Robert Menendez: Bob Menendez. United States Senator from New Jersey.
Question: Where are you from and how did that shape you?
Robert Menendez: I grew up in New Jersey. Born in New York City. Lived in New Jersey my whole life from parents who emigrated from Cuba.
It’s bought certainly an immigrant experience to me; one that is very relevant in the work I do today, but more importantly one that make me think about what it is to come to a country in which you don’t necessarily have anybody waiting for you; in which you don’t necessarily know the language; in which you may have to start all over again as my mom and dad did, and think about the courage that that takes to do.
And in doing so the voyage that people are willing to undergo, whether it be for freedom or for economic opportunity. And so I think that that’s shaped a lot of my thinking, and certainly who I am as the first generation . . . the son of immigrants.
Question: What is the best advice you ever received?
Robert Menendez: The best advice I ever received was from my dad when he was alive. And it was, “There’s only one thing that you uniquely possess that you have the ability to ensure that no one can take away from you. The government can’t take it away from you. The police can’t take it away from you.
No one in the world can take it away from you, and that is your reputation and your word. And so cherish it.” You know, “Respect it and guard it.” And I think that was some of the best advice I ever got.
Question: What did you think you’d be doing professionally when you were growing up?
Robert Menendez: Be a United States Senator. You know early on when I was only 20, I got elected to my local school board. I was the youngest person in the state’s history to be elected to any position. And I was asked then, “Well kid, alright.” You know, “Youngest school board member ever. What do you really wanna do?” And I said, “Be a United States Senator.” And that was over 30 years ago.
Question: When did public service spark your interest?
Robert Menendez: What got me involved in public life is something that happened to me in high school. I was a senior in a public high school. I was asked by my counselor, “Well you qualify to be in the senior honors program because of your grades and other things you’ve done, but . . .” you know, “And to do so, however, you have to have $200 to purchase books.” My family was poor. We lived in a tenement, and I didn’t have $200 for the books, and I was really upset because I said, “Well wait a minute. This is a public school, and if I have the grades and the ability, why would I be barred from being in the honors program if I simply don’t have the money?” So I created such a ruckus that they gave me the books, told me to shut up and put me in the honors program.
But I didn’t feel right about that because it was okay for me, but it wasn’t okay for a lot of my friends who also had the ability and the grades, didn’t have the money, and didn’t say anything. And ultimately the result of that was they didn’t get in. And so the next year when I graduated from high school, I started a petition drive to change the school board from one that was appointed by a corrupt administration to one that was elected by the public; achieved at the age of 19 with a group of my friends who felt equally cheated out of the type of education they should have received, getting thousands of signatures over a long, hot summer; put the referendum on the ballot; passed the referendum; ran for the first school board elections at the age of 20 against a priest and won. And that was 33 years ago.
Recorded on: September 12, 2007