When Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey was on trial in 2017 for federal corruption charges, he watched from the defendant’s chair as the state’s junior senator and his close friend, Cory Booker, testified about his character. When Mr. Menendez was facing a brutal re-election challenge last year, Mr. Booker was his most vociferous surrogate, memorably saying, “I’m the Robin to his Batman.”
Now Mr. Booker is running for president, and Mr. Menendez is still piecing together his political reputation: His re-election battle required national assistance and the Senate ethics committee, which “severely admonished” him last spring, closed his file only this month.
As politicians in California and Massachusetts start endorsing their home state senators, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, for president, Mr. Booker on Thursday unveiled a raft of more than 50 New Jersey politicians who are behind him. He featured Mr. Menendez prominently in the announcement.
Mr. Menendez, the state’s senior Democratic senator, could prove both an asset and liability for Mr. Booker’s presidential run. Mr. Menendez maintains tight bonds with the Latino community around the country as the longest serving Latino in the Senate; his connections are particularly strong in Florida, a key state in both primary and general elections.
But though Mr. Menendez eventually won re-election in November by a wide margin, he faced a strong protest vote in the primary. National Democrats poured $7 million into his re-election, irking some Democrats around the country who thought the money should have been spent in traditionally competitive districts rather than reliably blue New Jersey.
We caught Mr. Menendez mid-travel on Thursday to talk about his endorsement and his relationship with Mr. Booker. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q. Take me back to the first time you met Cory Booker.
A. It was in Newark. He was a councilman and I was representing Newark in Congress. It was at some community event. He was gregarious, affable, and then obviously I got to hear him speak, and I said, “Wow, guy’s got talent.” So that’s the first time.
Is that when you first thought he might have a chance at running for president?
No. I didn’t. But certainly as the mayor of Newark, I started believing that he had the abilities to go for national office.
He cites you as his mentor and as one of his closest friends in the Senate, specifically on his first day in the Senate. What did you do for him?
Told him, “Raise your hand and vote yes.” [laughs] It was nothing substantive. But he was standing there and he wasn’t used to it. It was the very first day and there were actually a couple of votes. It was procedural type stuff. And he was there, and I said, “Well, they called your name. So you’ve got to decide which way you want to vote on this thing.” I said, “You either you put your finger up, your thumb up if it’s yes, down if it’s no, or you go up and you tell them what you want to do.” So he laughed. That was the only time he asked me which way to vote.
But beyond that, we talked about what the institution is like and how do you succeed in it. And I told him my basic view, which is that I learned to count to 60 when I was in grade school. That’s what you need to do to succeed in this place. And if you don’t have 60 in your party — and sometimes even people in your party won’t necessarily agree with you — then you’ve got to go find other people.
And he took that to heart. While people think we’re all just chit-chatting on the floor, what we’re really doing is working each other over to say, “Hi, do you agree on supporting this or that? Would you sign on to this piece of legislation?” And so when I would get to the floor, if I wanted to find Cory to talk to him about something, increasingly, he was out on the Republican side of the aisle.
Senator Booker was there when you had some of your toughest days. During your trial, he came in to testify on your behalf.
It was very meaningful to me in terms of him willing to stand by me. But what it taught me more, and what it said to many people, was about his character. He believed I was innocent and he was willing to stand by me. Those who, in his inner circle, who might have thought that he had aspirations to run for president, urged him not to do it just simply for whatever potential negatives there might be from it. And he rejected their advice. That says a lot about the guy because people who are pure politicians likely would have, as most did, would have just avoided the whole thing.
Did you feel any worry or guilt that his political prospects would be hurt by him showing up at the trial?
I said to him, “You don’t have to. You know I appreciate it, but you don’t have to show up.”
And he said, “No. I’m going to be there on the first day, and if there comes a point that I can testify on your behalf in terms of your character, I’m more than willing to do that.” And I said, “Are you sure?” And he goes, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well I really appreciate that.”
But I don’t think that’s the nature of it. When you’re calculating about potentially running for any office and certainly national office, every little wrinkle that you can avoid is great. But, as I’ve said to so many people who don’t know Cory, it’s a measure of the man that in times of danger and uncertainty, he actually stood on principle that he believed that I was innocent and wanted to let people know what he thought about me. And so in a time in which people act as weather vanes, and we want people who have courage, that was one example of that type of principled position.
You are the highest ranking Hispanic elected official in the Senate. Has Senator Booker reached out to you about being a surrogate or coming out on the campaign trail?
We talked about a series of things that he wants me to do. I’ve said yes to everything. And I certainly intend to help him in the broader Hispanic community in creating relationships. I’ve already set him up with some people that are real significant influences in their respective states to meet. And I will continue to do that.
You’ve been around New Jersey politics a long time. Seeing 50 Democrats agree on anything is a rare thing.
Here’s one of the things about Cory that I think will differentiate himself from the rest of the field. Cory, not only in word, but in deed, actually brings people together in common cause. And as he’s been traveling the country, I’ve been following some of his speeches. At a time of national division, he’s actually talking about bringing the nation together in common cause in terms of unity and that we can reach out for the best nature in each and every one of us.
That’s exemplified in New Jersey at a time that, within the Democratic Party, there are different centers of power, different interests, some splits, he can bridge all of that and actually bring people together.