NJ Spotlight

Republican challenger Bob Hugin, left, and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ)


Behind the nasty political ads dominating New Jersey’s battle for a U.S. Senate seat are two candidates who seem to share similar positions on many issues, at least on the surface, although how strongly the GOP challenger supports President Donald Trump is up for debate.

Incumbent Bob Menendez, 64, has a record and is clear in his support of Democratic positions on issues ranging from healthcare to gun control and opposes virtually everything about the Trump administration.

Where former pharmaceuticals executive Bob Hugin, 63, stands is less clear. At least some of his TV ads do not even mention he is a Republican. He says he will be an independent voice for New Jerseyans if elected and espouses several positions that appear to clash with those of Trump’s — although he was a convention delegate for Trump and donated to his campaign in 2016. In other instances, Hugin has supported some of Trump’s actions outright, most recently backing the controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hugin’s positions, as outlined on his campaign website, often leave wiggle room that could allow him to back away from more moderate positions when these clash with business or economic concerns. Ultimately, it’s hard to know exactly where Hugin stands on many issues. He has held few press conferences or events to discuss issues or answer questions from the press. Neither he, nor his campaign, responded to repeated requests to talk with NJ Spotlight.

Menendez interprets Hugin’s silence

“You know he’s hiding behind his millions of dollars that he made by ripping off cancer patients and ripping off Medicare, Medicaid, and the veterans health system,” Menendez, in his 13th year in the Senate, said last week during a press conference. He also repeated charges that Hugin unjustifiably raised drug prices as head of Celgene. “So he doesn’t need to engage with you (the press) and he doesn’t need to answer your questions. And he doesn’t have press conferences … So the bottom line is he doesn’t need to engage with you because he doesn’t want to answer the questions that New Jerseyans should know.”

Nick Iacovella, a spokesman for the Hugin campaign, denied that his candidate is hiding: “We've done over 400 events and held press conferences on a number of topics.”

Playing the Trump card

How the candidates’ views square with those of Trump and the parties is important in this blue state that has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 46 years. It also gives voters who may be disheartened by the barrage of negative ads the campaigns are running a way to choose a candidate besides deciding which man is less ethically challenged. Hugin has been hammering Menendez over the corruption charges that the Senate Committee on Ethics admonished him for earlier this year, while Menendez charges that Hugin put his quest for profits for his former company, Celgene, ahead of patients and taxpayer-supported federal health insurance plans.

Actually, there’s more at stake this year than just who represents New Jersey in the Senate; Democrats are hoping to pick up two more Senate seats to take the majority. The party must also defend all 26 blue seats on this year’s ballot and had not planned on spending much money and effort here, but Menendez’s ethics troubles and the $16 million Hugin pumped into his campaign through June 30 alone has made this a horserace. Some polls show the race is tight, although Real Clear Politics’ average of the polls shows Menendez with a 7.2-point lead.

NJ Spotlight consulted the candidates’ websites and asked them and their campaigns for their positions on a number of key issues. Menendez discussed his positions, as well as his record. Since the Hugin campaign did not respond to several requests to answer questions, all of his positions, when known, are taken from his website or campaign literature.

Top issues for the candidates

Top prorities, for Menendez, are “the 1 million New Jerseyans who got healthcare under the Affordable Care Act, the 3.8 million New Jerseyans who have a preexisting condition that can no longer be discriminated against … It's about stopping offshore drilling that the administration wants to do off our incredibly beautiful beaches on the coast.”

Hugin’s website states that he is running for the Senate to see that all New Jerseyans have access to the American dream.

Where they stand on the environment

Menendez believes climate change is happening and supports actions to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to it and using tax credits to boost cleaner, renewable energy sources. He also is sponsoring legislation that would repeal tax subsidies for the five largest oil companies, saving $22 billion over a decade, as well as a bipartisan bill that would boost offshore wind development by creating an investment tax credit for the first 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind facilities put in service. And he was a sponsor of the law that created the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park.

Again, Menendez said he sees his role as trying to stop the Trump administration’s attack on a number of critical environmental rules.

“He's working to gut the Clean Air Act, which was undeniably successful in reducing asthma and lung disease in our state, which has a high rate of respiratory illnesses,” Menendez said. “He's working to roll back the Clean Water rule, which protects the drinking water of 170 million Americans ... I'm on record as supporting the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.”

Hugin’s website states that he “believes that climate change is real and that humans play a role in it” and he would push Trump to protect the environment “while ensuring they are fair deals for American taxpayers and businesses.” It also indicates that Hugin opposes all drilling off the coast, as Menendez does.

Assessing education policies

Menendez is supporting legislation that would make two years of community-college education free. He is co-sponsoring a bill that would let students refinance high-interest loan debt and one that would prohibit public schools from discriminating against a student on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

He is also opposed to several actions undertaken by the Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, including those to ease Obama-era regulations on for-profit schools found to have misled students in promising they would be able to get jobs with the certificates they earned — instead, leaving them saddled with large amounts of debt they cannot repay.

“I believe accountability in higher education is absolutely essential if we’re going to ensure that students receive quality education that prepares them for the workforce … especially without saddling them with insurmountable student debt,” Menendez said. “That’s particularly true for the for-profit industry where we have seen a higher percentage of bad actors than other sectors. I’ve opposed the Trump administration's efforts to undermine protections like the one that allows students to have their federal loans forgiven if they've been defrauded by a school. I think that those are essential safeguards against a for-profit school that doesn’t meet its obligations to the students.”

Hugin’s website does not address higher-education student debt.

Getting a read on healthcare

Menendez is a co-sponsor of bipartisan legislation that would extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and a childhood obesity demonstration project through the 2022 fiscal year. He is also co-sponsoring two bills designed to make prescription drugs more affordable — the CREATES Act, which would require pharmaceuticals companies to make sample drugs available to firms seeking to make cheaper generic equivalents, and the SPIKE Act, which would require drugmakers that increase the cost of their medications by a certain amount to justify those hikes to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Menendez also supports allowing people between 55 and 65 to buy into Medicare if they choose to get coverage that way.

He is also a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act and voted against all efforts by the Trump administration to weaken it.

“I strongly support universal coverage,” Menendez said. He particularly praised the ACA provisions that guarantee coverage for pre-existing conditions, prevent basing premium charges by gender, and eliminate lifetime coverage caps.

“If you had a serious illness,” he said, you were one illness away from bankruptcy. “That's no longer the case. And I think that's something to be built upon. Working towards universal coverage is really important. I believe that having a public option on the exchange would create greater competition and lower costs. And I'm also a big believer that we have to continue to work to lower the cost of prescription drugs, which are big drain on our healthcare system, on the Medicare system, on the Medicaid system, the VA (Veterans Affairs) system, and just for private individuals who need a prescription to stay healthy or to get healthy and sometimes to stay alive.”

In an interview in the October issue of New Jersey Business magazine, Hugin said he supports keeping the coverage of pre-existing conditions, allowing children up to age 26 to be covered by a parent’s plan, and certain wellness and prevention incentives. But the former pharmaceuticals executive said, “the ACA hurt the working poor. It discriminated against them so dramatically that it is just an embarrassment that needs to be fixed.”

In 2017, outside the White House, Hugin was videotaped saying of Trump’s healthcare plans, “The changes that he’s proposing are ones that I think are going to be great for the country and for consumers to get better healthcare, more access.” Unable to get Congress to repeal the ACA, the Trump administration has lifted a ban on short-term limited plans that do not have to cover preventive care or pre-existing conditions.

Trying to track taxes

Both candidates oppose the provision in last year’s federal tax revision bill that caps at $10,000 the amount people can deduct in state income and property taxes. Menendez panned the entire bill, which also significantly lowered taxes on corporations and those with large estates, as well as lowering individual tax rates and roughly doubling the standard deduction. Hugin’s website is silent on his views on the other parts of the tax bill.

“Bob will fight to eliminate the cap, and make the individual tax cuts permanent, so New Jersey taxpayers can realize meaningful long-term relief,” Hugin’s website states. It also says the changes “will deliver real relief for many New Jerseyans and help spur economic growth and job creation.”

But Menendez, who called the tax overhaul “the most fiscally irresponsible bill I've ever seen,” providing a “sugar rush” of $2 trillion in tax cuts that are not paid for, said that’s not happening.

“It's one of the largest transfers of wealth to large corporations and the top 1 percent in the nation's history,” Menendez said. “It's a morally bankrupt bill that borrows from future generations, that abandons critical investments in infrastructure and education and healthcare ... The largest corporations basically used the money they got not to create more jobs, not to grow the income of their workers, but to buy back their stocks and drive up the value of their stock price. That's good for the person who holds the stock. But it's not good for America at large.”

Addressing infrastructure issues

Both men also say they would work to try to get Trump to use federal funding to help pay for the Gateway Tunnel project, to enable more and faster train service between New Jersey and New York, including along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Menendez worked hard to get $3 billion in federal funding for the ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) tunnel project that preceded Gateway and he suggested ways of scaling back the cost of ARC in 2010 in an unsuccessful attempt to get former Gov. Chris Christie to change his mind about cancelling ARC in its entirety. So far, Trump has agreed only to spend $541 million toward the project that could cost $25 billion to 30 billion.

“We thought we would have common ground with the Trump administration on this because it is a project of national significance; it's about the entire Northeast Corridor from Boston all the way to Washington, D.C.,” Menendez said. “We’re going to continue to fight and I believe we'll be successful at the end of the day.”

Hugin’s website states he “will fight for projects like Gateway” and that he “has called on President Trump and leaders in both parties to stop the partisan finger-pointing and move these important priorities forward.”

Drawing a bead on gun control

Menendez has received an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association. He supports universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and was among the congressional representatives to fight the State Department’s decision to stop blocking the release online of 3D printer gun specs.

He also opposes any action by the Department of Education to allow local schools to use federal funds to arm classroom teachers. DeVos has said schools should have the option of providing firearms to staff and training teachers how to use to them. Further, she would not take any action to change any flexibilities states and local districts may have to spend the federal education funds they receive.

“I haven't met a teacher yet that has told me that they want to be armed in their classroom,” Menendez said. “These teachers that we've seen across the country have even risked their lives to protect their students. But the last thing they want to be is armed with a gun ... This is an incredible call to use federal money to do this instead. I'm a big proponent of reasonable gun-safety measures. I voted for the assault weapons ban when it was passed to the House of Representatives. I support its reinstatement now.”

At an August press conference, Hugin said he, too, would not support arming classroom teachers. He also said he supported expanded background checks and preventing those with mental illnesses from owning guns. But Hugin did not say whether he supports an assault-weapons ban.

The New Jersey student leader of the March for Our Lives national gun-control movement started by survivors of February’s Parkland, FL, high school shooting wrote an op-ed last month saying that Hugin’s support of Kavanaugh — backed by the NRA — and his past campaign contributions to NRA-backed candidates “should alarm New Jersey voters.”

Voters will get a chance to see both candidates debate issues, and likely their attacks on each other, as well, on October 24. NJ Spotlight will stream the debate live, along with expert commentary from NJ Spotlight, NJTV, and others. It’s the only debate that Menendez and Hugin have agreed to.

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