Emerson and Union Hill high schools are gone, folded into a new Union City High School, which sits, interestingly, on the ground once occupied by Roosevelt Stadium.
But thanks to the often stranger than fiction nature of politics, the old Emerson-Union Hill battle is about to be rekindled in a very different way.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, the incumbent Democrat, grew up in Union City and attended Union Hill.
Bob Hugin, the leading Republican candidate, grew up in the same city at roughly the same time and attended Emerson.
Full disclosure: I grew up in Union City as well and distinctly remember when Menendez first ran for the city school board in 1974. I do not remember candidate Hugin, but his brother, John, was in my class in elementary school, although we called it grammar school in those days.
It may mean little to people living elsewhere, but to have two U.S. Senate candidates who grew up in the same city is pretty remarkable. While Union City is terribly congested, this is still a place that is merely 48 blocks long and less than a mile wide.
Menendez’ rise through the rigors of Hudson County politics is well-known and need not be repeated here.
Hugin’s rise up until now has had nothing to do with politics. A condensed version has him attending Princeton, joining the Marines and becoming a successful pharmaceutical executive.
Kicking off his campaign on Tuesday, Hugin said he was tired of sitting on the sidelines and that he would represent all the people. He vowed to be independent, saying he would support both Democratic policies and oppose President Trump if New Jersey interests were at stake.
To be frank, this is not inspiring or earth-shattering stuff.
Hugin’s speech was short on specifics, although he did say he was unhappy that federal tax reform limits state and local tax deductions to $10,000. He said Menendez, who opposed the bill, should have done more to change it.
The coincidental nature of their background likely will be written about now and then, but it hardly obscures the central question.
Can Republicans ever win a U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey again?
It has not happened since 1972. Republicans over the years have tried running an assortment of candidates – state lawmakers, former federal officials, the son of a popular former governor, and a one-time football star at West Point. All lost.
The prevailing wisdom postulated at Hugin’s kickoff in Springfield on why this year will be different went this way:
First and foremost, Menendez is “damaged goods.” He may have survived a federal indictment, but the record of him accepting gifts from a wealthy businessman in exchange for favors has been well documented. Hugin said he was “offended” by the senator’s actions.
Second, Hugin apparently has the money to fund his campaign. That is a big deal.
Third, the economy is strong and may get stronger.
Richard Kamin, a former Morris County assemblyman and attendee at Hugin’s kickoff, said, “The whole (political) dynamic is going to change between now and November.” He said an improving economy and more money in people’s pockets will make Menendez look bad for opposing the Republican-pushed tax reform bill.
And then there is Phil Murphy.
Republicans expect Murphy to be unpopular by this fall, thereby helping Republicans.
Murphy’s early poll numbers are not sparkling, but in truth, most in the state probably know very little about the new governor. To say now that Murphy will be unpopular in the fall is a guess, nothing more.
The GOP’s positive speculation also leaves out the specter of Trump, whose poll numbers in the state are dismal. Unless Trump’s popularity surges, you can expect Democrats to tie Hugin to the president, notwithstanding his vow to be independent.
As for Hugin, you have to expect him to spend much campaign capital on trashing Menendez for being corrupt.
Testing out what may be an often-repeated campaign line, Hugin said New Jersey deserves a hard-working senator, “not one working to stay one step ahead of the law.”
Hugin’s kickoff notwithstanding, there is another GOP challenger. That would be Dana Wefer, a one-time Democrat, now running in hopes of pulling the Republican party toward the middle. Wefer ran about 10 years or so ago as a Democrat for county and state office in heavily-Republican Morris County. So, she is no stranger to uphill fights.
Reacting to Hugin’s kickoff, Wefer said, “The only way we will defeat Bob Menendez is with authenticity, and authenticity can only be achieved when the nominee wins the support of voters from the bottom up, not the top down.”
She urged Hugin to join her in asking county GOP chairs to hold an open, democratic convention process before deciding which candidate to endorse.
Wefer, by the way, is not from Union City, but she lived once in Hoboken, which is just down the hill.