Mercer County executive race heats up ahead of convention as incumbent Hughes backs out of forums

Incumbent Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes has backed out of two candidate forums ahead of his party’s endorsement convention this weekend.

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Asm. Dan Benson (left), who is running for Mercer County Executive, preparing for a candidate forum Tuesday in West Windsor, N.J. The empty chair to his right was reserved for incumbent Brian Hughes. But Hughes withdrew from the event the night before. (P. Kenneth Burns/WHYY)

Asm. Dan Benson (left), who is running for Mercer County Executive, preparing for a candidate forum Tuesday in West Windsor, N.J. The empty chair to his right was reserved for incumbent Brian Hughes. But Hughes withdrew from the event the night before. (P. Kenneth Burns/WHYY)

The stage was set Tuesday for a forum featuring the candidates running for Mercer County Executive at the West Windsor branch of the Mercer County Library.

Asm. Dan Benson is challenging incumbent Brian Hughes. The latter is aiming for a sixth term in office.

Leaders of the West Windsor Township Democratic Club and Committee, which sponsored the forum, sought out a moderator who wasn’t a Mercer County resident.

But the forum turned into a long-form interview.

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Hughes withdrew from the event the night before. As a result, Benson was given a nearly hour-long opportunity to give those in attendance a deep dive into why he should be the next county executive.

“I’m running because I want to reflect your values at the county level and to fight for Mercer County to make sure we get every dollar we can to fix our finances,” Benson said to the audience in his closing pitch, “and restore that innovation and collaboration with all of our towns so that we can always have the pride that we need in our communities.”

The West Windsor event is not the only candidate forum that Hughes has pulled out of. The day prior, he withdrew from a forum with the Pennington Democratic Committee the morning of the event.

“I was disappointed to hear that at what, to me, was pretty last minute, but I let my committee members and others who planned to attend know,” said Nadine Stern, chairwoman of the committee who is among the dozens of municipal leaders in the county who have endorsed Benson.

But that doesn’t mean that Hughes has been missing in action. He has shown up to candidate forums sponsored by the Princeton Community Democratic Organization, Our Revolution Trenton Mercer, and New Jersey Globe.

These forums are taking place ahead of the county Democratic Endorsement Convention on Sunday. That is when the party will decide on endorsements for political office. Those who receive party support will earn a favorable ballot position, also known as “the line.”

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, was the moderator-turned-interviewer for the West Windsor event.

He said that missing more than one forum is not a good thing.

“If you can’t show up for one forum… there could have been a conflict,” he said, adding that the situation shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. “But when it starts to be a situation where organizers of two and three debates say, ‘hey, we invited this candidate months ago, and at the last minute he said he couldn’t come,’ that’s an indication that you really aren’t ready to answer some tough questions.”

Hughes has been on the hot seat as of late after the state Comptroller’s Office found that the county’s longtime Chief Financial Officer, David Miller, lacked the credentials to hold his job and cost the county nearly $4.5 million by not paying state and federal payroll taxes on time.

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“When you have really important questions at a critical time, like when you’re facing reelection, it’s important that you have good, solid answers to them,” said Rasmussen. “He needs to go back and come back to the public with solid answers, solid explanations.”

The incumbent has also been criticized for the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hamilton Township Mayor Jeff Martin, who endorsed Benson, said while counties across the state were running vaccine clinics, municipalities in Mercer County had to band together.

“You had the towns that got together to run the first public-facing COVID vaccine clinic,” he said. “That first one was very important because it was providing vaccines to our first responders who were out answering the call each and every day, regardless of what that call was.”

Martin also had concerns about the Comptroller’s report, as did Dale Lessne who attended the West Windsor forum. She also was concerned about $200 million in unfunded capital projects approved by county commissioners that did not go out for bond.

Lessne also said she was “disappointed” at how Hughes is accepting being challenged for re-election.

“His attitude at our last meeting was a little surprising,” she said. “It was a little defensive and kind of indignant that he’s being opposed.”

Hughes, for his part, questioned why he was being challenged “by another Democrat” during the New Jersey Globe forum.

“We have done things, I believe, that are proactive,” he said. “For another Democrat to challenge me, at this time, when things are going so well in Mercer County is beyond me.”

Regardless, Rasmussen said this is the time for Hughes to make his case to county Democrats.

“If you can make your case now before a favorable ballot position is given, this is the time to do it,” he said, adding that Democrats are ready to hear it won’t be business as usual in a sixth Hughes term.

There is still an opportunity to earn a favorable ballot position, if Hughes captures at least 40% of the delegates. Anything less than that means a more challenging campaign, even as the audience shifts to a wider, yet equally as engaged, audience, according to Rasmussen.

“If the hope is that they’re not paying attention to these tough questions, if the hope is that they’re not watching to see who’s showing up at the debates, I think that’s a miscalculation,” he said. “They’re not low-information voters.”

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