The battle for the U.S. Senate seat representing New Jersey is a race that has garnered much attention as the election nears.
The race was initially considered a non-starter, but as the poll numbers separating the opposing candidates grew smaller and smaller, the importance of the race grew stronger and more pronounced. What was always considered a guaranteed blue seat is now within reach of the Republican challenger.
Vying for the seat are two men. Both are named Bob, both grew up in Union City, both are 64 years old.
Bob Menendez is the incumbent, having held the seat since 2006. A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch supporter of Israel, while fully conforming to common liberal values on social issues, he was seen as the favorite for the seat. As a Democrat in a bright blue state, he held the odds of retaining his position indefinitely. But a federal corruption trial last year weakened his grip on his voters, and although the case ended in a mistrial, it was not enough to convince his constituents that he was indeed beyond reproach.
Capitalizing on the shadow of corruption that he has yet to shake off, Republican challenger Bob Hugin entered the race. A retired pharmacy executive and a multi-millionaire, Hugin was determined to use his business and medical experience to make his mark on New Jersey. He poured millions of dollars of personal funds into his campaign, running ad after ad aimed at accentuating his opponent’s faltering integrity. While at first his efforts seemed futile, the poll numbers eventually began to shift, inching slowly but steadily in his direction. With the election a week off, most polls show Hugin trailing mere points behind Menendez – well within the pollsters’ margin of error.
The Yated spoke with Mr. Hugin this week to find out where he stands on issues important to our community. He shared his view of President Trump, told of his relationship with Israel, and offered his thoughts on the Pittsburgh massacre. Here we present the full context of his remarks, as he addresses a wide range of important issues.
You were in Israel when the US opened its embassy in Jerusalem. What is your connection to Israel?
Throughout my adult life, I have been honored to have many friends in the New Jersey Jewish community. They have been an important part of my life – socially, educationally, and economically. Additionally, at Celgene, I’ve often worked together with leaders in the Jewish community.
We are fortunate to have such a thriving Jewish community in New Jersey, and it’s humbling to have the support of so many people in the community.
When thinking about faith and family, these are connections that I certainly have, both in my faith and in my value of family, and I think the Jewish community sets the standard for those kind of shared values.
This is what I think makes the relationship between Israel and the U.S so strong. It’s not just ideals that we share, but also interests in terms of doing the right thing. Although the bonds could always be stronger, they are pretty strong, and appropriately so, because it’s in both of our countries’ interests to have strong bonds.
Visiting Israel was a real eye-opening experience, and it gave me the opportunity to see firsthand the strength of those relations. I had the opportunity to have discussions with national security leaders in Israel, as well as with cultural, educational and political leaders there, to really understand the importance of having a strong relationship between Israel and the United State.
What is your view on a peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians? Is it something that America should be assisting with or perhaps imposing?
I am not a fan of imposed solutions, because I don’t think they work.
We want to make sure that we set the principles behind a relationship and provide that kind of sustained, long-term support for Israel and its survival, and its ability to thrive. This has to be fundamental to American foreign policy.
I think it’s great to have the right kind of solution, but it has to be a sustainable solution, and Israel has to be part of that solution.
We have to focus on the underlying issues that cause the Palestinians to have such an antithetical type of relationship with Israel. Until you have a change in how the leadership of the Palestinians characterize their relationship to Israel, it’s hard to believe that there will be a negotiated settlement, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I’m not a fan of imposed solutions, but I do think that working towards a solution is the right thing we should be doing.
What can be done to alleviate the financial burden on tuition-paying parents who send their kids to private schools?
I certainly believe that having choice in education for all students is an important thing, whether that is a religious choice or any other choice. Though I do believe in the separation of church and state, the government should still play a role in ensuring the transportation needs, the security needs, and the fundamental support of basic services. All kids, no matter where they are brought up, should be able to reach their full potential, and many different schools provide that opportunity.
I support choice. I support increased resources to provide security for [private] schools, effective transportation, as well as textbooks and other basic services.
We also have to make sure that we have high quality preschools available to every child, because without them they wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the opportunities that come along later in school. We also have to expand vocational and technical opportunities.
We can support choice for parents and provide resources, and do it in a way that doesn’t violate the separation of church and state.
What can realistically be done to lower the New Jersey property tax rate – the highest in the nation?
I think it has to be a twofold process.
Clearly, Washington has failed us. We receive back less per dollar sent than any other state in the country. We need to do better. We need to make sure that our votes in the U.S. Senate are used for the best interests of the people of New Jersey. We are not the richest state or a high cost state. We should not be dead last – 50 out of 50 – in getting money from Washington.
I also think that our leaders have to put the focus back on Trenton. We are not living in the world of 50 or 75 years ago. We have technology that can alleviate the cost of government. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t an important role of government – it just has to be done a lot more efficiently.
For example, Florida has 65 counties, and New Jersey has 21 counties. Nevertheless, Florida has 65 Boards of Education while New Jersey has 610 Boards of Education.
We have to recognize that the fiscal issue has been deteriorating in New Jersey for more than 25 years, under Democrats and Republicans. No single party is responsible for all the problems we have, but we need to bite the bullet and realize that government is not working for the people anymore, and that the magnitude of change that’s needed is very significant.
To sum it up, both Washington and Trenton have to be responsible for this unfair, high tax burden, and we have to elect people who will look for solutions to it, and it has to be solved over the next five to ten years.
In light of the tragic massacre in Pittsburgh, do you see any solution for overcoming the divisiveness in our nation, both in regard to our people and in regard to the media?
When you think about the tragedy in Pittsburgh, words are very hollow. Suffice it to say that my wife’s and my thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families, and the whole community that was so devastated by the tragedy.
There is no place for violence in our society, especially violence linked to religious intolerance. I think the incivility in our society, by Democrats and Republicans, including our president, does not create the kind of leadership that we should be having to bring people together as opposed to dividing them.
I think there are other issues we should be tackling as well. There is clearly an issue of mental illness, and other underlying issues that are leading to these incidents actually happening.
There is no place in our society for anti-Semitism, racism, or offensive language. We have to recognize that we are deteriorating the quality of life in our society and undermining the basic principles that make our country great.
On the media point of view, I think that Republicans share some responsibility, because they have not effectively made their case to young people and to people in segments of society that have not traditionally been Republican. They need to do a better job explaining their issues and values, of economic freedoms and liberties, of freedom of speech, and all the issues that are important to Republicans. This is part of the issue.
Also, the financial model of the media has become so fractured, and the challenge of having returning viewers leads the media to focus so much on controversy and the things that divide us.
I don’t think there is any immediate solution, but leaders have to be the ones who are going to set the template and set the standard for how we behave and how we relate to other people.
In this campaign alone, through making over 500 stops over the past few months, what I learned is that New Jersey is an incredibly diverse state, geographically, ethnically, demographically, and in so many other ways, yet we are more alike than we are different. And I think that the more we are forced to confront people different from us, and ideas that are different from the ones we hold, the better of a society we become.
Why do you believe you’ll be able to make a difference for New Jersey as an elected official? What makes you different from other candidates who run for office, promise the world, and don’t come through on their promises?
That’s a fair question, given the skepticism in our society with the kind of partisanship and politics we have in Washington. It would be strange if people weren’t skeptical of some new guy coming in who isn’t a career politician.
I think my track record speaks for itself. I have been a solution-oriented, action-oriented person my entire life. I am not a product of an organization, or have done what has been expected of me to do by others. I do what I believe is right in each circumstance, whether it was in the military, financial services, or the biotech industry. I have a track record of delivering on what I say I’m going to do.
One of the reasons I have done 500 campaign events is for people to get to know me, so that I can listen to them and learn from them, because I want them to be confident that I’m going to earn their trust.
I don’t fill out any kind of special interest questionnaires. I am not the product of any political organizations. No one helped me be a councilperson or a mayor or an assemblyperson or a state senator. My wife and I are funding most of this campaign ourselves. When I go to Washington, I’m not going to be beholden to any political party or any special interest group. I’m going to be able to stand up and say that the only constituents that means anything to me are the people of New Jersey.
You were a big supporter of President Trump during his candidacy. How do you view the president’s job thus far? There was a Politico report that quotes you as saying that the president’s policies are hurting businesses. Is that true?
I didn’t read that article where it says that President Trump’s policies are hurting businesses, but I don’t believe that to be true. I think President Trump has done a number of good things in terms of unleashing the economy, deregulation, fighting for fair trade and free trade, increasing international respect towards the U.S., standing up against unfairness internationally, and holding countries to agreements that they have signed. What he’s done for business has been quite positive.
I do have different views on certain issues, and I don’t support him on a number of things. I don’t support offshore drilling off the coast of New Jersey. I don’t think the $10,000 cap on state and local property taxes (SALT) was the right thing for New Jersey, and I think that it has to be amended. I don’t think some of the things he’s doing to the environment are consistent with the values that I have of leaving the best environment to our children and grandchildren.
I think the president has stood up for a lot of people who have not been stood up for before, but there are too many times when he’s done it in a divisive way that leads to people becoming more adversarial and less inclusive, and I think that we have to reverse that.
A lot of things that he’s done are good, but I’m not supportive of the way he’s done some things by talking about people in a derogatory way.
So basically, I have mixed feelings.
You are financially very well off. Records show you made over $30 million in the last few years. How can you associate with the average, hardworking taxpayer who is barely making ends meet?
This is one of the reasons I’ve made 500 campaign stops, to be able to meet people and listen to what matters to them and their families.
I didn’t start on third base. I grew up in Union City, in a diverse, hardworking neighborhood. I’ve been working since I was eight and a half years old. I didn’t grow up in a well-off community. I was the first in my family to go to college. My parents couldn’t afford to pay anything towards my college, so I was fortunate that I got a full scholarship.
I’m not the type to take credit for my children’s accomplishments, but the fact that both of my sons served in the United States Marine Corp shows that we’re not a family with expectations of privilege, but a family with expectations of achievement and success and giving back.
If you look at the work I’ve done for so many philanthropic organizations, and the work I’ve done at Celgene in terms of the fight against cancer, you’ll see that I’ve kept my feet on the ground my entire life. I’m proud of who I am, but I have not forgotten where I come from, and I have not forgotten that it’s by the grace of G-d that I’ve achieved the good things in my life, and I will never take anything for granted. I appreciate people who work with adversity and still achieve the best they can for their family.
We all become part of the environment we’re in, but I have worked hard to not lose my sense of perspective, and to put in context the hardworking people of New Jersey – and they are the people I seek to represent.
You have been criticized quite vocally by your opponent for raising the prices of lifesaving drugs while you were in charge of Celgene, and actively prevented generic versions of certain drugs from being sold. What’s your response?
I think my opponent has very unfairly characterized the impact Celgene has had on society. There are hundreds of thousands of patients who are alive today who wouldn’t be if Celgene hadn’t discovered and developed lifesaving therapies. Celgene has been an incredible advocate for putting the patient first, and they have the most compassionate patient assistance program in the world. Nearly 90 percent of all Celgene patients have not paid more than $50 for their prescription. And the company has reinvested in research, in science and in medicine for better therapies for existing cancer patients and for cancer patients of the future. In 2017, the company invested 45 percent of its revenue back into research and development.
The company has walked the walk every day, creating thousands of high-paying jobs, high-tech jobs, in New Jersey, which is not an easy place to do it, and it has always held the patient at the center of what it does.
You said that you would keep parts of Obamacare and get rid of other parts. Why?
The Affordable Care Act has some very positive attributes and some very, very flawed components. It also only covers 10 or 15 percent of Americans, other than the expansion of Medicaid. So I think we need to have a more robust discussion and dialogue about transforming the healthcare delivery system in America.
From a positive point of view, Democrats and Republicans agree on about 80 percent of things that have to be done to transform healthcare. We just don’t agree on the 20 percent. We need to work together, in a bipartisan manner, to get the 80 percent passed, and then we can fight about the other 20 percent.
There are many things from the Affordable Care Act that I think need to be kept. Young adults should be allowed to stay on their parents’ healthcare plans until the age of 26. I think patients with pre-existing conditions should be protected no matter what reforms we end up making.
I have written multiple op-eds on this, and I’ve held roundtables and town halls to talk about healthcare. I spent 20 years in biotech, and 11 years on the board of one of the most forward-looking healthcare systems in New Jersey to develop strategy to help evolve the system.
I think it may be one of the most important things I’ll do in Washington – to bring people together to make the transformation of healthcare that is so important to all Americans. And if we don’t deal with this issue, the costs can eventually undermine the financial stability of our country.
There were promises made and we have to keep those promises, but we have to transform the system to get better outcomes at lower costs.
What is your view on immigration – the separation of families, creating a pathway to citizenship, and building a border wall?
I don’t believe in sanctuary cities. I think that law enforcement should not be pitted against each other. People who were convicted of crimes should be arrested and prosecuted.
I don’t believe you are a country if you don’t have sovereign borders and control who comes in and who doesn’t, and what comes in and what doesn’t. I do, however, believe that we need compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform. I think we should expand the H-1B visa program, so when someone gets a PhD in computer science or biochemistry, they can stay here as the job creators of the future. We can’t run our tourism industry down the Jersey Shore or our agricultural industry if we don’t have a more vibrant seasonal worker program. Right now, people feel very uncomfortable coming to New Jersey because of their legal status.
We made mistakes by not enforcing our borders over the years, and I don’t think it’s practical to say that we’re going to deport children and people who have been building constructive, productive lives in America. I do think we should give them a pathway to citizenship, but one that is not shorter than the pathway that was given to people who are here legally.
We should enforce the borders and reform immigration to decide who we want to come in and how many. Immigration has been very positive to this country culturally and economically. My grandparents were immigrants to this country.
We should recognize that we need to start protecting our borders, but we’re not going to deport people who are leading constructive lives and children.
And about the wall?
You are not a country if you do not have secure borders. We should use whatever we can, whether it’s physical security or technological security. We should control who comes in and who leaves our country. This is not something that is negotiable.
Any final words?
My wife and I got into this because we believe the people of New Jersey deserve better. We’re committed to putting the people of New Jersey first. I’m an independent leader, and my only priority is to do better for the people of New Jersey.