Menendez’s experience with inequality at school catapulted him into politics.
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 know, 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.
Recorded on: 9/12/07