Hughes and Benson Go at it in Our Revolution Debate

Assemblyman Dan Benson (LD-14) and Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, son of former New Jersey Governor Richard J. Hughes, locked horns Thursday night during a Zoom debate hosted by “Our Revolution Trenton Mercer.”  The event was designed to allow the public an opportunity to ask questions of the two candidates seeking the executive post for Mercer County, a seat that Hughes has held for almost two decades.  Hughes is seeking re-election while Benson is looking to shift from the halls of state power in Trenton to the halls of county power—also in Trenton.

After introductory remarks by the events emcee, Brady Rivera, the tone was quickly set, distinguishing the two candidates.  Hughes seemed languid but confident while Benson appeared highly alert and well-studied.   The format was not designed, specifically, to cater to barbs and counter-barbs between the candidates, but was rather where each candidate would be asked a given question from Our Revolution.

Our Revolution, it should be said, is a progressive, left-leaning organization which is heavy on environmental, social justice, and reform matters.  The discussion would inevitably have a bearing on where the organization would seek to place its support going forward.

Hughes introduced himself and cited his past accomplishments as Mercer County executive, while Benson came in swinging.  The assemblyman said that some of his goals were to clean up the county government, saying there had been “too many scandals and folks under investigation.”  Hughes, in turn, said that Benson had voted against libraries in Mercer County and spent twelve years as an ineffectual legislator.  Parrying again, Benson said that “accounting is not the strong suite of the current county executive.”

The debate organizers clearly wanted to keep the messaging on track and, in general, the candidates kept civil, but zings flew back and forth throughout the 90-minute event.

As might be expected, Hughes relied on his long tenure in office to provide a list of achievements that he seeks to continue to build upon.  This typically gives an incumbent an advantage, but Hughes also came off as reactive at times.  Benson retained a laser-like focus during the discussion and, as the challenger, drew heavily upon more recent history and shortcomings within the Mercer County government to provide him with ammunition.  His experience as an assemblyman in Trenton provided another platform from which he could make his case credibly.

The COVID-19 pandemic was discussed, and Hughes defended Mercer’s response, asserting that the county government took better care of its public sector workers than the state did, tying Benson to jobs lost as a result of state-level missteps.  When asked how he might use American Rescue Plan funds to alleviate poverty and inequality in the county, both candidates made their case.  Hughes asserted that, under his watch, 100% of homeless veterans in the county had been placed into housing.  Benson said that he wanted to look at how Newark’s pilot program rolled out incorporating outside funding, adding that community needs assessments were required.

Rivera then asked the candidates how they would see that their administrations were inclusive and representative.  Both, predictably, said that they would be reflective of their communities.  While out gathering petitions, Benson said that he discovered the forms were only available in English, and that constituents should have access to petition forms in whatever language they were most comfortable with.  For his part, Hughes said he would look into the matter.  The incumbent said that when he took over from the Republican administration, the county government was essentially all Caucasian.  “That has changed completely,” Hughes said, “I think government has changed for the better over twenty years, representing everyone.”

The questioning continued, but things started to get a little hotter when the name of George Norcross came up during a discussion on campaign funding and Super PACs.  (Norcross is a man Our Revolution described as “antithetical” to their values.)  Benson was the first to bring Norcross into the discussion, not by name, initially, but by saying Hughes had “embraced the King of Pay to Play,” rejecting independent expenditure as “clumsy” and bringing in outside influence.  Hughes fired back at Benson and East Windsor mayor Janice Mironov, who is also the Mercer County Democratic Chairwoman antagonistic to Hughes, saying that each of them had amassed huge warchests of their own while describing his own campaign as “very slim” in comparison.  “Look at Chair Miranov and Benson and see they are getting and hoarding [money] for a campaign to win at all costs for reasons unknown to me,” Hughes said.

The reason why his opponents would amass campaign funds is not much of a mystery.  Winning elections takes money.  The question of where the money comes from, however, can be a source of contention.

On Norcross, Hughes felt the need to defend him, one of the most influential south Jersey figures in the Democratic Party and overseer of a large insurance empire, while simultaneously asserting that if he had received any money from him, it was negligible.  “Maybe I received a contribution from George Norcross, but not more than a thousand dollars if I did,” he said.  Hughes appeared visibly annoyed when a question about the PBA for Benson was flipped back to the subject of Norcross for him.  Hughes said that he had known Norcross since he was thirteen years old and asserted that Norcross’ workers were well treated, dismissing terms like “power-broker” and other phrases often applied to the insurance executive.

Feeling that the ballot line is a hindrance or obstacle to openness and democracy—something Hughes readily agreed with, unsurprisingly given his contention with Miranov—Our Revolution asked the candidates where they stood on the matter.  Benson said that he would support the idea of ranked-choice voting, adding that he opposed Norcross “phantom” voting and also used the opportunity to zing Hughes on recent voting machine issues that affected Mercer in the last general election.  Benson said that the voting process needed to be clearer and simplified.

One of the last blood-lettings during the discussion centered around millions of dollars in fees for delinquent tax payments by the county.  Hughes said that “We were cheated out of our money by a long-term employee,” essentially dodging responsibility.  Benson fired a salvo after, “I think Brian and the administration probably knew and turned a blind eye.”

With the formal part of the discussion concluded, Our Revolution fielded some questions from participants via chat and then allowed the candidates to deliver their closing remarks.

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