Bob Hugin (that’s “You-gin”, not “Hug-in, or “Who-gin”) is running for Senator. Never heard of him; didn’t know where he came from. Didn’t know what he’s for or what he’s against. But his TV ads intrigued me and so I called his campaign headquarters to find out when he’d be in my area. Never did I expect that he would take the time to meet me! But he had a cancellation in his schedule and we sat down for a cuppa’ joe at the Allenwood General Store.
I told him the name’s a problem. Aside from the fact that he’s not a well-heeled politician, even when you get his name right, you might get it wrong. But I found an honest down-to-earth guy that I can believe in. No phony grin; no feigned interests; no salesmanship. We chatted about the important things in life. For starters, he’s a Mets fan. I extended my sympathies but also my admiration for his patience and loyalty. His Dad worked shifts for Western Union and we joked about the lost days of telegrams and pay phones. He rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. So did my old man. We went through the usual “Did you know so-and-so?” Turns out we both like saltwater fishing. Except he fishes for blackfish, the most elusive difficult fish to catch. It’s a science all its own. I’m not even close to being that good. And so the morning went on. We traded stories like guys do when they kick back.
He talked about his service in the marines. I’ve always felt comfortable and safe with a military man in charge. They exude a well-earned discipline and confidence that he’ll need in the Washington chambers. I want someone who’s all about law and order. All those calls for a sanctuary state are lost on me. The purpose of government, I thought, is to lock the bad guys up, not mother them.
Eventually we got around to politics. In the private sector he built a successful pharmaceutical company, Celgene, and the knock against him is he became rich by price gouging medicines that alleviate some cancers. But that’s the dirty world of politics. Put a negative spin on anything, even such a remarkable discovery. Conveniently gloss over the two billion dollars that went into the R&D for these medicines, or the cost of years of clinical trials and FDA approval. Skip the part about this life-saving treatment going generic and affordable. And certainly no mention of Celgene’s commitment to lead the fight against Alzheimer’s.
I’m reminded of the 1939 classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, considered one of the greatest pictures of all time. It was such a searing indictment of political corruption that it was attacked by the press and politicians. Starring James Stewart as Jefferson Smith, the hero of the story, it laid bare the sinister mechanics of Washington politics. Jefferson Smith is not a real person. Stewart’s drawl, his little stutter and fidgeting were perfect for this character thrown into the lion’s den of Senatorial savagery. He’s honest to a fault, a bit of a bumpkin, but wholesome and endearing. As a newly appointed senator, he was expected to follow orders like a trained seal, beholden to the party bosses.
It’s here that he disappoints. In spite of his naivete’, he’s nobody’s stooge. In the climactic scene of the movie, he filibusters for 24 straight hours in defense of the common man. Twenty-four straight hours championing the “great unwashed” until he collapses from exhaustion. Did he beat the system? No. But he made a dent. And in the real world of politics, who knows if some elected “public servants” didn’t take a second look at some of their shenanigans.
Eighty years later and we’re still waiting for Mr. Smith to come back to Washington. Waiting for some Don Quixote with the strength, the means, and the honor to get things right. I look around me. In New York State, a high-ranking senator gets convicted of steering clients to a medical company in return for kickbacks. Another one scores a six-figure no-show job for his lazy son by intimidating the company’s owner. Their governor impanels an anti-corruption committee and promptly disbands it when they get too close to him. A list of fat-cat municipal contracts and business bonanzas in New York City read like the mayor’s yearbook.
New Jersey’s no better. A senator parties like it’s 1999 in the lap of luxury on his BFF’s jet and yacht and Caribbean hideaways. On the flipside, he rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations. He even tries to massage the law when his good buddy is brought up on felony charges. The friend, as it turns out, is going to do some hard time. The Senator? He’s a smart guy. Even when his own teammates condemn him, he still weasels out of a conviction.
Even our own governor is shady. Something in his election always bugged me. Lakewood, NJ is an almost exclusive orthodox Jewish community. Forty-six thousand registered voters that are “advised” by their leaders who to vote for. Christie carried them twice. I don’t know why. I don’t know what promises he made. But last year they went with Phil Murphy and this is what had me stymied. Murphy’s running mate and now Lt. Governor is Sheila Oliver. Sheila Oliver has vehemently called for a boycott of Israeli businesses. Even though Murphy disagreed, here you have a candidate with openly anti-Semitic leanings who will be a heartbeat away from the governor’s seat. What coherent Jewish person is on board with that ticket? Then last month, it comes out that Murphy donated twenty thousand dollars to a local religious school. There are hundreds of desperate worthwhile charities clamoring for help. Battered women, abused children, boys and girls clubs, substance abuse. But this school, already the recipient of millions of dollars in state aid, somehow popped up on his radar. And, coincidentally, he was lucky enough to pocket their votes. Even if I just came down in yesterday’s rain, I could connect those dots.
So I’m frustrated, We’re all frustrated. Look at the kind of people we’ve been getting. We need a Mr. Smith in Washington. My big issue is honesty. I’m tired of empty bloated promises of tax reform, better education, improved infrastructure, and affordable housing. After years of a steady diet of vows to fix these things, it’s all become one big blah, blah! Blah, blah, blah. Blah,blah. Please, just give me an honest man!
It’s the classic battle of David vs. Goliath; the little guy against the well-oiled political machine. A long shot? Maybe. But like Jefferson Smith, he’s going to take that one big swing and rock them to their heels. So hopefully, it’ll be “Welcome back to Washington, Mr. Smith (That’s “You-gin”, not “Hug-in” or “Who-gin”). Yeah. I think I like that guy.
Originally published in the Asbury Park Press on Aug. 23, 2018