Without actually meeting face-to-face on Monday night, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez and the man who aspires to replace him, Republican Bob Hugin, tried to knock each other out of the race. But before going on the offensive, they were in total agreement, each expressing shock and sympathy about the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday.
Speaking separately at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany, both rejected hate speech and called for a return to civility in public discourse.
Hugin even called out the leader of his party, saying, “There is no place for divisive language from anyone, and that includes the president of the United States.” Menendez said, “Words matter. Rhetoric has power to bring people together, or drive them apart.”
The candidates spoke following opening remarks by Dov Ben-Shimon, executive vice president and CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, whose Community Relations Committee (CRC) hosted the event. Ben-Shimon took the opportunity, just two days after the tragedy in Pittsburgh, to reassure those present that they were in a safe facility.
After opening statements, both candidates faced most of the same questions from a panel that included Linda Scherzer, executive director of the CRC; Dena Dubofsky, the N.J. deputy director of the American Jewish Committee; and Darcy Schleifstein, a Randolph High School student who serves on federation’s teen task force on gun control.
Hugin, tanned and casually dressed, fumbled at times to find the words he wanted, but sounded earnest when discussing his decision to run for office. “I’m one of the luckiest people in the world and I knew I should give back,” he said. He outlined his life trajectory from a working-class home, to Princeton University, the Marines, Wall Street, and most recently, a career at pharmaceutical company Celgene.
Running had not been in his “life plan,” he said, but he was “morally offended” that Menendez sought re-election. Menendez, he continued, had allowed New Jerseyans to be “shortchanged” by the federal government, with residents receiving less in return for tax contributions than those of any other state.
From the outset, Hugin stressed his support for Israel. “I’m not trying to out-Israel Bob Menendez, but I visited Israel the week of the embassy move to Jerusalem,” he said. Asked what steps the United States could take to help bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he said that Israel had done “everything possible” to support negotiations, but also noted that he had observed very visible poverty in the West Bank, and suggested that the U.S. could provide additional resources to improve living conditions. “Not that poverty is an excuse” for violence, he added.
Asked about President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, Hugin said even though he had initially approved of it as he believes in “solutions that are diplomatically driven,” he had come to see it as flawed because Iran had taken advantage of the eased economic sanctions to fund Hezbollah and its presence in Syria.
Menendez, dressed formally and looking somewhat weary — presumably a result of an unexpectedly competitive re-election campaign — said the difference between himself and Hugin is that his actions speak louder than words.
“When I tell you that I am a friend of Israel or that I support civil rights, and women’s rights, and the LGBTQ community, and the environment, and affordable health care, I’m not asking you to take my word for it. It’s not a leap of faith. You have my record.”
Although Hugin has said he supports those issues as well, Menendez remarked that his opponent had spent decades bankrolling those who oppose the same causes.
“I don’t have money,” Menendez said, “but if I did, I wouldn’t spend it fighting against what I believe in.”
The senator was contrite when, inevitably, he was questioned about his legal battles — Menendez was indicted in 2015 on corruption charges; the Justice Department ultimately dropped the case after the jury was deadlocked, though he was censured by the Senate Ethics Committee.
“I deeply apologize,” he said. “I have learned that appearances matter as much as substance,” and then pivoted by outlining how his voting record demonstrates his principled decisions.
For example, with regard to the Iran nuclear deal, Menendez pointed out that he broke with President Barack Obama on the matter, even though he had helped author the sanctions that brought Iran to the table in the first place. Menendez said he didn’t approve of the final agreement.
“We need to engage our allies to multi-lateralize our sanctions regime,” he said, so that it can have the crippling effect needed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table.
Each candidate was given a chance to respond to one charge by the opponent’s campaign. Hugin said that Menendez had unfairly characterized Celgene, focusing on how it has increased the price of a cancer drug and the massive fine it paid for false representation of another drug. Hugin insisted that the company is dedicated to helping cancer sufferers, and that it subsidizes its drug prices to help control patient costs.
Menendez said that the Hugin campaign had been leveling an accusation against him that a number of leading newspapers have described, he said, as “the most scurrilous, salacious, and false” in the 2018 campaign; he didn’t specify the charge.
Diane Dresdale of Summit said that the forum did not change her preferred candidate; in fact, it sharpened her opinion. But she expressed frustration with the evening’s format.
“I appreciate the opportunity the federation has provided to hear from candidates,” she said. However, “If I could make one suggestion, it would be to allow the audience to submit questions on postcards.”
She also complained about a lack of follow-up to the questions. “For example, I would like to know whether Mr. Hugin has relayed his concern about incivility to the president. I also would like to know why Mr. Hugin chose to be his New Jersey campaign chair and donate thousands to the Trump campaign.”