Assemblyman Dan Benson secured the Mercer County line this weekend, taking a hair under 80% of the Democratic county committee, representing a serious blow in Democratic Party machine confidence in incumbent Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes.
Hughes is seeking re-election to the office he has held on to for the last 19 years, but will be off-the-line. Channeling Captain John Paul Jones as his ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard was ablaze and sinking, Hughes declared “I have not yet begun to fight” over the weekend. Jones, of course, later forced the surrender of his opponent, HMS Serapis, against all odds. Whether or not Hughes will have that kind of revolutionary luck remains to be seen, but the campaign is seeing water coming through the bulkheads.
Insider NJ spoke with Assemblyman Benson to get an impression of his campaign. It is not particularly common for those occupying higher level office to then run for more local ones, with Congressman Albio Sires a notable exception as he seeks to return to his hometown of West New York.
Rather than look towards the state senate or the Congress, Benson told Insider NJ, “Mercer County needs real leadership and this is my home. The county executive’s office is a place where I will bring needed change and make sure our municipalities and citizens get the help that they need. I looked at the state of Mercer County government and I decided I could do even more good for my community here than I could by staying in the Assembly, or running for a different office.”
Benson also expressed his confidence in Senator Linda Greenstein, a woman he described as “excellent” serving his district.
As the Hughes-Benson race continues, Benson said, “I’ll invest in our future through better infrastructure, education, and social services, and you’ll always know where I stand. Unfortunately, Brian Hughes and his inner circle seem more interested in protecting themselves than they are in seeking innovative ways to move Mercer forward.”
Among the critiques of the incumbent, Benson suggested that there is a bigger issue at stake which is affecting the county-level administration. One which, unsurprisingly, he said that he means to change. “There’s a culture in Mercer County government where people are afraid to speak up when they see problems, because they’re afraid they’ll be punished,” Benson said. “That culture has to end. Government has to work for everyone, not just a select few. I’ve always believed in openness and collaboration. That’s why I have the endorsements of six of our seven County Commissioners. They know that they need a real partner in government, one who will answer their questions honestly, rather than fighting to keep them in the dark. I’ll prioritize accountability and responsible financial management, so that we never have to see taxpayer dollars wasted in the way the current administration has done.”
Another long-time politician, Senator Sam Thompson, made headlines recently after switching from the Republican Party to the Democratic. He said that this was because he took offense to comments by party leadership about his age, while other insiders suggest he was unwilling to go up against Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry in a primary. Thompson said that he would rely on his record of service with his constituency to carry over the party-line, but then decided to withdraw shortly after. In the case of Hughes, an 18 year incumbency is no small hurdle for a challenger like Benson to overcome. Hughes cited his past record, turning a formerly red county blue, and buckled down on his commitment to run.
“A mere 384 party insiders voted for Benson – many of them hand-picked by our Democratic Party boss,” Hughes said in a statement, referring to East Windsor Mayor Janice Miranov, with whom he has a contentious relationship. “I believe that the more than 120,000 Democratic voters in this county should have a say in who their nominee for County Executive is, so I am taking my campaign to them. I look forward to comparing my record of accomplishments with that of my opponent before all the Democratic voters in Mercer County. I am confident that those voters will nominate me on June 6 to continue our record of accomplishments.”
In an off-year, the incumbents generally have the advantage of name recognition and voter apathy, while the more committed and attuned turn up to vote. Benson told Insider NJ how he plans to connect with the voters during a year with neither a presidential nor gubernatorial race occupying headlines. “For too long, we’ve seen missed opportunities, empty promises, and wasted tax dollars from the Hughes administration, and these scandals just continue to come to light. We know that voters are ready for real change. We just need to reach them and get our message out. I’m building a people-powered campaign that is reaching into every corner of Mercer County and engaging with everyone. The energy we’ve seen has been incredible, and it’s only going to grow as we win the county convention and move into the primary.”
Among the issues Benson seeks to capitalize on by showing himself as a viable alternative to the long-serving executive was the matter of the pandemic and how it was handled on the county level. “People are upset with the response of this administration to COVID-19. The administration was missing in action and left municipalities to fend for themselves. We need to be proactive so that we are prepared for the next crisis.”
In a debate with Our Revolution Mercer, however, Hughes had defended his COVID-19 response, saying that the county handled matters better than the state did and protected county workers while the state failed to do so, tying his opponent to aggravation with the Gold Dome’s handling. Benson, however, said, “Voters have seen millions of their tax dollars wasted and hundreds of millions of dollars of county projects remain stagnant due to the lack of leadership by the County Executive. They want real leadership and a responsive government that works with our municipalities. I know we can bring that needed change. I am a consensus-builder who will work with our municipalities to bring innovation and collaboration.”
Charging that Mercer County had been beset with “too many scandals” in the past, he was asked what his strategy was toward promoting accountability. “I will hire vetted, qualified staff from diverse and broad backgrounds that have real expertise. I will be an active manager who is decisive, takes clear action, and leads by example.”
A point of particular contention among Mercer County residents had been the late filing of taxes, which resulted in fees shouldered by the taxpayers. Hughes decried the matter was one in which the residents were “cheated” by a long-term employee. Benson, however, took aim at the top, and minced no words as to where he felt the buck stopped. “Brian Hughes is responsible for the financial mismanagement of the county, including the $4.5 million in tax fines, the $200 million in unbonded projects, the $600,000 the county lost due to a phishing scam, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars we’ve spent defending Brian Hughes’s personally appointed staff from harassment claims. The County Executive is now fighting with the state comptroller saying their audit is incorrect. Brian Hughes needs to be held accountable for his lack of leadership and financial mismanagement.”
As Hughes battens down the hatches of his warship, vowing to continue the fight, he was undaunted. The incumbent said, “I am proud of the work of my administration and how far we have come together. It was 19 years ago that I stepped up to take on a Republican-controlled machine that was in power for 24 years. Since then, our party has not only maintained complete control of our Board of Commissioners, but every county-wide office along with scoring huge Democratic victories in state and federal campaigns. I believe the voters of this great county recognize effective leadership and my long record of accomplishments. We have always put our constituents first by providing critical services and opening up county government to everyone regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity or geography.”
In the end, of course, it is the voters who will decide whether to continue to reward Hughes’ service with another term, or to put Benson in command that he might turn a leaky county ship around.