Sally Kalksma, a woman who appears in a Bob Hugin ad praising the former Celgene CEO for manufacturing a drug that saved her life, is an employee of the Ocean County Board of Elections with a complicated past that involves a $300,000 loan to the law firm of Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore, who is also Kalksma’s boss at the election board.
“I wouldn’t be alive today without Bob Hugin. He’s my superhero because he took a company and turned it around and developed a new drug, Revlimid, and I’m alive because of that,” Kalksma says in the ad, which is titled ‘Sally.'” “He’s going to make an unbelievable senator.”
According to a Politico report published last year, Kalksma was financially entangled with Gilmore, who is chairman of the Ocean County Board of Elections where Kalksma works, to the tune of $300,000 – more than a pittance for a widowed public employee with a yearly salary of roughly $46,000.
The mortgage was reportedly one of many taken out by Gilmore, his wife and his law firm. Last year, the FBI reportedly subpoenaed the county Board of Elections and municipalities in which Gilmore’s law firm is active.
It’s not clear whether anything came of those investigations.
It also wasn’t clear how the Hugin campaign became aware of Kalksma, as Gilmore told the New Jersey Globe that he did not bring the two together, and Hugin’s campaign said that Kalksma reached out to Hugin directly through a letter.
The TV ad was filmed at Hugin’s home in Summit.
Though, in addition to her ties to Republican leaders in Ocean County, Kalksma has appeared in news articles about her stair climbing over the past several months. Those articles often mention her having multiple myeloma, a rare type of blood cancer treated by Amino Thalidomides like Revlimid.
It’s possible that the very appearance of those ties will decrease the efficacy of the ad’s message, said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute.
“This is not just a random person who is offering a testimonial, this is someone that has a stake in the campaign, and to most voters, I think this is important and relevant information to have,” Rasmussen said. “I think there’s a tendency to be more skeptical when you’re talking about a partisan who has a stake in an election. I think there’s a different threshold between that person and a person who is not tied to a campaign or party.”
Another ad in the same vein released by Hugin’s campaign featuring a testimonial from former Major League Baseball pitcher Bob Tufts may serve Hugin better in that sense, but Tufts may also have ties to the candidate.
The two went to Princeton University together, though Tufts was a year behind Hugin. It isn’t clear that the two knew each other at the time, but Tufts has been a staunch defender of the former Celgene CEO on Twitter since before Friday’s ads were released.
The effect of the ads would improve significantly should Hugin’s campaign find patients taking Revlimid with no relation to the campaign or party, Rasmussen said.
Kalksma did not return an email seeking comment sent at 12:50 p.m.
Sen. Bob Menendez’s campaign has so far focused on trying to poke holes in Kalksma’s claims while – smartly – avoiding taking shots at the former cancer patient herself, mainly by pointing to the Boston Children’s Hospital’s development of the Amino Thalidomide mechanisms behind Revlimid.
The hospital sued Celgene over millions of dollars of what it said were unpaid royalties in 2014, the year after a license agreement between the hospital and the pharmaceutical company ended. The hospital said Celgene ought to continue paying royalties it had paid since 2002 because it won a patent extension on Revlimid that would last through 2019.
But, while they do serve to blunt the effect of the new Hugin ads to an extent, Menendez also risks muddying the conversation around Hugin’s tenure as Celgene’s CEO by introducing degrees of nuance to the conversation around the company’s pricing policies, Rasmussen said.
While the company licensed in 2002 – before Hugin was CEO – the intellectual property behind amino thalidomide, the active ingredient behind Revlimid, it’s possible that Celgene nonetheless spent funds – possibly considerable funds – to develop the market-ready version of the drug.
“If it gets into these kinds of nuances in most people’s minds, then it is less of a clear-cut knockout blow on Hugin, so I think it’s to Hugin’s benefit that we’re all thinking of these nuances – how much is a reasonable cost, and how much did research and development did Celgene do, and how much does the average employee pay in copayment for the cost of a drug,” Rasmussen said. “These are all real subtleties. If voters start asking themselves all these questions, I think that’s a debate that Hugin wins rather than the knockout blow of greedy company charging too much money.”
It’ll be up to Menendez to shift the conversation back to his terms, and even then, he risks the conversation over Revlimid and Hugin’s record overshadowing his campaign’s other favored attack vector – President Donald Trump.
Menendez’s campaign has repeatedly sought to link Hugin to Trump, and the task shouldn’t be a difficult one, as Hugin was Trump’s state finance chair and a delegate for the then-candidate in 2016.
In a state where a late-August Quinnipiac poll found just 33% of residents approve of Trump, Menendez would be better served by hitting Hugin on his ties to the president than by engaging in a nuanced conversation about drug prices and their development costs, Rasmussen said.
“You have to imagine that that is a much more favorable territory than Trump in New Jersey,” he said.