One week before the Mercer County Democratic convention, the two candidates for county executive smacked each other on their records and touted their visions for the future in an ornery and unfriendly debate on Sunday night.
The five-term incumbent, Brian M. Hughes, appeared embittered by the primary challenge from his fellow Democrat, Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson (D-Hamilton), and said he expects to lose the convention and the organization line.
“I have never run against a Democrat in my life,” Hughes said. “For another Democrat to challenge really at this time when things are going so well in Mercer County is beyond me.”
Hughes painted a glowing picture of county government.
“Things in Mercer County have been going well. We have we have a great park system. We have small business incentive loans — $3.5 million to small businesses, whether they be run by veterans or women, or people of color. We have done set-asides through our overall county budget for those groups,” Hughes said. “We have done things, I believe, that are proactive in what we do day in and day out in Mercer County.
He touted $425 million in grants from federal and state governments, Mercer’s AA+ bond rating, and the county’s role in helping businesses remain open during the pandemic.
But Benson quickly advocated for a change after Hughes’ nearly 20 years in office.
“I believe we can and must do better for the people of Mercer County. I’ll bring innovation and collaboration with our twelve municipalities to meet and help all other communities meet the challenges they face. I’ll work to invest and see competitive federal dollars for our infrastructure to have clean water, equitable and cleaner transportation, and social services that meet our current needs where people need them,” Benson stated. “As the next county executive, I’ll clean up our finances and restore transparency and trust to our government.”
In his opening statement, Benson slammed Hughes for not knowing that Mercer Count spent $4.5 million on penalties and interest for late payroll tax filings before a scathing state comptroller’s report and for never moving forward on $200 million in capital projects already approved by the county commissioners.
“There’s so much more that we can do if we’re not wasting those dollars, and we can invest back into the needs of our county by working together and working to make sure that Mercer County can be as strong as it can be as your next county executive,” Benson said. “ I’ll fight every day for that.”
That was something the incumbent pushed back on.
“We’re not going to spend money simply because Daniel Benson wants the (Mercer County Improvement Authority) to go further into debt and to take on more of that,” Hughes said. “We didn’t waste $200 million. That shows how inexperienced he is as an executive – you don’t borrow money if you don’t need it. Even though we had the borrowing authority for $200 million. If you don’t need the $200 million, you don’t borrow it. And that’s what happened in that situation.”
Benson questioned the credibility of Hughes’ statement.
“I don’t know what his staff is telling him, but it was his own staff that told the commissioners that they went and approved 200 million, and then nothing ever happened, and they’re still trying to figure it out,” he said.
According to Hughes, the Mercer County chief financial officer, David Miller, was fired as soon as he learned about the allegations against him.
“Immediately we alerted the attorney general immediately. We felt that we were cheated and the county was cheated out of money because the CFO, which he was at the time, made some grave mistakes on behalf of Mercer County,” Hughes stated. “What you do is try and move beyond those mistakes.”
Benson disputed Hughes’ version of the events. He pointed to a 2016 whistleblower report that accused Miller of not following procurement rules and a phishing scam that cost the county insurance carrier $600,000 but resulted in increased rates.
“His own chief of staff said, we still don’t know what we don’t know about the CFO,” he said. “So there were a lot of alarms going off, but just not an interest in management to actually deal with them. I think there’s a need to clean up our finances, figure out what we don’t know, and put things back to.”
Benson said that six county commissioners forced Hughes to conduct the forensic audit he called for.
“he has not even completed the 2021 audit, which prevents the county from going after grants and also going out to bond,” he noted. “So again, from his own current CFO telling the commissioners that. He might want to listen to the testimony of his own staff, to the commissioners.”
Hughes panned Benson’s record as a councilman in Hamilton Township.
“He voted to raise taxes not once, but twice during a single year,” he said. But Benson said that was “just bunk.”
Asked how the candidates could provide property tax relief to Mercer County residents, Hughes said that he’s achieved fiscal responsibility by “slowly raising property taxes over time.”
“To take a year off because it’s an election year or to not raise taxes because it’s more convenient puts in jeopardy the (county’s) bond rating,” said Hughes. “Daniel’s going to say we haven’t used the taxes appropriately or we haven’t done the right things with them, but we think we’ve delivered great government over time and that’s how we’ve been working towards them.”
“You heard the county executive himself say he’s raised taxes. He said slowly, but he’s raised taxes over his 20 years, and I think a lot of that reason is he was not overseeing his finance department,” Benson countered. “You can help to keep not only property taxes stable but lower them by seeking those competitive federal grants that I talked about so you’re not leaving money on the table as your next county executive. I’m always going to fight for the dollars that we are deserved and earned so that we’re not first going to property taxpayers and Mercer. We should be getting our dollars from the federal and state before we do that.”
Help for Trenton
The debate moderator, New Jersey Globe reporter Joey Fox, asked both candidates how they would deal with the challenges facing New Jersey’s capital city, Trenton.
Hughes praised the leadership of Mayor Reed Gusciora, who supports his re-election, noting that Trenton has improved over the last four years.
With the recent election of eight new city council members, Hughes thinks the city will get even better.
“We have a mayor and a council who are willing to work together and make sure that projects that come to come to the city of Trenton will come to fruition,” he explained. “We have an old council that got in the way of everything the mayor tried to bring to the city.”
Hughes said he wanted to help Trenton improve its infrastructure and bring small and large businesses to the city. He said expanding home ownership is a significant cog in Trenton’s economic comeback.
Benson said the removal of lead paint – he sponsored legislation that appropriated $3 million for the project — and lead from Trenton’s drinking water supply will be a priority.
“I’ve talked about how we improve Trenton waterworks by doing similar to (how) Newark and Essex County partnered to accelerate the elimination of lead-lined lead lines in homes all across Trenton Waterworks District,” he said.
Additionally, Benson wants the county government to work with Trenton on housing issues, using the Merce County Improvement Authority as a vessel.
“That can be through direct investment, partnering with nonprofits, as well as doing loan guarantees for projects that are existing or that are coming up,” Benson proposed. “We can invest in small business entrepreneurs by helping to work with community banks to lower interest rates for construction loans. We can also work to make sure that we have opportunities not only for homeownership but for those to fix up homes so that there is more housing stock for people to own and then thereby creating jobs.”
Benson added, “We have a lot of work that we can do to make our human services meet where people are and where the needs are so that we can maximize those federal dollars we get.”
Asked if Gov. Phil Murphy and the Democratic majority in the New Jersey Legislature had infused enough money into Mercer County, Benson increased school funding and dollars for capital projects as evidence that they have.
But Benson suggested that the state government, which doesn’t pay taxes to Trenton despite owning about 50% of the land, could do a better job.
“We’ve got to work between the city, the county, and the state to put more of those properties back on the tax roll,” Benson said. “We can do that through the transfer of development rights. We can do public-private partnerships that transform vacant or empty parking lots into vibrant businesses, as well as improving parking in the city.
Hughes poked Benson for not helping Trenton enough during his more than twelve years as an assemblyman.
“ I would say that the talk from Daniel about being part of state government, he has done nothing. I have seen nothing in any bill he’s ever written that would put money towards the city of Trenton,” Hughes said. “When it comes to the waterworks, the only bill I’ve seen from him was to study how to take the Trenton waterworks away from Trenton and put it into a suburban program.”
Benson said he wasn’t buying Hughes’ attacks.
“I just gave an example of $3 million with legislation and work with the governor that I got for removing lead paint from homes in Trenton, so to say that we haven’t done anything is ridiculous,” Benson said.
Benson maintains that his Trenton Water Works plan “actually makes the asset stronger.”
“I think that’s something that I’ve heard resounding yes from both Trenton residents, as well as elected officials representing Trenton,” Benson maintains. “Brian Hughes actually testified in favor of my bill package in 2018 when we talked about changes that we need with Trenton Water Works in terms of their communication to other towns. And in fact, he was on the (Department of Environmental Protection) press release in favor of the state taking over management of Trenton Waterworks. So you can’t have it both ways.”
Transportation issues discussed
Fox asked both candidates whether the county should help Mercer County residents move away from car dependency and changes to the county’s transportation infrastructure.”
Hughes used the question to sharply criticize Benson’s performance as chairman of the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee.
“One of the problems is that rail lines and trolley lines are very, very expensive to build. You need help from the Transportation Department – you need help from the Transportation Committee. I have seen no help from the Transportation committee headed by our assemblyman, and I think that’s where you really need help,” Hughes alleged. “ It’s very difficult for our bus system to add new stops because of their expense, but I would put in more money. And if I had been a legislator and if I had been the head of the transportation committee, I would have put more money into the Trenton bus system and move forward like that.”
Benson suggested that Hughes had dropped the ball on local transportation issues and outlined his plan, including collaborating with the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association to “make sure we have great routes to work.”
“We just heard our county executive talk about all the things he thinks he can’t do about transportation for Mercer County. There’s so much we can do, “he stated. “My time as transportation chair has been looking at transportation equity issues, making sure that regardless of what your age, disability, income, that you can get from point A to point B.”
Benson wants Mercer County to become less car-dependent.
“That’s why I was supportive when Princeton and worked with the mayor to make sure we had an all-pedestrian crossing after some high-profile accidents and even a death on Nassau Street on a state road there, and that was one of the first in the whole state,” said Benson. “That’s why when the mayor of Trenton was upset about the county not taking ownership and design of the Assunpink Bridge, he called me to call the Department of Transportation to talk about how we can work on that.”
Benson explained that Mercer received a large amount of casino revenues for paratransit.
“We can reinvest that and look at things like on-demand van travel, just like we see with Jersey City, we can work with partners on paratransit like ARC of Mercer and other groups to make sure that we have better transportation for all, regardless again, of whether they own a car or not,” he said.
Hughes went after Benson for high commuter costs.
“Have you tried to take a train to New York lately or a bus to New York lately?” asked Hughes. “The cost of it is prohibitive, and you’re the one that’s responsible.”
Benson responded that New Jersey Transit fares had remained the same since becoming the chairman of the transportation committee.
“Are you tacking Governor Murphy?” he asked. “We’ve worked with Governor Murphy to improve New Jersey Transit.”
Organization lines and George Norcross
Hughes blamed the contest on the Democratic county chair, Janice Mironov, and Democratic leaders in next-door Middlesex County. The two traded barbs on the influence of powerbrokers in the race. At the same time, Benson protested South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross’ role in the race.
“He’s already said he’s asked for help from George Norcross,” said Benson. “We don’t know what he’s spending with dark money that you have seen in other races. So I think that’s a big contrast.”
According to Hughes, Benson took dark money from a Norcross-related group in the past.
Benson hyped his independence.
“I’ve always thought of my own two feet and have always stood up for my values and democratic values. You know, I don’t run to the left in a primary and to the right and the general,” he said. “I am who I am, and I share those values that I’m hearing from our Democratic Party.”
The two candidates disagreed on the virtues of the organization line. Benson, who won conventions despite opposition from the party establishment, said he thought the current system works fine. In contrast, Hughes, a longtime beneficiary of lines, said he now opposed them and would work to eliminate them if he wins re-election.
“Mercer County has one of the most open conventions. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t open because of the time I ran against the machine when I ran for commissioner at the county level and when I ran for the Assembly, said Benson. “So I believe the system that we have in Mercer County is working, and it gives everyone an opportunity to participate.
Hughes said Mironov filled empty county committee seats and dropped some incumbents to replace them with “her own desired people” to secure Benson’s nomination.
“That’s why he believes in the county line, is because he’s probably going to win it because of seats that Janice Mironov has filled in the last two years,” he said.
Benson said Hughes was taking a hypocritical position.
“He’s the county executive for the last 20 years, and he just said he thinks he’s going to lose a convention,” claimed Benson. “It’s pretty convenient for him this year to say I’m against the line, something that he’s never spoken up against until he’s been challenged.”
The two candidates battled over the election machine mishap in Mercer County last fall, with Benson touting the importance of “making sure we have voting machines that work.”
“We had another missed opportunity under the Hughes administration. So as everyone saw kind of the debacle that happened on Election Day. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t have happened had we bought more of the machines that we had for early voting, and the commissioners actually requested to do that,” Benson said. “Unfortunately, the administration said no to that, and that was at a time when the state was actually paying the majority of the cost of those upgrades.”
Benson said he supported same-day voter registration and ranked-choice voting.
Both candidates defended the existence of the county executive office – Mercer is one of just five New Jersey counties to adopt that form of government – with Benson noting the office’s accountability and that “the buck stops here with the county executive.” Hughes bemoaned the 24-year stint of Republican control of the post before he first won in 2003.
Hughes said that he began his tenure believing that “Mercer County ought to look like the Mercer County.”
“That means I hired a lot of people who were being closed out of the system. People of color. Asian folks who wanted to get into county government. We hired people who were coming out of the criminal justice system or had been in and involved with law enforcement. We made a lot of changes to county government to make it the most diverse it’s ever been.,” he said. “I have never been prouder than the county government that we have right now.”
Hughes attacked Benson’s work as a consultant to companies that outsource to other countries and then introducing legislation that exempted his clients from a law that requires state contracts to be conducted by American workers.
Benson called the allegation hogwash.
“I’d recommend the county executives stop listening to the high-priced consultants who are doing really terrible opposition research,” he said. “I do regulatory information consulting for various companies, which means I read a lot of paper on what the rules and regs are at the (Federal Communications Commission).”
In a question to Hughes, Benson wondered how the incumbent would balance his budget in future years after using federal American Recovery Plan dollars to do so last year.
“We use our ARP money to keep taxes, our tax levy level for two years. Now, if he feels like he wants to raise taxes on people and use the ARP money in a different way, he should just say so,” Hughes said. “He’s raised taxes many, many, many times before and if he wants to use our money from the federal government to raise taxes again, he should just say that.”
Benson brought the question back to the fines paid by the Hughes administration.
“If we didn’t have to spend $4.5 million in fines, we would have money. We could have put that money to better use where the needs are in our community rather than using it for keeping taxes level. And so that’s my concern,” Benson stated. “There is once again, a missed opportunity for that money. And have we not had the fines, we could have kept taxes level and maybe even did a tax cut.”
But Hughes maintained that the county put the money to good use.
“Maybe Daniel doesn’t study the county budget too well, but we’ve already put $3.2 million into our new robust health department to meet the next crisis, the next pandemic, or whatever crisis comes down the road, including mental health operation,” Hughes said. “So Daniel is either asleep at the switch, or he’s not setting our budget too well.”
Cannabis’ NIMBY problem
Fox asked the two county executive candidates about the reluctance of Princeton to permit recreational marijuana dispensaries in their town.
“Every municipality has to decide for themselves what they want to have,” Benson said. “That’s not really our role to step in. Our job is to partner, but at the same time, I believe that you should be able to grow your own and that we should start looking to other states, and what they’ve done as they’ve evolved. And I think it’s an opportunity not only for economic growth but for social justice as well in our towns.”
Hughes stopped short of saying Princeton, his hometown, should allow dispensaries.
“I believe that we should work as hard as we can to make marijuana available,” Hughes said, noting that decriminalizing marijuana has helped reduce the county’s jail population from over 1,100 to under 400 over the last 20 years.