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Eagleton poll indicates NJ residents still support Sen. Menendez

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (R) arrives at the U.S. federal courthouse in Newark, New Jersey April 2, 2015.    REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (R) arrives at the U.S. federal courthouse in Newark, New Jersey April 2, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Although Sen. Robert Menendez (D–N.J.) faces severe consequences for his federal indictment on corruption charges, New Jerseyans appear to support him –– at least, as long as his guilt is unknown.

According to a recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll, 58 percent of New Jersey residents believe Menendez should stay in office unless he is proven guilty, and 34 percent continue to hold a favorable opinion of him despite his legal difficulties.

Sen. Menendez is accused of showing favorability toward a personal friend, Florida physician Salomon Melgen. The senator allegedly exchanged political accessibility for “lavish” gifts, according to CNN.

David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, attributed the support to the general American attitude toward the court.

“They may have become more negative toward him personally, but supportive that he stay in office,” he said. “It’s a big thing that under American law, anyone is innocent until proven guilty.”

The same poll found that two-thirds of the public generally believes a Congressional representative should stay in office to face charges, according to the poll. This represents a change from 2009, when only half of New Jersey residents took that position.

With Menendez, the positive bias may be reflective of apathy and ignorance as well. Redlawsk said the people who paid the most attention to the case, about a quarter of respondents, tended to have a more negative attitude toward him.

More than 4 in 10 respondents said they had no opinion of the senator, a remarkable statistic for a 10-year veteran of the Senate, Redlawsk said.

“He’s flying under the radar,” Redlawsk said. “You would think the rumors ... would make people more aware, but that’s not what we see in the data.”

Party was not much of an indicator of support –– 31 percent of Democrats and 33 percent of Republicans believed Menendez should leave office because of his indictment, according to the poll. But, 45 percent of Democrats approved of his job, whereas only 31 percent of Republicans said the same.

Ross Baker, a professor in the Department of Political Science, studies Congress and Congressional elections. He said the central issue for the indictment was whether Menendez used his office to “favor non-constituents.”

“The gifts he received could constitute some form of quid pro quo ... they included things like air travel (and) stays at resorts,” he said.

In return for this treatment, Menendez allegedly arranged meetings with key officials and interceded with different departments on behalf of the physician, Baker said.

Melgen is also facing charges for Medicare fraud, according to CNN.

Baker said unfair behavior like this is not unknown to Congress. Former New Jersey Sen. Harrision Williams was indicted on similar charges in the 1970s, and was forced to resign.

Congressional representations are meant to advocate –– but on behalf of their constituents, not for friends or colleagues, Baker said.

Had there been no exchange of gifts, Menendez most likely would not have gotten in trouble, he said. Similarly, helping a local business –– such as Johnson and Johnson in New Brunswick –– would have been perfectly legal, if he did not receive anything in return.

“Let’s say the (Food and Drug Administration) rules on a medical device by Johnson and Johnson, you would expect the Congress member would want to set up a meeting,” he said. “Lots of people’s jobs would be involved. But they wouldn’t do it to get a lifetime supply of Band-Aids.”

Menendez will be tried in federal court, Baker said. If he is convicted, he will most likely resign or face expulsion by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Other senators have recovered from similar charges. In a column for USA Today, Baker describes the Keating Scandal, where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) allegedly advocated on behalf of Arizona developer Charles Keating in 1987.

McCain defended his actions as advocating for a constituent. He was cleared of the charges and went on to run for the presidency in 2008.

The one thing that may not recover is New Jersey’s reputation. According to the poll, nearly one-third of New Jersey residents believe the state is more corrupt than average, although half believe it to be about the same.

Generally, about half of New Jersey residents believe politics is full of corruption, Redlawsk said.

“It could be (that) they will be disgusted and tell Menendez to get out, or they could say, 'well that’s what really happens,'” he said.

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