- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

The political career of Democrat Robert Menendez has been a series of firsts: first Hispanic elected to the New Jersey state Senate, first Hispanic from New Jersey elected to Congress, first Hispanic elected to House leadership.
Now the No. 3 House Democrat, Mr. Menendez has emerged as a key player as his party counters a strong push by Republicans for the support of Hispanics, who now rival blacks as the nation's largest minority group.
Republicans have made several overtures to Hispanics, including a Spanish translation after President Bush's weekly radio address. Mr. Bush, who speaks Spanish, has pushed for border reforms to speed commerce and travel between the United States and Mexico.
Mr. Menendez, as vice chairman of House Democrats for the past four years, helped Democrats fight back. His "Latino Leadership Link," distributed each week while Congress is in session, includes talking points and news releases, in English and Spanish, on issues being debated by Congress and how they would affect Hispanics.
Mr. Menendez appears regularly on news programs on Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision. At news conferences, he fields questions in English and Spanish. "I give the same answers, just so you know," he quipped.
"He'll be a national figure during this decade," predicted Juan Andrade Jr., president of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute. "He will have to be considered when future candidates for president look for balance on the ticket. The Latino vote is the sexiest thing in American politics today."
In 2000, Vice President Al Gore's campaign staff sought Mr. Menendez's opinions on potential running mates, giving him an opportunity to argue his way onto the ticket. Mr. Gore chose Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.
Party leaders are making the most of Mr. Menendez's rise. Last summer, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe created a Hispanic Business Council and named Mr. Menendez its honorary chairman.
"For our party to have the highest-ranking Hispanic congressman, that's what the Democratic Party is all about," Mr. McAuliffe said at a recent reception honoring Mr. Menendez and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat.
Mr. Menendez is the son of Cuban immigrants and was elected to Congress in 1992. He has strong ties to organized labor and supports immigration, and he was chairman of a Democratic task force on homeland security after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
His district includes Liberty State Park in Jersey City and features dramatic views of the Statue of Liberty albeit from the rear. "We say we stand behind the lady," he said.
The district also includes Union City, the largest community of Cuban Americans outside Miami. Mr. Menendez was mayor from 1986 to 1992.
He was born in New York City in 1954, a year after his parents left Cuba. Other family members left in the "freedom flights" after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
Like many Cuban Americans, Mr. Menendez supports the U.S. embargo against Cuba and condemns efforts to thaw relations with Mr. Castro's government. His absolutist position separates him from a few dozen House colleagues of both parties, members of a Cuba Working Group, who consider the embargo a failure.

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