Dr. Patricia Campos-Medina is running for the Democratic nomination to replace US Senator Bob Menendez and face the Republican challenger in the November General Election.
On the Democratic side, Campos-Medina faces opposition from Congressman Andy Kim, political activist Larry Hamm, and First Lady Tammy Murphy. A long-time labor advocate and campaigner for workers’ rights, Campos-Medina wants to focus attention on issues that directly impact working New Jerseyans, especially those of marginalized communities.
A former National Legislative Director for the AFL-CIO and SEIU Political Director, Campos-Medina’s advocacy stems from an authentic and credible understanding of those whom she seeks to serve, with priorities such as raising the minimum wage and enhancing labor rights.
“I am an immigrant woman,” Campos-Medina told Insider NJ. “I came to the United States at 14 years old to reunite with my parents. I was able to graduate at the top of my high school and was able to get a scholarship to attend an Ivy League school, Cornell University. Later on, between jobs and my kids, I earned my PhD at Rutgers. I am the daughter of a janitor and a housekeeper, my mother worked for the Hilton Corporation cleaning rooms and cleaning homes on the weekends. My father is a janitor, he cleans offices. So, with the low wage work, we never had affordable health insurance, they never had any benefits. If they got sick, they still had to go to work or lose their pay. We had all those difficulties, but I was able to go to school and get an education. Based on their sacrifices for us, I became an advocate for low wage workers like my parents, and I joined the labor movement.”
Campos-Medina is straightforward and direct about what motivates her to seek public office.
“My passion for politics is rooted in my belief that working people and low wage workers need government to work for them, to advocate for minimum standards for minimum wages, and for protection for women against sexual harassment. I’m running for working people that do not have billionaires advocating for them. Working people need government to be on their side, and they need politicians and policymakers fighting for the issues that they care about.”
The Menendez Effect
In the world of New Jersey politics these days, the elephant in the room remains the embattled incumbent, Senator Bob Menendez. As Menendez is fighting back against new federal allegations of corruption, taking money in cash and gold, and is even accused of working on behalf of a foreign government, the charges are serious. Additionally, the damage done to New Jersey’s reputation and political clout is not insignificant. Public cynicism in their elected leadership is as American as apple pie, but usually restrained. Political leaders on the left side of the aisle were willing to stand firm with Menendez during his 2018 legal troubles and simultaneous campaign against Republican challenger Bob Hugin. But it must not be forgotten that Lisa McCormack, a political small-fry, spent the equivalent of political pocket-change on her campaign and scooped up some 40% of the vote in the Democratic primary.
Menendez had been warned by the Democratic electorate. In the end, he was carried through the general election.
Menendez did not heed the warning, apparently, and now he is being punished. His political support has largely evaporated. Former stalwarts and allies are turning their eyes away. Yet, in an act of tenacity or gold-plated hubris, Menendez holds on.
His challengers this time have more muscle than Lisa McCormack was able to muster. Dr. Campos-Medina, for her part, wields an impressive resume of credentials to appeal to working-class families. She has had actual experience in Washington DC, having served on President Clinton and President Bush’s Labor Advisory Committee, and on President Obama’s transition team. “I was in the room, counting votes with Nancy Pelosi and Senator Kennedy the last time that we increased the minimum wage. I was a joint legislative representative walking the halls of Congress for that bill. So, I look forward to being a champion for increasing the minimum wage for American workers [in the US Senate].”
When asked what a new senator would need to do—assuming that Menendez was ousted—to restore some of the public’s faith in the institution, she had no gimmicky scheme to offer. Instead, Campos-Medina offered a concept that seemed strikingly simple as to reveal the basic truths behind New Jerseyans’ cynicism: be their advocate.
“I think voters need to see people fighting for what they care about,” Campos-Medina said. “They need to see them standing up to two things: insider politics of rich people in corporate America and the billionaires, and they need to see politicians fighting for further economic bread and butter issues for good jobs, for unions, and protections in the workplace. They’re not to protect themselves, and not to advance their own economic interest.”
New Jersey’s Senate Hopefuls: A Choice of Corruption or Nepotism?
She described corruption as “a cancer” that needs to be gotten rid of, lest it keep growing. “I think that that’s what is disappointing about Senator Menendez, and I do believe that it’s time for Senator Menendez to move on. We are done accepting corruption from our political leaders. We are trying to hold Donald Trump accountable, and I think that we also need to hold all of them accountable when they fail to live up to the trust of the voters. So, I truly believe that it’s time for New Jersey voters to have other choices, and base those choices on their qualifications, not on more insider dealings.”
Campos-Medina refocused her attention from the national level back home to the state level, castigating the Democratic Party which she sees as beholden to Governor Murphy and his wife, First Lady Tammy Murphy, who also announced her candidacy for Senate. County chairs and political bosses have been quickly falling in-line with Murphy, although numerous critics in the media have leveled accusations of nepotism. Realpolitik at its most bare? “The problem with the Democratic Party and the party bosses in New Jersey, coordinating with Tammy Murphy, is that it is an overreach of power by the party. They do not allow the voters to choose who’s the best candidate, and that’s why I always said we cannot allow ‘nepotism’ to replace ‘corruption’ in this election. That’s why I’m running.”
If “nepotism” is to Tammy Murphy what “corruption” is to Bob Menendez, then party power-players ought to listen carefully to the voices outside the much-coveted “line” apparatus, since voters are not to be taken for granted. This is a lesson Democrats need to keep close to their hearts, as Hillary Clinton discovered in 2016, or as Governor Murphy appeared to, only just eking out a win against Jack Ciattarelli. Many Democratic municipal chairs grumbled about a lack of attention and resources from the well-heeled Murphy Machine during the 2021 race.
Campos-Medina said that she felt the candidacy of the First Lady represented an extension of the Menendez-like problems plaguing power politics in the Garden State. “I see it as abuse of insider politics and an abusive overreach of power by a few men who control our machine politics in New Jersey. It is an extension of the Menendez problem, because he got elected by the Democratic machine to the capital.”
Leveling her heavy artillery, Campos-Medina fired a salvo at the First Lady’s candidacy, equating it with Menendez’s hubris, but really dropping a barrage on the party process which seems to be dutifully gearing in Murphy’s favor. “That machine is the one that is now hand-picking Tammy Murphy to replace Menendez. This is the system because we allow the system to continue. We allow the proclivities of abuses of power and the proclivities of corruption to continue. We need a fresher, newer system for electing people. I think the campaign for the end of the party line calls for it—and I call for it—because the system that gave us Bob Menendez is now pushing Tammy Murphy. The party bosses are men behind closed doors, meeting over steak dinners, choosing who gets to run for office as a Democrat in New Jersey.”
When the First Lady asserted that sexism is a factor in the campaign, Campos-Medina felt that Murphy had no ground to stand on in making such a claim, but did not dispute that sexism is an issue in New Jersey politics, both governmentally and within the parties. It is a problem, she says, but not a problem for Tammy Murphy. “We do have an Old Boys’ Club problem,” Campos-Medina said, “they are the ones making the choices about who gets to run. They sell a Democrat through the line. The problem is, that system acts against women, women of color, and Latinas, as I have said over and over again. The double standard here is that the First Lady is using the resources of the state and the governor’s office to run for political office, and benefiting from a political system that is aligned with political insiders. So, she cannot claim that. The same system that will not apply to women of color, to black women, and Latinas is being applied to her because she actually has the insider link to getting elected for office. It is not about her gender, it is about the overreach of power, to be the governor’s wife in this position.”
While Democrats may have the advantage of a million more registered voters than Republicans do in New Jersey, history has proven that that alone does not guarantee landslide victories. For Campos-Medina, the perception that the system is rigged by the parties to suit party interests will take the wind out of the sails of potential voters. If voters feel like they don’t have much of a choice, they may not vote for the other party, but instead they may not vote at all.
“What we are seeing in the machine, coordinating with First Lady Tammy Murphy is ‘politics as usual.’” Campos-Medina said. “It doesn’t energize voters. Remember, we are winning as Democrats in New Jersey with only 25% of the electorate voting. We need voters to care about elections and democracy. Insider politics and party bosses are making choices and telling us that’s the candidate—and if you don’t play for her, then there are consequences.”
This strikes at what she has called a double standard in the election. “The Murphys might claim that they’re not forcing anybody to do anything, but the optics are not good. He is the governor and every time she goes somewhere, she goes as the wife of the governor. People are falling in line because they’re afraid of them, and that doesn’t excite voters to participate in our democracy. The line is actually anti-democratic and anti-voter choice.”
Hope for Campos-Medina might not come from within the party, but from without—in the courts. The process of the party line, as New Jerseyans know it, is not based on law, she said, but rather in party practices. “The line isn’t for a woman of color, Black women, Latinas, and it needs to be eliminated. We have been in this battle for a long time. There is a lawsuit sponsored by Working Families that is attempting to get the courts to overturn it, or to tell New Jersey political parties to change policies. The party line is an administrative choice of a political party, no legislation says that it has to be this way. This is the moment where Democrats’ grassroots are energized, but if the Democrats will not change, they’re on their own. We’re still counting on the court to change the party because it’s discriminatory.”
Federal Challenges and Reforms
One of the successful tactics the Democrats used in the 2023 election, where, notably, no president was on the ballot, was to cultivate support based on women’s reproductive rights. The Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade proved a lightning rod for the Democratic Party, becoming an almost singular theme in New Jersey’s campaigns. It was a gamble, with Republicans railing against inflation, but it was a gamble that paid off. Fears (or hopes, depending on the voter) of a Red Wave did not materialize and Democrats held their own very well.
The topic of abortion and its implications for American women will doubtless continue to be capitalized upon by Democratic campaigners. Campos-Medina described herself as an “unapologetic pro-choice” woman. “It is a human right for us to be able to decide for ourselves when and how to become a mother. So, the right to an abortion, for me, is a human right and we need to stop allowing men in our politics to interfere with that right. With that said, we also need investment in reproductive healthcare choices for women. It’s not just having the right to have an abortion or having the right to make that choice for yourself. It’s also got to have the government investing in reproductive health for poor working women, for women who don’t have health care. When I get to the United States Senate, I will invest more in figuring out how we advance reproductive healthcare access for working class women.”
Campos-Medina tied the abortion issue back to a political problem, one which affects what should, constitutionally, be a non-partisan body: namely, the US Supreme Court. It was, after all, the Supreme Court which established Roe v. Wade as the law of the land in 1973, and it was the Supreme Court which rolled back that right on June 24, 2022, in the ruling of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
“We need to actually take a look at how to change the longevity of the court.” She suggested the possibility of imposing an age cap, or mandatory retirement age, for Supreme Court justices, or, perhaps more controversially, expand the court. The present arrangement of the Supreme Court, with nine justices, was set in 1869, and court expansion has been threatened by multiple presidential administrations, although never followed up on, as it would inevitably be seen as a partisan move. “We can put age limits on who serves on the court. Our problem is many were backed by Donald Trump. Remember, they didn’t give President Obama the ability to nominate a judge, so that’s how we get stuck with a very conservative court under President Donald Trump.”
Another item on Campos-Medina’s theoretical chopping block as a potential obstruction to judicial reform? The Senate’s filibuster. “I am for eliminating the filibuster because that’s how the minority has power to control what gets moved in the Senate. I am all for looking at those options and how we can make the court respond to the demands of the voters. Women in the United States are absolutely in support of having the right to choose for themselves when they become a mother. I think that we need somebody to go to the Senate and fight for those issues and not be wishy-washy. We need action to get the court to be more representative, for the rights of women to have their own bodily autonomy.”
The Supreme Court does not have a Human Resources Department, and as an unelected institution, the constitution’s Founding Fathers assumed that decent, sober, virtuous justices would serve, appointed and confirmed by the people’s representatives. That itself was supposed to have been the character test. But this is, apparently, insufficient. The Congress also lacks an apolitical HR, but the members of congress, at the very least, are policed by the rules of the House and Senate—and ultimately the people at elections.
Campos-Medina wants to see an ethics code with some teeth for the Supreme Court, as the justices cannot be removed by the people. “What we need to see right now are enforced ethics rules that every elected official has to live by. We now have Supreme Court justices being wined and dined by billionaires, with gifts and private jet flights. We need to actually hold the Supreme Court justices accountable, like every other elected leader has to report contributions. And if they’re unethical, we must have a way to hold them accountable for it.”
Immigration reform and border security has been a red-hot issue, going so far as to even present a challenge to the federalist system where Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas appeared to defy the White House on border control measures. But the problem itself is more complex than simply putting up physical barricades along the Rio Grande. Campos-Medina, herself an immigrant, blamed both Democrats and Republicans for failing over the last three decades to enact meaningful and effective immigration reform. She outlined a three-point program, but not before highlighting that the border itself is not the whole picture. In fact, she described it as a ploy by the right. “Our immigration problems do not start at the border with Mexico. They are bigger than that and we will not solve them by just talking about security. That is a dog whistle tactic by the Trump campaign that has been effectively used to divide working people. As Democrats, we cannot continue to fall into the trap of using that racist anti-immigrant rhetoric that they use. That said, that rhetoric has become a political quagmire for elected officials. The way we resolve it is that we must go back to reminding America that we are a nation of immigrants, that we have the capacity, and we are in need of a young workforce of immigrants that come here and fulfill some of the most important economic needs.”
Her strategy consisted of reforming refugee laws and resettlement programs, applying aid and support to Latin-American countries where so many people are leaving in the first place—to help stabilize those conditions, and lastly creating a legal path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the US today.
Everyone who has to live along some kind of budget in New Jersey complains that living in the Garden State is expensive. Taxes are high, cost of living is high, cities and towns are congested. Many of these problems are, at their root, stemming from county and local matters, but Campos-Medina said that a senator can try to address some of them from Washington, DC. She supports undoing some of the Trump-era tax policies that let corporate America’s highest earners benefit. She also advocates for the Biden Infrastructure bill to invest in job creation. “We also need apprenticeships and equity outcomes for more women to enter the building trades. Through the apprenticeship programs, that can lead to middle class jobs to reduce the affordability costs for working people. We also need to invest in reducing our healthcare costs for women to be able to return to work.” Campos-Medina said that careful investments need to be made in the areas of elder care as well as Medicare and Medicaid since these represent enormous financial considerations for working families.
As the primary campaign nears, engaged Democrats may find this an opportunity to define the heart and soul of the party. Further, it represents a challenge to the influence of the party bosses whose institutional support naturally lends a huge advantage to a candidate. A poor showing for the First Lady could represent an erosion of that power, where the voters themselves begin to push back on the lumbering machinery which delivered for Menendez time and time again. Campos-Medina’s campaign seeks to make history not just for New Jersey’s first female US Senator, but also for what she describes as advocacy for New Jersey’s hard-working families over the false choices presented by party bosses.
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Author: John Van Vliet