At a moment when Republicans keep getting indicted, can good ethics actually get a Republican elected? Bob Hugin certainly hopes so.
The New Jersey businessman has launched a surprisingly competitive challenge against Sen. Bob Menendez, the morally challenged and remarkably beleaguered New Jersey Democrat. A dark horse running as a white knight, Hugin has pulled within 2 points of Menendez at times in a state that hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate in nearly half a century.
And Hugin owes much of his early success to the moral failures of Menendez. This sort of befuddles, him he recently told me over the telephone.
“The thing that is sort of strange to me," Hugin said, "is that here we have a guy who has been involved in corruption — his best friend is convicted of 67 felonies for defrauding Medicare — and I’m supposed to be happy that we are dead even?”
The former pharmaceutical executive is a political rookie but he has inherited a ready-made political platform courtesy, again, of Menendez. That senator was indicted three years ago on charges of bribery, fraud, and lying to federal prosecutors for his involvement in running an immigration racket. He provided visas for several girlfriends of Salomon Melgen, and that wealthy ophthalmologist in turn provided him with rounds of golf at private clubs, flights on private jets, and nights in Paris.
Melgen was convicted of 67 crimes and went away for 17 years. Menendez, after a mistrial, went free. But the senator hasn’t escaped the political consequences. He was officially admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee, a reprimand which Hugin says motivated him to get into the race.
“It’s summed up pretty nicely in the Senate Ethics Committee letter about him being guilty of violating federal law, abusing the power of his office, and disgracing the Senate,” Hugin explains. “It’s those things plus the arrogance that he could do whatever he wanted for himself or his friends from Florida.”
Those actions “disrespect the people of New Jersey” and make Hugin bristle, he said. Maybe because he is a retired Marine or maybe because he is new to politics, he talks about living an honorable life without the normal tackiness that plagues the campaign pitches of other politicians. But he doesn’t just see Menendez as a moral failure and a political opportunity. He paints his opponent as a danger to the very institutions of self-government.
“When the pendulum swings so far and your reputation of government is so damaged, you need to swing in the other direction to get some semblance of balance,” Hugin explains. “You have got to show the American people that these are institutions we should be proud of and that will help lead us forward into the decades to come.”
To push back the ethical pendulum, Hugin has made his own pledge: He won’t accept gifts from anyone and he won’t accept a government salary either. What’s more, and what’s actually interesting considering his net worth of $84.4 million, Hugin promises to put all his assets into a blind trust made up of mutual funds. He won’t know anything about any investments so long as he is in office.
“Too many people are leaving government service far better off financially than when they entered,” Hugin complains. “It’s supposed to be service to others, not service to yourself.”
In addition to leading by example, Hugin also plans on getting behind ethics reform legislation and has already reviewed a package put together by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. He likes a lot of what he sees but, of course, Hugin has to get to Washington first before working on anything.
And so Hugin hopes his ethics can get a Republican elected, not indicted, for a change.