New Jersey Political Dynasties: Built on Stone or Sand?

American proponents of democracy tend to pride themselves on the egalitarian ideals that their representatives reflect those they represent, and that those representatives change accordingly.  The opposite, one could argue, is a dynastic system.  But to some extent, dynasties are natural byproducts of political systems, and New Jersey is no stranger to this seemingly ancient phenomenon.

A dynasty is not necessarily a harmful thing for the public good, but for those political figures who have occupied public office for a long period of time, there comes a point where one must ask whether it is nobler to stand aside on a high note, or if there is honor in a potentially Quixotic charge against change?

Nothing, of course, is inevitable in New Jersey politics, but sometimes there is writing on the wall and it is a matter of personality whether or not one can let go to the familiar trappings and responsibilities of power, or if one is inclined to go down with a fight, or if one has the clarity and humility to step aside.  In New Jersey, there are examples of all of the above.  More specifically, there are no term limits in place for Mercer County executive, and Brian Hughes has now occupied that position for 18 years.  The son of former New Jersey Governor Richard J. Hughes, his father served as New Jersey’s chief executive from 1962-1970, and thereafter as chief justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court from 1973-1979.  Unlike Tom Kean, Jr., however, Hughes’ governorship ended some 42 years ago.  As a result, it is passing out of the active memory of a majority of the New Jersey political establishment.  Tom Kean, Sr. served as governor from 1982-1990 and resurfaced again in the national spotlight as the Bush-era Chairman of the 9/11 Commission.  Governor Kean is also a relatively frequent figure engaging with the media, something his son is less inclined to do, but nevertheless remains part of the active political picture today.

Two dynasties, alike in many ways, the Keans Republicans and the Hughes Democrats, seem to be on paths in which the former is in ascendant while the latter in a slow decline.  After a series of defeats since leaving the NJ State Senate, Tom Kean, Jr. has managed to score an electoral victory, giving the Kean name an uptick.  He defeated incumbent Democrat Congressman Tom Malinowski and will return to the public scene—even if he has been and remains notoriously camera-shy.  In the case of Hughes, he has presided over nearly two-decades of solid Democratic control in Mercer County.  Overall, he is well-liked, genial, and has a record of accomplishments he wishes to continue building upon.  However, sources have begun to question whether or not Hughes is quite fit for the job, physically, as well as politically.  The County Executive was the object of a few motor vehicle incidents, such as two years ago when he was found disoriented by a Pennsylvania Trooper along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and two collisions he was involved with in 2017.  When ballot machines in Mercer County reported having problems reading barcodes, Hughes was quick to announce that action would be taken to investigate and ensure the matters were fixed.  At the same time, he made it known that the county executive has little to do with the election process itself, but he would nevertheless exercise what powers he could.  Clashes with the party apparatus have made some Mercer insiders look elsewhere for future county executive leadership: eyes have turned to Assemblyman Dan Benson and former Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer.  Is the sand running out on Hughes’ continued presence in office, or will his legacy and dynastic power be enough to keep him in office until and unless he decides not to run again?

According to a statement from Hughes, Mercer County is a well-run county, with a number of public works projects underway.  He said that the COVID pandemic stalled the last two years of work, but he was determined to see it through.  Voters, of course, would be the ones to give him that green-light.  But longevity does not necessarily equate to invincibility.  As some dynasties in New Jersey rise and fall, one can look to a few examples—the Kennedys, now based in Brigantine; the aforementioned Keans.  The Frelinghuysen family is among the arch-patricians of the Garden State, with former Republican Congressman Rodney P. Frelinghuysen serving largely the same constituencies his father did before him, and whose ancestors include business kingpins, brewers, US Senators, and Revolutionary War officers.  Frelinghuysen Township is named for the family’s antebellum-era senator (and mayor) Theodore Frelinghuysen.  The George Griswold Frelinghuysen Arboretum is named for the former congressman’s great-grandfather.  As a dynasty, the Frelinghuysen name is unquestionably at the pinnacle of New Jersey’s history.  Today the Frelinghuysens are, for the moment at least, out of public office for the first time in decades.  Far less rooted, but nevertheless active, one of the newer congealing dynasties is that of the Menendez family, where US Senator Robert Menendez, despite contending with more legal woes, paved the way for his son, Robert Jr., to become a Hudson-based congressman in his first foray into elected public office this year.  The Frelinghuysen name is etched into the stone of New Jersey history, regardless of what the family may do going forward.  The Menendezes are in the formative years of laying their foundation.

In Central Jersey, the Hughes dynasty is less certain.  The situation in Mercer has been one which sees Democrats solidly in control, but fraught with infighting among the party’s leaders.  Mercer County Democratic Chairwoman, Janice Mironov, is the Mayor of East Windsor, a post she has held for a quarter-century, and past friction with Hughes can spell challenges for the County Executive as Mironov’s allies on all levels of government fall in behind her.  This could position her, if she wished, to make a bid to succeed Benson as an assemblymember in the event the assemblyman knocks out Hughes.  Benson, according to sources, may be looking to build up a heady war chest to take on the long-time incumbent.  A fundraiser event in Hamilton Township for Benson saw ticket sales of $40, $400, $1,000, and $2,500—sizable price tags for what some would expect to be a hard-hitting campaign in the works.

If the tide is such that Hughes may face a primary contest, then he has a mix of young energy and long-time experience building up against him with Benson particularly.  Benson is 47 years old, holding public office since he was 27 as a Hamilton Township Councilman.  He then rapidly moved up the ladder, becoming a Mercer County freeholder in 2008 and entered the Assembly in 2011.  Following a legislative ascent, it might be logical to presume Benson would have his eye on state senate, but Senator Linda Greenstein appears to be a solid fixture.  Closer to home, and to obtain executive experience, Mercer County executive would seem an attractive option for someone with ambition and the means to launch a strong campaign.  Hughesian feuding among the party powerbrokers, particularly with Mironov, could severely undermine the incumbent’s chances in getting the all-important county-line ballot placement, especially for a position that generally resonates little with the typical voter.

President, US senator, congressman, governor: these positions are the most visible and rev up the most excitement for the citizen who is inclined to vote but does not necessarily consider himself or herself to be particularly political.  There are other things going on, after all, such as the high cost of everything from food, fuel, housing, childcare, debt, and medical care.  While civic engagement and county- and- local- level politics do, in fact, have an impact on residents’ bottom line, the reality is that it garners less attention, typically, for off-presidential election years.  For those who just vote “down the line” placement on the ballot is crucial.

Also crucial is the perception that good work has been done and can be therefore rewarded with a return to power.  A multi-term incumbent can rely on a strong record as justification for another term.  This is the ideal concept, which is divorced from the human reality that power, like Newton’s First Law of Motion, wants to remain in power and will do so, unless acted upon by an outside force.  Unlike Newtonian perceptions of reality, however, political realities account for said power acting upon its own environment to ensure its nature-defying perpetual motion.  One of the products of which are, naturally, dynasties.  The ideal dynastic situation is one where stewardship and effectiveness are held in high regard, thereby delivering on the ‘oblige’ to their ‘noblesse’.  Those who do so are immortalized with their names on libraries, universities, hospitals, highways, scholarships, and more—the gifts and honors from people well-served.  The Frelinghuysens and their continued return to public office, historically, represent the perfect example of such.  This is not to say that such dynasties are not made without arm-twisting, back-door deals, or threats, but the long view of the public takes to heart more the ends than the means, particularly in hard-nosed New Jersey where people require their government to be effective rather than angelic.

In the traditional sense, dynasties are royal or aristocratic families who rule within a given framework and whose succession is usually not a matter of question.  Electoral dynasties, such as the Frelinghuysens, Keans, and Hughes, endure because of a combination of public confidence and institutional stability.  The former is achieved when those dynasties consistently prove themselves stewards of the public good.  The latter is a condition of circumstance, whether by deliberate engineering or luck, or more often a bit of both.  When stewardship fails, or if scandal sets in, then the public willingness is then challenged by the institutional stability: money, favors, party machinery, and the like.  US Senator Robert Menendez, with his dynasty taking root, provides an apt example.  As the Menendez line entwines in the political soil of the Garden State, the senator’s son, Robert Jr., becomes a congressman in the seat once occupied by his father.  At the same time, the senator prepares to face a new federal investigation, although details on the investigation itself remain unclear.

Five years ago, Senator Menendez endured a grueling campaign against Republican Bob Hugin, fighting to retain his senate seat while undergoing a trial for corruption charges.  Menendez was acquitted and defeated Hugin, but still took a black eye in the Democratic primary where voters cast 40% of their ballots for Democratic challenger Lisa McCormick, a candidate who had no reported money spent on her campaign.  This was a warning to Menendez from the Democratic base, but Hugin was unable to convince enough voters overall that Menendez should be deposed.

In Mercer County, Hughes has no such political scandal to serve as an albatross around his neck, but he does see the slipping away of his party support which has kept him in office these past 18 years.  No dynasty is necessarily immortal, and even a king has to rely upon the support of those around him.  The coming challenge will be one which tests the strength of legacy and name recognition against the freshness of outside appeal.  Hughes may well see a contest putting him against Dan Benson, or former Trenton mayor, Doug Palmer.  In either respect, the county executive will need to pull up the drawbridge of Castle Hughes and await a coming siege if he is to keep his crown.

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