New Jersey mayor launches primary bid against son of indicted senator

Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla announced on Tuesday that he would challenge freshman Rep. Rob Menendez, the son of indicted Sen. Bob Menendez, in the June 4 Democratic primary. New Jersey’s 8th District, which is a majority-Latino district based in the Jersey City area, favored Joe Biden by an overwhelming 72-27 margin in 2020.

Bhalla’s launch video mostly focuses on the mayor’s biography, including how his parents immigrated from India “to practice our Sikh faith in a country where it is self-evident that all of us are created equal.” (Bhalla would be the second Sikh to ever serve in Congress; the first was Democrat Dalip Singh Saund, a three-term California representative who became the first Asian American ever elected to Congress in 1956.)

“When my baseball helmet wouldn’t slide over my patka,” the candidate says of his religious head covering, “my coach modified one that would fit me on the field. He knew our team was stronger when each of us could play.” Bhalla also highlights the racism he’s faced, including a mailer from his 2017 contest for mayor reading, “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our Town!” Bhalla ended up narrowly winning that race before securing a second four-year term without opposition. “[M]y first act as mayor,” he tells viewers, “was to declare Hoboken a welcome city for all.”

But while the challenger himself doesn’t name either Menendez, the video plays footage of the two as the mayor declares that the country is better than “the politicians who strive only to serve themselves.” The younger Menendez has not been implicated in the scandal surrounding his father, who is set to go on trial in April on federal corruption charges. However, the congressman’s critics have taken him to task for proclaiming his “unwavering confidence” in his father after he was indicted in September.

Rob Menendez responded to Bhalla’s kickoff with a statement proclaiming, “While we have advocated tirelessly for Hoboken, it seems the only reason Ravi has entered the race after endorsing me in 2022 and publicly applauding our work this year is because a week after losing control of the city council, he sees no political future for himself in Hoboken.”

Bhalla did indeed back Menendez last year during his uncompetitive primary to replace retiring Rep. Albio Sires; Politico’s Matt Friedman even notes that Menendez’s campaign website still listed him as a supporter hours after Bhalla’s kickoff. However, while a city council candidate backed by the mayor lost a runoff last week to a Bhalla critic, the Hudson County View explains that race only preserved the status quo on the nine-member body: Four members still back Bhalla, four oppose him, and one is a swing vote.

The New Jersey Globe’s David Wildstein reported almost a month ago that Bhalla had already raised more than $500,000, and a recent Change Research poll that showed him trailing Menendez just 16-13. Two other names, Jersey City Councilman James Solomon and Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez, respectively secured 9% and 3% in that survey (conducted for an unknown party), but neither appears to have expressed interest in a bid; businessman Kyle Jasey is running, but he’s attracted little attention so far.

However, Bhalla still faces a difficult battle next year. The Hudson County Democratic Party awarded its coveted “organization line” to Menendez earlier this month, a move that assures him of favorable placement on the primary ballot in a county that’s home to about two-thirds of the 8th’s residents. Wildstein also noted last week that the party backed the congressman even though it already endorsed former financier Tammy Murphy’s primary bid against his father; the Globe said that the younger Menendez has “privately committed to endorsing Murphy,” though he hasn’t taken any public action yet.

Many prominent Hudson County Democrats have also lined up behind Menendez, but Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who is running for governor in 2025, has stood apart. Fulop, who badly lost a 2004 primary to then-Rep. Bob Menedez in the now-defunct 13th District, responded to the Hudson County party’s moves by declaring, “It’s not a secret that Rob got to Congress only because of his dad’s influence, so it’s fair to move on from Rob now because of that same influence.” Fulop, however, has not yet endorsed Bhalla or anyone else.

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