Menendez Plays to His Base, in South Florida
By DAVID W. CHEN September 28, 2006 New York Times
MIAMI, Sept. 24 — He shook hands with supporters at Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho in Little Havana. He was given the keys to the affluent city of Coral Gables, Fla., at a reception attended by more Republicans than Democrats. He received two proclamations from nearby towns, including one with a Republican mayor who declared Sunday “Senator Bob Menendez Day.”
Yes, that Senator Robert Menendez, the Democrat from New Jersey.
“I want to keep a Republican majority, but not if it means losing Bob Menendez,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican political consultant who helped organize three Menendez for Senate fund-raising events at the historic Biltmore Hotel on Sunday. “He’s part of our extended family.”
At home in northern New Jersey, Mr. Menendez comes across as a textbook Democrat, with a 100 percent scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters, Naral Pro-Choice America and the National Education Association. But in South Florida, a place Mr. Menendez has visited dozens of times over the last two decades, Cuban-Americans and others hail him as a freedom fighter for his fervent anti-Castro views, and revere him as an adopted son who has done well for himself.
This latest visit by Mr. Menendez, which comes amid a competitive Senate race against his Republican opponent, State Senator Thomas H. Kean Jr., is no different. Underscoring the notion that culture and exile politics can transcend geography and partisanship, Republicans in South Florida flock to the side of this Cuban-American legislator — even though the result could help determine whether Democrats regain control of the Senate.
To demonstrate their affection, Floridians have contributed about a million dollars to Mr. Menendez’s campaigns since he was elected to Congress in 1992 — including $530,000, or 5 percent of his total contributions, to his current campaign. Florida is his third largest source of money, behind New Jersey and New York.
Indeed, the money raised in Florida for his current campaign amounts to almost as much as Mr. Kean has raised over all from political action committees in this race.
Yet the star power of Mr. Menendez, 52, cannot be measured by dollars alone. Mr. Menendez, one of the first Cuban-Americans elected to Congress, is so well-known here that he was included in a 2004 poll in which South Floridians gave its Congressional delegation an 85 percent approval rating on Cuba policy.
Some Republicans here have dismissed the 38-year-old Mr. Kean, the son of the popular former New Jersey governor, as inexperienced and even ethnically insensitive.
“It boggles my mind that given the stakes in the U.S. Senate today, with foreign policy and national security where it is, that people of New Jersey would be considering hiring to do this job a junior in every respect,” said Ms. Navarro, who organized a fund-raiser for Mark R. Kennedy, the Republican candidate for Senate in Minnesota, days before Mr. Menendez arrived. “I don’t know Mr. Kean from Adam, but give me a break — a U.S. Senate seat should not be a family heirloom that is passed down from generation to generation.”
When asked about Mr. Menendez’s popularity among Republicans in Miami, Jill Hazelbaker, Mr. Kean’s communications director, said: “Maybe they know Bob Menendez in Florida, but don’t know Bob Menendez in New Jersey, and his record of corruption. Bob Menendez’s experience is exactly what we’re running against.”
Whether Mr. Menendez’s Cuban connections and policy positions will play a significant role in the Senate race is hard to say. An estimated 1.3 million Hispanics, including 77,000 Cuban-Americans, live in New Jersey, according to the latest Census figures. Democratic strategists have long complained privately that Mr. Kean is trying to use Mr. Menendez’s heritage, along with the current debate over illegal immigration, as a wedge issue for swing voters and conservative Democrats.
But Mr. Menendez relishes talking about his Cuban roots in Florida. His voting record on foreign policy issues — long ranked as one of the most conservative among Democrats — have put him ideologically in sync with the people here. For instance, he has consistently supported such Republican positions as tightening the embargo on Cuba, and long opposed the normalization of ties with Vietnam.
He sounds far more bipartisan here than he does on the stump in New Jersey. At one reception, he noted that he had worked with Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, on ending the genocide in Darfur. He also praised three Cuban-American members of Congress from Florida: Lincoln Diaz-Balart; Mario Diaz-Balart, Lincoln’s younger brother; and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“I know we’re here for a greater cause than the party,” Mr. Menendez said at another reception.
All told, Mr. Menendez raised about $100,000 on Sunday from two receptions and a private meeting with the Free Cuba PAC, which is affiliated with the powerful Cuban-American National Foundation. The political action committee has given him $25,000 during his career.
One of those in attendance was Raúl Mas Canosa, whose brother, Jorge Mas Canosa, started the foundation and consulted with presidents on Cuba policy before his death in 1997.
“I don’t agree with him on most of his other politics,” said Mr. Mas Canosa, a Republican financier. “But at the end of the day, I think the Cuba issue trumps everything.”
Mr. Menendez’s parents left Cuba in the 1950’s and landed in New York City. Mr. Menendez grew up in Union City, N.J., which for years — with the exception of Miami — was home to more Cuban-Americans outside of Havana than any other city.
He made his first trip to Miami in 1986, while running for mayor of Union City. He impressed Democrats and Republicans in Florida by helping with emergency efforts after Hurricane Andrew, and later, as a congressman, by being a leader on Cuba and Latin America. He burnished those credentials in 2000 during the custody tug of war over Elián González, criticizing the Clinton administration’s decision to return the boy to Cuba rather than giving him asylum in the United States.
“To me, it was always, ‘Wow, what instigated my parents to risk it all and start all over again?’ ” he said in an interview over lunch on Sunday. “It’s called freedom.”
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Mr. Menendez’s appeal, however, is that Cuban-American Republicans — regardless of where they find themselves on the political spectrum — describe Mr. Menendez’s politics as being similar to their own.
He is a centrist in the eyes of Hector J. Lombana, whose bronze Mercedes-Benz S.U.V. features a bumper sticker backing a moderate Republican who is running for governor. And on Cuba, Mr. Menendez has always been the same way — “immovable,” said Mr. Lombana, who went to the same high school and law school as Mr. Menendez.
He is a conservative in the eyes of Fernando González, who immigrated in 1965. “He’s for Cuban freedom, very conservative,” said Mr. González, a produce importer. “A good person.”
Then again, supporting Mr. Menendez when control of the United States Senate could be at stake can be awkward for Republicans. So when Mr. Menendez criticizes President Bush on everything from the war in Iraq to Social Security and the minimum wage, Republicans in South Florida tend to turn a deaf ear.
“I back my president 100 percent, so I don’t want to know,” said Remedios Diaz-Oliver, president of All American Containers, who attended one of the receptions for Mr. Menendez with several fellow Republicans. “I try to ignore it.”
But these Republicans say that they respect Mr. Menendez’s views, because they know he has thought through the issue, and that he will explain his reasoning and fight for his cause. That respect was on display when Mr. Menendez was feted with the two proclamations on Sunday, including one from Sweetwater, Fla.
Mr. Menendez posed for a photograph with the Sweetwater mayor, Manuel L. Maroño, a Republican, and Mr. Maroño was beaming. “I’m going to put this picture in my office,” the mayor said. “Right next to George Bush.”