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William J. Hughes, who spent 20 years as a Democratic congressman in a heavily Republican part of New Jersey and later served as U.S. Ambassador to Panama under President Bill Clinton, died at his home on Wednesday. He was 87.
Hughes was elected to Congress in 1974 as one of the so-called Watergate Babies after Democrats picked up 49 House seats in the wake of a political scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon three months earlier.
As a ten-term congressman, Hughes chaired the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and the Subcommittee on Intellectual Property and Judicial Administration.
He distinguished himself as a fierce protector of the New Jersey coastline and the Pinelands, sponsoring the Pinelands Preservation Act in Congress.
Starting his political career as the 27-year-old Upper Township Solicitor in 1959, he became an Assistant Cape May County Prosecutor in 1960 and served as First Assistant Prosecutor from 1961 to 1970.
Hughes left the prosecutor’s office in 1970 to challenge two-term conservative Rep. Charles W. Sandman, Jr. (R-Cape May Court House) in New Jersey’s 2nd district.
Sandman had spent eleven years as the State Senator from Cape May County and had served as Senate President before ousting freshman Rep. Thomas McGrath (D-Margate) in 1966. He had also sought the Republican nomination for governor in 1965 and 1969.
The 2nd district was almost evenly split between Nixon and Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election, with Nixon winning by 506 votes, 44%-44%, and independent George C. Wallace garnering 11%.
Hughes turned out to be a remarkable campaigner.
In the Democratic primary, Hughes won 61% of the vote against Charles Yeager (29%), a 29-year-old Harvard doctoral student and ex-Eugene McCarthy for President delegate candidate, and Sam Costello (10%), who dropped out of the race after re-enlisting in the U.S. Army.
In the general election, Hughes held Sandman to a 4,510-vote win, 51.7%-38.3%.
Hughes held Sandman to 1,330-vote win in Atlantic and a 493-vote win in Cumberland. Sandman carried Cape May by 3,508 votes and Hughes won Salm by 2,151.
In 1972, Hughes passed on a rematch with Sandman, who won 65.7% of the vote against Democrat John Rose, a Cumberland County Freeholder. Nixon beat George McGovern in the 2nd by a 2-1 margin.
Sandman made a third bid for governor in 1973, challenging incumbent Gov. William T. Cahill in the Republican primary. He swamped Cahill, 58%-41%, winning the nomination by 61,623 votes.
In the general election, Democrat Brendan Byrne won by what until that point was the biggest landslide in New Jersey history. He defeated Sandman by 721,378 votes, 66%-32%. Republicans lost control of both houses of the Legislature, reduced to ten Senate seats and fourteen in the Assembly.
Sandman returned to Washington and his seat on the House Judiciary Committee, where he was a steadfast supporter of Nixon during nationally-televised impeachment proceedings.
Hughes decided to make a second run for Congress in 1974 and trounced Sandman. He won by 30,699 votes, a 57%-41% margin. Hughes won 64% in Cumberland, 62% in Salem, 57% in Atlantic, 52% in Cape May, and 52% in a portion of Ocean County that had been added to the 2nd in 1972 redistricting.
As a freshman congressman, Hughes took Sandman’s seat on the Judiciary Committee.
There was a belief that Hughes might be a one-term congressman, once the 1976 election returned the South Jersey district to its Republican core.
Republicans picked their strongest possible candidate: James R. Hurley, a 44-year-old four-term Assemblyman and former Cumberland County Freeholder.
Hughes worked his district tirelessly, and beat Hurley by 53,838 votes, 62%-38%.
He won 67% in Atlantic and Salem, 64% in Cape May, 59% in Cumberland, and 51% in Ocean.
Over the next fourteen years, Hughes had little trouble holding on to the 2nd district seat.
He won 66% against Rev. James Biggs in 1978, 57% against Cape May County Sheriff Beech Fox in 1980, 68% against Atlantic County Young Republican Chairman John Mahoney in 1982, and 63% against Raymond Massie in 1984, even as Ronald Regan won the 2nd with 62% of the vote.
Hughes won 68% against Alfred Bennington in 1986, and 66% against Atlantic County Freeholder Kirk Conover in 1988. In 1990, Republicans didn’t run anyone against Hughes.
In 1992, Hughes faced a potentially tough race from Republican Frank LoBiondo, a three-term Assemblyman and former Cumberland County Freeholder.
Hughes beat LoBiondo by 34,150 votes, 56%-42%. He won Atlantic with 62%, Cape May with 57%, and Salem with 52%. LoBiondo held Hughes to a 1,133-vote win in Cumberland (49.%^-47.%), and won a tiny portion of Ocean County by 41 votes.
LoBiondo was already preparing for a rematch with Hughes in 1994 when the congressman announced that he would not seek re-election.
He left Congress in January 1995 having spent his entire 20-year career in the majority.
As a congressman, Hughes led the effort to ban the dumping of sewage and chemicals in the Atlantic Ocean after an eight-year fight.
Hughes was also a longtime advocate of firearms safety and gun control.
President Bill Clinton nominated Hughes to serve as Ambassador to Panama in 1995. He served in that post until 1998.
In 2001, the former congressman’ son, William J. Hughes, Jr., came within 441 votes of ousting longtime State Sen. James Cafiero (R-Wildwood).
Montclair University professor Brigid Callahan Harrison, who managed Hughes 1990 re-election campaign, said the former congressman “worried about the divisiveness characteristic of our democracy now.”
“He was an intelligent, honest, and dedicated public servant and a good friend, Harrison said. “I’ll miss him.”
Gov. Phil Murphy praised Hughes as a New Jersey icon.
“Tammy and I are saddened to learn of his passing, and send our condolences to his children and their families, and to all who knew him and called him a friend,” Murphy said. “Congressman Hughes will continue to inspire future leaders through the work of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, perhaps the most fitting tribute to his tremendous legacy.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney called Hughes “one of the most distinguished and accomplished public officials to serve New Jersey.”
“Bill Hughes was devoted to the people he served in his congressional district, the State of New Jersey and the country,” Sweeney said. “He gained the respect and appreciation of all who worked with him and he was a model of bipartisanship who demonstrated that public service is a noble calling.”
“I express my sincere condolences to his family and loved ones. We share in their loss but know that he will be remembered always for his achievements and for the example he set for others,” said Sweeney.
New Jersey Commissioner of Human Services Carole McGeehan Johnson, who began her political career as a Hughes staffer, called the late congressman “a gift to South Jersey and the country.”
“Our oceans are cleaner, our communities are safer, and our economy is stronger because of his work,” Johnson said. “He was my first boss in politics, and I count myself so fortunate to have seen firsthand and learned from the dignity and commitment he brought to his work in the halls of Congress.”
Johnson praised Hughes’ attention to constituent service.
“He was legendary in his dedication to constituents – he responded to every letter, every phone call, every request with the same sense of urgency because he knew how much it mattered to the family in need, the veteran, the business owner,” Johnson said. “He knew how to fight like hell to get things done in Congress and still be friends with those on the other side because there was always a new issue to work on together tomorrow.”
John Froonjian, the interim director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, covered Hughes during his days as a reporter for The Press of Atlantic City.
“The most powerful lesson in today’s era of political tribalism and partisan warfare may be that politicians could be civil and bipartisan and still be effective,” Froonjian said. “He treated everyone regardless of party with courtesy and respect, and his gentlemanly approach helped improve many lives.”
Nancy Hughes, his wife of more than 60 years, died in 2018. Hughes is survived by four children, ten grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.