Proponents of democracy in the United States take pleasure in the egalitarian ideas that their officials are like the people they represent and evolve over time to better serve them. However, one could counter that a dynastic system is the exact reverse. In reality, though, dynasties are inevitable byproducts of political systems, and New Jersey is no stranger to this age-old tendency.
In spite of the fact that dynasties aren’t always bad for society, those who have held public office for a long time eventually have to decide whether it’s more honourable to step down on a high note or to make a (perhaps) foolhardy stand against the inevitable march of progress.
Of course, nothing is certain in New Jersey politics, but sometimes the writing is on the wall and it comes down to a question of character as to whether or not a person can let go of the familiar trappings and responsibilities of power, whether they are inclined to go down fighting, or whether they have the clarity and humility to step aside.
All of these can be seen in action in the Garden State of New Jersey. The job of Mercer County executive is one that has no term restrictions, and Brian Hughes has held it for the past 18 years. Son of Richard J. Hughes, who was New Jersey’s governor from 1962 to 1970 and then the state’s chief justice from 1973 to 1979, he is a member of the Democratic Party.
Contrary to Tom Kean, Jr., Hughes’ term as governor ended more than four decades ago. Therefore, many influential people in New Jersey’s political elite are forgetting about it. Tom Kean, Sr. was governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990, and he later gained prominence as the 9/11 Commission’s chairman under George W. Bush. While his son is less likely to make public appearances, Governor Kean is still an integral element of New Jersey’s current political landscape.
While the Keans Republicans and the Hughes Democrats are very similar, the former appears to be on the rise, while the latter is in steady decline. After suffering a string of losses after leaving the New Jersey State Senate, Tom Kean, Jr. has finally won an election, giving the Kean family name a boost.
He defeated the incumbent Democrat Congressman Tom Malinowski and will be making a return to public life, despite his history of and continued discomfort in front of the camera. Hughes, in particular, has presided over a period of nearly two decades during which the Democrats have had firm control of Mercer County.
He has a good reputation, is easy to get along with, and a long list of achievements he hopes to add to. However, some people have started to wonder if Hughes is really up to the physical and political demands of the position. The County Executive was involved in two collisions in 2017 and was found disoriented by a Pennsylvania State Trooper along the Pennsylvania Turnpike two years ago.
When voters in Mercer County reported that their voting machines couldn’t scan barcodes, Hughes was quick to promise an investigation and a solution. Even while he acknowledged that the county executive has limited influence over elections, he promised to use what authority he did have.
Some Mercer insiders have switched their attention away from Assemblyman Dan Benson and toward former Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer due to their conflicts with the party infrastructure and their potential to serve as the next county executive. Is time running out for Hughes to remain in government, or will his legacy and dynastic influence keep him there until he voluntarily steps down?
Hughes claims that Mercer County is a well-organized jurisdiction with many active public works initiatives. Although the COVID pandemic delayed his efforts for the past two years, he was committed to finishing it. That approval would ultimately come from the voters. However, old age does not guarantee invulnerability.
The Kennedys, who have relocated to Brigantine, and the aforementioned Keans are just two families that illustrate the state of New Jersey’s dynastic landscape. With business moguls, brewers, US Senators, and Revolutionary War officers among their forebears, the Frelinghuysen family is among the Garden State’s arch-patricians.
Former Republican Congressman Rodney P. Frelinghuysen served roughly the same constituents as his father. Theodore Frelinghuysen, a senator and mayor of the township during the Civil War era, is honoured with the naming of the township. The arboretum honouring the great-grandfather of the late congressman is known as the George Griswold Frelinghuysen Arboretum.
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The Frelinghuysen family has long been regarded as New Jersey’s most prominent dynastic family. After decades in public service, the Frelinghuysens have finally been removed from office. One of the more recent dynasties to solidify is the Menendez family, whose patriarch, US Senator Robert Menendez, while facing additional legal troubles, opened the way for his son, Robert Jr., to become a congressman for New Jersey’s Hudson County in his maiden run for public office this year.
Regardless of what the Frelinghuysen family does in the future, their name will forever be a part of New Jersey’s rich heritage. The Menendez family is only beginning to build their lives on solid ground.
The Hughes dynasty’s stability in Central Jersey is in question. Democrats have maintained firm control in Mercer, but the situation has been riven by infighting among the party’s top officials. Janice Mironov, the Mercer County Democratic Chairwoman and the Mayor of East Windsor for the past quarter century, has had a contentious history with County Executive Mark Hughes, and this may cause problems for him if Mironov’s allies at other levels of government choose to rally behind her.
If Benson is successful in knocking off Hughes, this might put her in a position to run to replace him as an assemblymember. According to insiders, Benson is considering amassing a sizeable war chest in order to challenge the sitting president. Benson’s campaign had a fundraiser in Hamilton Township, and tickets sold for $40, $400, $1,000, and $2,500, indicating a potentially hefty price tag for the forthcoming campaign.
If it turns out that Hughes will have to face a primary challenger, he will find himself up against a formidable combination of youthful vigour and seasoned leadership in Benson. Benson has been a councilman for Hamilton Township since he was 27 years old, making him 47 years old today.
His rise through the ranks was swift: from Mercer County freeholder in 2008 to a seat in the Assembly in 2011. It’s reasonable to assume that, after rising through the ranks of the legislature, Benson would have his sights set on the state senate, but Senator Linda Greenstein appears to be here to stay. If you want to run for office and are ambitious and financially secure, Mercer County executive seems like a good choice.
Even while Hughes’s position doesn’t usually resonate much with the average voter, infighting among the party’s powerbrokers, notably with Mironov, may severely weaken the incumbent’s prospects of earning the all-important county-line ballot placement.
For the average voter who is interested in casting a ballot but does not consider themselves to be very political, the most visible and exciting posts are those of president, US senator, congressman, and governor. The high prices of food, fuel, housing, childcare, debt, and medical care are only some examples of the many issues that need to be addressed.
Citizenship and county/local politics do affect people’s wallets, but in years that aren’t presidential election years, these issues tend to get less attention. Placement on the ballot is critical for people who cast a “down the line” vote.
The belief that one’s efforts have been worthwhile and will be rewarded with a restoration to power is also vital. The incumbent’s track record might be used to support a third term in office. This is the ideal concept, but it doesn’t take into account the fact that power, like Newton’s First Law of Motion, always seeks to maintain its position of authority unless prevented from doing so by a greater force.
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Political realities, on the other hand, take into consideration the fact that such power acts upon its own environment to maintain its defiance of the laws of nature. Naturally, dynasties are one of the results.
A dynastic environment where stewardship and efficiency are highly valued, fulfilling the ‘oblige’ to their ‘noblesse,’ is excellent. Those that do so are remembered forever by the grateful public, who shower them with gifts and accolades such as inscribed namesakes on libraries, colleges, hospitals, motorways, scholarships, and more.
The Frelinghuysens are an excellent example of a family that has repeatedly returned to public office throughout history. This is not to say that dynasties are never formed through underhanded means (such as bribery, backroom deals, or threats), but voters tend to look at the big picture and value results more than process, especially in no-nonsense New Jersey, where they expect their government to get things done rather than be a paragon of virtue.
Historically speaking, a dynasty refers to a ruling family, whether it be a monarchy or an aristocracy, whose rule is unquestioned and whose continuation is not in doubt. A mix of popular trust and institutional reliability has allowed electoral dynasties like that of the Frelinghuysens, Keans, and Hughes to persist for generations. When those dynasties repeatedly show themselves to be responsible stewards of public resources, they gain the former.
The latter is an occurrence of chance or unforeseen design, or sometimes both. When leadership fails or scandal breaks out, the public’s willingness to forgive and forget is tested by the stability provided by institutions like money, favours, and party machinery. A good case in point is US Senator Robert Menendez, whose family tree is beginning to take root. The political roots of the Menendez family in New Jersey run deep, and now Robert Menendez Jr., the senator’s son, will serve in Congress. While all is going on, the senator is bracing for a fresh federal inquiry, the specifics of which are still unknown.
Senator Menendez ran a tough campaign against Republican Bob Hugin five years ago despite facing trial on corruption accusations. Even though Menendez was exonerated and ultimately defeated Hugin, he still suffered a setback in the Democratic primary, as 40% of the vote went to Menendez’s Democratic competitor Lisa McCormick, who spent zero dollars on her campaign. This was a warning shot across Menendez’s bow from the Democratic base, but Hugin failed to win over enough independents to unseat the senator.
While Hughes of Mercer County has not been dogged by a similar political controversy, he has noticed a decline in the support of the party that has helped him remain in office for the previous 18 years. No dynasty is guaranteed eternal life, and not even a king can rule alone.
The upcoming test will pit tried and true methods against innovative new approaches. Hughes might perhaps face off against Dan Benson or even former Trenton mayor Doug Palmer in a future election. The county executive will need to prepare for a siege in either direction by raising the drawbridge to Castle Hughes.