In an appearance Sunday afternoon at a predominantly black church in Trenton, embattled U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez drew broad parallels between himself and other minority leaders such as the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr.
The Democrat from Hudson County blamed his current troubles, which include questions about his relationship with a contributor and the possibility of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation, on right-wing bloggers.
Speaking to a crowd of roughly 300 people at the Shiloh Baptist Church for a Black History Month celebration, Menendez appeared to surprise his own staff by using the venue to offer a spirited defense to questions that have dogged him for weeks. Before the speech, aides suggested that any questions about the issues would be cut off.
"I have felt the sting of discrimination," he said to cheers from the crowd, which included many members of the state Legislature and U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., D-Essex. "It has never been easy."
"Now we face anonymous, faceless, nameless individuals ... seeking to destroy a lifetime of work," he said. "In the end, I believe that justice will overcome the forces of darkness."
Menendez has been on the defensive in the wake of a series of disclosures surrounding his close ties to a Florida eye doctor, Salomon Melgen, a deep-pocketed Democratic donor whose office was raided last month by federal investigators.
Menendez flew to the Dominican Republic on Melgen's jet in 2010 and stayed in the doctor's resort home there, but did not report the flights on disclosure forms. In January, he reimbursed Melgen $58,500 for the trips and flights. The flights could be fodder for the Senate Ethics Committee.
Questions have also been raised about steps Menendez took with government officials on matters where Melgen stood to benefit.
Menendez said he would continue to fight for such issues as President Obama's health care initiative and early childhood education. "We must beat back the naysayers, the haters and the cynics," he said.
Menendez's remarks, which lasted about 20 minutes, drew frequent cheers from the audience and ended in a standing ovation.
Several dignitaries who spoke later likened Menendez's plight to the struggle for voting rights and suggested that the senator's accusers were attacking him because of his efforts to combat voter suppression.
In response to media questions after the event, Menendez did not directly address his actions regarding Melgen, but declared he would ultimately be vindicated.
"I have said already on so many occasions that I have acted appropriately at all times, that the smears that are being generated by right-wing blogs -- nameless, anonymous, faceless -- are false," he said. "And I believe when we go through this whole process that at the end of the day, that I will be in every respect looked to have acted appropriately."
The ethics questions looming over Menendez come as his storied political career has reached new heights. Reelected to his second Senate term last year, Menendez recently assumed chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee, a coveted post that imparts global stature and influence over international relations.
On Saturday night, Menendez returned from a weeklong trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he discussed the changing nature of the U.S. security role and efforts to contain terrorism. It was his first trip abroad as committee chairman.
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