a Colorado state senator running for an open House seat. Republican Bob Beauprez led Feeley by 122 votes out of 152,838. With a recount set for after the November 14 leadership vote, both Feeley and Beauprez headed to Washington for freshman orientation.
Gephardt allowed Feeley to vote in contested race for House Minority Leader and Democratic Conference Chair.
Feeley voted for Menendez – the deciding vote, as it turned out.
It took five weeks to count the votes in Colorado. When the recount was over, Feeley lost by 121.
Menendez passed on a chance to run for the Senate six weeks earlier, when Bob Torricelli dropped out of the race. He was already committed to seeking the leadership post. Three years later, after Jon Corzine was elected governor, Menendez decided he didn’t want to wait for Pelosi and Hoyer to leave, so he pursed the U.S. Senate seat.
Clyburn, still the number three person in the House Democratic leadership, took Menendez’s place as Democratic Conference Chairman.
Kennedy, the son of the late U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, was also on a leadership fast-track.
He was elected to Congress at age 27, after flipping an open GOP seat despite the Clinton mid-term wave election. He was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chairman for the 2000 cycle, passing up a shot at a U.S. Senate seat to do that.
Menendez and Kennedy served together in the House for eleven years.
Kennedy did not immediately respond to an 11:00 AM request for comment.
Speculation of Menendez as Gore running mate
In March 2000, after Al Gore became the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Bonior floated Menendez as vice presidential candidate.
“Mr. Bonior feels Congressman Menendez should be someone considered on the short list,” said Fred Clark, a spokesman fro the House minority whip, told political website PoliticsNJ after Bonior met with Gore. “He can do a lot toward winning states like Florida, New Jersey and California.”
Menendez would not rule out taking a spot on the national ticket.
Gore lost Florida — and the presidency — by 537 votes out of more than 5.8 million cast.
Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen said that Bill Clinton received 35% of the Cuban-American vote in 1996, but Gore won less than 20%.
He blamed the Justice Department’s decision to return six-year-old Elián Gonzalez to Cuba — a move Menendez fought.