Will the 2021 race for Jersey City mayor pit incumbent Steve Fulop against a Menendez?

Robert Menendez Jr., the son of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, has been meeting with community leaders and organizers in recent months in what some view as an exploration of a potential run for Jersey City mayor next fall.

In a texted statement, Menendez declined to confirm or deny that he is considering a run, but rumors of a mayoral bid have been circulating since at least the winter.

“I care deeply about our city and it’s been an honor to have community leaders entrust me with their visions for a better, fairer Jersey City,” said Menendez, 35. “While people understandably want to discuss 2021, my focus today is on being a resource to those looking to effect positive change in our city and I will continue to do my part in whatever capacity best serves the community.”

One person who declined to be named said Menendez attended what was described as a “meet and greet” on the south side of Jersey City over the summer. The source said the event was organized to allow community members to “see him, meet him, and ask him some questions.” A different source confirmed another, smaller meeting earlier this month.

Former Jersey City councilman and activist Chris Gadsden said he also attended barbecues and other community events with Menendez.

“We talk about what’s going on in Jersey City,” Gadsden said. “I’ve spoken to him about the work that we’ve been doing all summer with Black Lives Matter and all the stuff that’s going on with (George) Floyd and things like that.”

The senator’s son had “expressed interest” in a 2021 run, Gadsden said.

Rev. Nathaniel Legay, the president of the Jersey City NAACP, said Menendez had recently become a familiar face at community events on the south side of the city, which is home to the heart of Jersey City’s Black community. Menendez has also attended Black Lives Matter marches at City Hall, food donations on Astor Place, and a rally at Lincoln Park that coincided with the March on Washington, as well as others.

“His moving around the community has intensified, more so than he once did,” Legay said. “You saw him, but he was not a political animal. But now he’s beginning to be visible.”

Menendez, an attorney with Lowenstein Sandler, moved to Jersey City in 2018. He currently lives in Bergen-Lafayette with his wife and 5-month-old daughter.

A race between Fulop and the younger Menendez would be latest turn in what has been at times a fraught relationship between the mayor and the U.S. senator.

In 2017, as Menendez was on trial for bribery and corruption charges, sources told The Jersey Journal that Fulop was considering a bid for the senator’s seat if he was convicted.

Fulop denied this, but Sen. Menendez appeared to have taken note of the mayor’s apparent ambitions. After his acquittal, the senator made a now-infamous proclamation: “To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat,” he said, “I know who you are and I won’t forget you.”

The words were widely viewed as a warning to Fulop and others who were eyeing the seat. The Jersey City mayor was conspicuously absent at a fundraiser for the senator a year later.

But even without the support of one of the state’s most powerful Democrats, Fulop remains in a position of strength. With just over a year before the 2021 election, no challengers have officially emerged. The mayor has the support of a majority of the City Council and a broad swathe of Hudson County Democrats. As of July, according to the most recent campaign finance documents available, Fulop is sitting on nearly $1 million in campaign funds.

Fulop could not be reached for comment for this story.

Matthew Hale, a professor of political science at Seton Hall University, said that Menendez would come with name recognition, political and fundraising connections, and a potential boost from Latino voters.

“There’s many folks that are very strong supporters of Senator Menendez and would be very strong supporters of his son,” Hale said. But Menendez would still be fighting an uphill battle, he added.

“He would need to very effectively make a strong case as to why Fulop needs to go, as well as a strong case of why he’s the one to get him out,” Hale said.

And, as Chris Gadsden noted, Menendez has only so much time to choose whether to run or not.

“If he is to make a decision, he has to make a decision relatively fast,” Gadsden said. “You can’t just run against Fulop. You have to organize.”

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