Dems back Benson in Mercer County Executive primary

A supermajority of delegates at an endorsement convention for Mercer County Democrats support the longtime assemblyman over the five-term incumbent.

 Asm. Dan Benson, who is running for Mercer County Executive (P. Kenneth Burns/WHYY)

Asm. Dan Benson, who is running for Mercer County Executive (P. Kenneth Burns/WHYY)

Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes has vowed that his campaign for a sixth term will go on. This despite not capturing the number of delegates needed to earn a spot on “the line” for the June primary.

Hughes lost to his challenger, Asm. Dan Benson, who received the party’s support and a preferential spot on the ballot, referred to as “the line.”

The incumbent had a glimmer of hope. He could have still shared a spot on the ballot with Benson, had he captured at least 40% of the delegates.

But the tally wasn’t even close.

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Of the 499 delegates that attended and cast a ballot during Sunday’s endorsement convention in West Windsor, 384 of them, or 78%, voted to support Benson. Hughes captured 109 delegates, or about 22%.

Benson thanked delegates for their support and confidence to move the party forward.

“I look forward to taking our message of leadership that works for everyone into the June 6 primary and making the case for new leadership in Mercer,” he said.

Hughes, who has been county executive since 2004, said that the party mandate was no surprise and accused Benson and Mercer County Democratic chairperson Janice Mironov of being “intent on weakening our party for their own personal ambitions and gain.”

Also, as New Jersey Globe reported, Hughes prophesied that he would not get party support during their candidate forum last week.

“I believe the voters of this great county recognize effective leadership and my long record of accomplishments,” he said. “We have always put our constituents first by providing critical services and opening up county government to everyone regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, or geography.”

Hughes has touted his accomplishments over nearly two decades in office, including the county’s largest project to date – a new criminal courthouse – and preserving more than 5,700 acres of open space. Among his priorities for a sixth term would be the construction of a new terminal at Trenton-Mercer Airport, continuing the rehabilitation of the Mercer County Courthouse, and the installing “scores” of new chargers for electric vehicles. But Hughes’ leadership has also been under scrutiny as of late. Issues in the county’s finance department have dulled the luster on Hughes’ record.

A report from the New Jersey Office of the State Comptroller found that the county paid nearly $4.5 million in fines and penalties between 2018 and 2021 as a result of not filing state and federal payroll taxes on time. It also noted that the county’s former chief financial officer David Miller did not hold or apply for the required certification during his entire tenure.

“As a result, Mercer County was without a properly credentialed CFO for over a decade,” the report found.

The report has given Benson fodder for why he should replace Hughes.

At a candidate forum in West Windsor last week, Benson cited a 2016 whistleblower lawsuit against the county and Miller amid an Attorney General’s probe into corruption in the county’s Park Commission. Benson said that would have been the time to address issues in the finance department.

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“There was a whole portion of [the lawsuit] where the person that was complaining had mentioned that our CFO was not following proper procurement law,” he said.

Benson, in a YouTube video, also pointed out that $200 million in capital projects approved by the county Board of Commissioners never went out to bond.

Hughes, during a forum sponsored by New Jersey Globe, said his administration did “exactly what we should have” and fired Miller and immediately reached out to the Attorney General.

“We felt that we were cheated and the county was cheated out of money because the CFO…made some grave mistakes on behalf of Mercer County,” he said.

In regards to the capital projects, Hughes said the money was not wasted; it wasn’t needed.

“Even though we had the borrowing authority for $200 million, if you don’t need that $200 million, you don’t borrow it,” he said.

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said that Hughes has “essentially” chosen to let his record speak for itself. But adds, there happens to be several tough questions about his management of the county.

“Those are questions that he doesn’t seem to want to be answering at this moment,” he said. “That’s not a show of strength.”

Rasmussen noted that several individual Democratic officials and lots of Democratic clubs are supporting Benson. He adds rightly or wrongly, it’s a sign that Hughes’ campaign is not going well.

The Hughes’ campaign could’ve had a fighting chance had the incumbent reached the 40% threshold to share a spot on “the line” with Benson. Now, Rasmussen said, he thinks Hughes has “some soul searching to do about what an advantage Benson has” between now and June.

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