“Latinos face barriers and discrimination at every level in many categories, including in our justice system,” Aguilar said during a news conference on Capitol Hill. ” It’s not that. What we read in the indictment and the charges, we must not confuse the discrimination, the problems and the obstacles that Latinos face in the justice system and in all sectors.
“It would be better for him to resign,” Aguilar added.
Mendez pleaded not guilty to corruption charges Wednesday morning in a Manhattan federal court and alleged that he had been “falsely accused” because of his Latino heritage, a blanket claim without evidence that has vexed some Latinos, who say it threatens to undermine the real inequalities that face people of color.
Hispanic leaders, particularly those in New Jersey, say the legal peril Menendez faces is heartbreaking after a long career as a leading voice on issues affecting the Latino community in the state and nationally . Menendez, who was the first Latino to represent New Jersey in Washington, has risen through the ranks of congressional leadership, first in the House and now in the Senate, most recently serving as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman – a role he was forced to abandon after the indictment was made public last week.
Prosecutors presented incriminating evidence that Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, accepted bribes, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, gold bars and a luxury convertible, in exchange for using their enormous political influence to benefit the Egyptian government.
Frank Argote-Freyre, a professor of Latino history at Kean University, worked as Menendez’s press secretary during his first two terms in the House and remembers the pride he and other Latinos felt when They sent this son of Cuban immigrants to Washington to represent them. The younger Menendez presented himself as a reformer against corruption in New Jersey politics, Argote-Freyre said, making his downfall today feel like a “Greek tragedy.”
Argote-Freyre said the Latino leaders he spoke to were deeply disappointed and saddened.
“He was a powerful voice for the community and losing him is painful, and then with his background there is a tragic side to all of this,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is the second time, so I would say it’s increasingly difficult for the community to rally behind him. I think most people feel like they’d like him to be acquitted, they hope that’s not true. But this situation makes me nauseous.”
Menendez was previously indicted once in 2015 on similar bribery and conspiracy charges for allegedly accepting gifts in exchange for political influence, but the charges were dropped after the New Jersey jury deadlocked. The senator also maintained his innocence in the matter.
Following this indictment, Menendez continued to point to his ethnicity as the reason he was targeted twice by law enforcement, and also used his heritage to defend himself .
“It has not been lost on me how quickly some rush to judge a Latino and push him out of his seat,” Menendez said in a statement Friday evening.
Then, at a news conference Monday, Menendez said he kept hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash stashed in his home “because of my family’s history of being threatened with confiscation in Cuba.”
“It may sound old-fashioned, but it was money taken from my personal savings account based on the income I legally received over those 30 years,” he said.
Rep. Monica De La Cruz, Republican of Texas, criticized the senator for “playing the race card.”
“Not only is the senator playing the race card, he is dealing it from the bottom of the deck. He has every right to defend himself, but ‘I’m Latino’ does not constitute a credible criminal defense to corruption charges,” Cruz said in a statement to the Washington Post. “These stereotypes do not help our community.”
Aguilar’s remarks criticizing Menendez for using his Latino background as a defense were particularly powerful because it is rare for members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to speak out publicly against one of their own members, often functioning as a tight-knit group which protects each other from controls.
Menendez allies have called lawmakers in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, asking them to serve as a firewall to defend New Jersey’s senior senator, said people familiar with the group’s thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has not officially released a statement for or against Menendez and did not respond to a request for comment.
Other Hispanic members of Congress reserved judgment. Cuban-American Senators Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Menendez deserved a fair trial and rejected calls from many Democrats for him to step down. Rubio accused Democrats of wanting to get rid of Menendez, who is up for re-election next year, and claimed he plans to run again, for fear of losing re-election in 2024 and costing them a seat otherwise safe.
Javier Robles, president of the Latino Action Network — one of New Jersey’s largest Latino advocacy organizations — said it would be a huge loss for the Latino community if Menendez resigned or lost his seat after so many years of relying on Menendez to fight on their behalf. on issues ranging from immigration to health care to housing. If he resigns, Robles said there would be pressure on New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy — who has already called for Menendez’s resignation — to appoint a Latino to replace him.
“It’s disappointing, we, the Latino community, and again, we don’t know if these allegations are true, but we expect a lot from our politicians, we want them to represent us to ensure that people don’t are not deported and we have access to health care, but we also want them to be a representation of us,” Robles said.
He said he has spoken to many members of his organization about how this issue is about more than just one man and is about “the future of Latino representation in Congress.” Menendez is one of six Latinos in the Senate, including four Democrats and two Republicans.
“We are disappointed and we would like to see him make a decision one way or the other,” Robles said. “I’ve talked to a lot of our members and a lot of them don’t necessarily want to call for his resignation, but we would like him to really think about the distraction that’s happening and while these things are happening, the community has still needs, » » Robles said. “Latinos still respect Bob Menendez and they should, for all the work he has done, no Latino wants to denigrate another Latino, but at the same time we don’t want to ignore the fact that we need a representation.”
A New Jersey Democratic activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said it angered them that Menendez presented himself as a “victim because of his race or ethnicity” and said found it disappointing that there was no response. a resounding call for his resignation. The Democrat said Menendez should step down for the good of the party and that Latinos should rally behind someone from their community to replace him.
Matt Barreto, a longtime Democratic pollster, said he felt some were rushing to call on Menendez to resign without thinking about the consequences for Latinos and the senior senator’s significant contributions to the community.
“What I think has been lost in the discussion so far is simply the critical nature of what any Latino senator, let alone the longest-serving Latino senator, brings to the table. And I think a lot of people are concerned about losing a very important voice, and there’s no doubt that Menendez was a vital voice for our community,” Barreto said. “One of the reasons Menendez reminds everyone of his identity is because there are so few Latinos in the U.S. Senate.”
Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), the first Latino elected to the U.S. Senate from California, became visibly emotional Wednesday when asked whether Menendez should resign, but did not answer whether the senator should step down.
“I am angry and disappointed. I greatly appreciate the decades of work that Senator Menendez has dedicated to improving the Latino community and many important issues. But the accusations that we all read in the indictment are deeply disturbing and concerning,” Padilla said.
“Yes, everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence under the law, innocent until proven guilty. But I also believe that the standards to which Americans hold their public officials are very different from what happens in court. And so you know, I just urge the senator to think long and hard about what’s best for the people of New Jersey and for the Senate as an institution.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.