New Jersey Democrats are coming out with guns blazing against a tea party-led effort to recall Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, with the state party chairman going so far as to brand the campaign racist.
Last week, newly minted Democratic Chairman John Wisniewski blasted the recall campaign as extremist, saying that it was no accident that it was targeting Menendez, the only Hispanic in the Senate. And without mentioning her by name, Wisniewski took a shot at the recall campaign’s leader, Sussex County tea party founder RoseAnn Salanitri.
“The attempt to recall Sen. Menendez is an affront to the voters of New Jersey and has no standing in law. One day these folks are trying to disprove human evolution, the next day they are challenging the constitutionality of the Constitution,” Wisniewski said in the statement, making a not-so-veiled reference to Salanitri, who has spoken out against the theory of evolution. “These are radical people who chose Menendez off of a list of Democrats because of the sound of his last name.”
Wisniewski’s withering attack — which immediately appeared on widely read state political blogs such as PolitickerNJ.com and was fodder for Charlie Stile’s Sunday political column in The (Bergen) Record — marks an unusually sharp response to the tea party movement from a Democratic leader and a clear effort to paint the local tea party activists pushing the recall effort as far outside the mainstream in a Democratic-oriented Northeastern state.
“They launched the assault against our duly elected U.S. senator and against the U.S. Constitution,” Robert Asaro-Angelo, the executive director of the New Jersey Democratic Party, wrote in an e-mail. “We can’t allow their extreme right-wing plans to continue to be falsely characterized as grass-roots populism.”
In an interview with POLITICO, Salanitri, who in her campaign against Menendez has highlighted his voting record on issues ranging from abortion to health care to taxes, adamantly denied that race is driving her campaign.
“Anytime someone disagrees with something, they call it racist,” she said. “They aren’t trying to defend Sen. Menendez’s policies. They’re just trying to throw barbs at me,” Salanitri said. “I’m just a housewife from New Jersey. They did some research on me, and now they want to make a federal case out of it.”
Launched in December, the Committee to Recall U.S. Senator Robert Menendez faces considerable political and legal hurdles. To put the recall on a statewide ballot, Salanitri must obtain 1.3 million voter signatures — about a quarter of New Jersey’s registered electorate — in a heavily Democratic state. And while New Jersey is one of 18 states that allow for recalls of statewide elected officials, the campaign must persuade state courts to override federal law prohibiting senators from being recalled.
But New Jersey Democrats, still reeling from the loss of the governor’s office in November, aren’t about to take any chances in a turbulent election cycle.
“I think there was just a general frustration that it was time to stop doing this rope-a-dope thing and push back,” said Richard McClellan, chairman of the Mercer County Democratic Party. “I think there is a feeling that we have to re-engage to fight back before they get a hold of folks who don’t pay as much attention to the political process.”
“We’ve got to dial up what we do,” McClellan added. “I think Sens. Lautenberg and Menendez realize that they aren’t going to give the field to these people and give them the family jewels.”
State Democrats are cognizant of the dangers of allowing grass-roots sparks to catch fire, with some pointing to Hands Across New Jersey, a grass-roots taxpayer movement that in 1990 whipped up a fervent protest against then-Democratic Gov. Jim Florio’s tax policies. That effort helped fuel voter unrest ahead of a November election in which Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley nearly lost his seat to Republican Christie Todd Whitman.
The recall campaign has taken shape as Menendez’s poll numbers in the state have softened, with just 29 percent of respondents in a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released last week saying they had a favorable opinion of the senator.
“He is not in very good standing with New Jersey voters,” said Peter Woolley, executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson poll. “His numbers are very mediocre. Absolutely slushy. It’s nothing he can’t fix. But it’s something he needs to fix.”
But it is not yet clear whether Salanitri will even get the chance to proceed with her petition drive against Menendez, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who is serving his first full term in the Senate. Last week, legal teams representing the Sussex County tea party and Menendez faced off in a hearing before the state court of appeals, which will determine whether state and federal laws allow the recall to move forward. Appellate Judge Edwin H. Stern said the court would make its decision soon.
Salanitri says she is getting assistance from the conservative legal group American Civil Rights Union and that she plans to enlist the help of tea party-aligned groups such as Americans for Prosperity and talk show host Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project. She acknowledges the long-shot nature of her effort.
“There’s no question that it’s a monumental task,” she said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make it happen once the court rules in our favor. But you can’t underestimate what a huge task this is.”