By Alexander Bolton
Trenton, N.J. ó Republican State Sen. Tom Kean Jr. sat calmly in the lime-tinted hearing room, occasionally chatting to colleagues, during a close to three-hour hour meeting of the state Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.
More than 60 miles to the Northeast, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) was getting ready to greet potential voters getting off the commuter train in Montclair, a community in densely packed Essex county, his second campaign event of the day.
As the meeting in Trenton wore on, legislators filtered out of the room until Kean was only one of six left to vote unanimously on an adoption bill.
Earlier in the day, Menendez stood with local law enforcement officials at Rutgers law school in Newark to announce in front of several television cameras that he had just authored a new anti-gang crime bill that would be his top domestic security priority.
It was the second time in the past week that Kean took a day out of his campaign schedule to attend to the seemingly mundane tasks of committee work, while his opponent, with whom he is locked in a neck-and-neck race, stumped for votes.
While appearances this week suggest Kean is not as committed to the race as Menendez is, Kean has made it clear that heís in this battle to win.
Kean this week decided to spend at least $400,000 of his own money to defeat Menendez in a race that represents the GOPís best chance of capturing a Democratic Senate seat next month. The personal contribution will appear on fundraising reports to be made public today.
One GOP official estimated the $400,000 could help Keanís campaign increase his television presence by about 25 to 30 percent. It will also narrow Menendezís financial advantage. Newly filed finance reports show that Menendez had $5.5 million and Kean $3.2 million in their campaign accounts at the end of September.
This is the first time that Kean has dipped into his own pockets to assist his campaign.
The move comes as a surprise even to members of Keanís finance team, one of whom told The Hill yesterday that he did not know whether Kean could ďinvadeĒ the family monies kept in trust.
Kean owns between $3million and $8million in stocks and $2million in family trusts and partnerships, according to news reports.
It comes after the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) announced yesterday that it would spend at least $500,000 in New Jersey, bringing the total amount of new Republican money in the race to close to $1 million.
The decision of national GOP party strategists to curtail spending in Ohio, where Sen. Mike DeWine (R) trails in the polls, and shift resources to New Jersey, shows that New Jersey is among the four most competitive Senate races in the country. That is surprising because New Jersey has not elected a Republican senator in New Jersey since 1972. And a Republican presidential candidate has not carried it since 1988.
But the anti-incumbent sentiment that has bedeviled Republicans around the country seems to be helping them in New Jersey, where the Democrats control the governorís mansion and the state house and senate. A succession of local Democratic scandals have eroded the partyís image among voters and have allowed Republicans to borrow the credo Democrats have used as a bludgeon in other states: itís time for a change.
ďPublic service is a tradition that Iím proud of,Ē Kean states on camera in a television ad now running in the state. ďThatís why Iím fighting to help New Jersey escape the clutch of corruption.Ē
ďNew Jersey has had a very checkered history with senior elected officials,Ē said Roger Bodman, a longtime Kean family friend who managed Tom Kean Sr.ís successful run for governor in 1981.
In 2002, former Democratic Sen. Bob Torricelli (N.J.) resigned from office after the Senate ethics committee rebuked him for accepting improper gifts from a supporter. In 2004 Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey resigned after it became known that he appointed a man with whom he was having an extramarital affair to be the stateís homeland security adviser.
More recently, attorney general Zulima Farber resigned after she was found to have violated ethics rules and last month former Democratic state Sen. John Lynch pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
Having spent his career in the midst of New Jersey Democratic politics, Menendez has struggled to separate himself from the transgressions of his fellow Democrats, but not always successfully.
For example, last Thursday Menendez was surprised when Democratic state Sen. Wayne Bryant, who is under federal investigation, showed up at a campaign rally Menendez held with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) at a church in Camden.
Menendezís campaign also received a blow last month when it was revealed that Donald Scarinci, one of Menendezís closest political advisers, was secretly taped seven years ago pressuring a local official to hire someone as a favor to Menendez. Kean aired a portion of the recorded conversation in a hard-hitting attack ad that the NRSC is now paying to keep on television.
Kean has also gone on the attack against Menendez by repeatedly claiming that his opponent is under federal investigation, a charge that Menendez denies vehemently. Kean is basing his claim on reports that the U.S. attorney for the state of New Jersey subpoenaed the records from a nonprofit agency which leased a building from Menendez for $320,000. Kane claims that the agency paid the money in return for federal grants Menendez helped to secure.
But Menendez is fighting back by throwing allegations of ethical impropriety back at Kean. Menendezís campaign yesterday announced a new television ad that criticizes Kean for holding a fundraiser with executives from United Health Group on the same day his father, Tom Kean Sr., a former governor of New Jersey and a member of the groupís board, was scheduled to testify about whether the company improperly dispensed stock options. Menendez has labeled the fundraiser a shakedown.
Kean for his part, accuses Menendez of attacking his father. Kean Sr. and Kean Jr. will hold a joint press conference today where they are expected to respond to the allegations.
Whether Menendezís counterattack will work or whether the perception that New Jersey Democrats are corrupt will prevail is unclear. Various polls have shown both Menendez and Kean leading by a few points.
One New Jersey political expert postulated that voters may have become inured to ethics scandals and may ignore the mudslinging to focus on issues such as the war and Social Security. Thatís what Democrats are arguing will happen.
ďThereís almost a sense among New Jersey voters that itís very difficult to be involved in state politics without somehow being tainted or crossing paths with people who are less than scrupulous,Ē said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.
Other observers, including both Democrats and Republicans, agreed that voters in New Jersey have a higher tolerance for scandal than in other states.http://www.hillnews.com/thehill/export/TheHill/News/Frontpage/101806/keanmenen.html