Embattled U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) is pivoting to accuse his Republican opponent, Bob Hugin, of being both anti-women and anti-gay for comments he made when he was the student leader of an exclusive, all-male eating club at Princeton University, reports the Burlington County Times.
Menendez’s campaign has attempted to highlight Hugin’s past support for excluding women from the club and his opposition to nondiscrimination protections for gay students. On Thursday, Hugin expressed regrets about his time as the leader of the Tiger Inn eating club during a time when the group fought to keep women excluded.
“I wish I could have evolved quicker on that,” Hugin said in a roundtable discussion with former State Sen. Diane Allen (R-Edgewater Park) and other women leaders on equal pay and women’s rights.
Menendez’s campaign quickly seized upon the issue, and pointed to the Tiger Inn’s court battle to exclude women, noting that Hugin had referred to the lawsuit as “politically correct fascism.”
The Menendez campaign also highlighted a 1976 Central Jersey Home News article where Hugin expressed disapproval of Princeton’s decision to expand its nondiscrimination policies to include LGBTQ students following an incident of vandalism directed against an on-campus student activist group. In that article, Hugin said that students should be able to decide whether to allow the policy to go forward, adding that if a member of the Tiger Inn was found to be gay, “he wouldn’t last long.”
“This is the real Bob Hugin: anti-women, and anti-gay,” Michael Soliman, the chairman of the Menendez campaign, told the Burlington County Times. “Bob Hugin was in a position to show real leadership on advancing the causes of women and the LGBTQ community and failed, instead perpetuating a culture of discrimination and hate. Bob Hugin can’t erase his past. He is a disgrace and unfit to represent New Jersey and all its vibrant diversity.”
Soliman added that voters shouldn’t be fooled by Hugin’s claim that his views have “evolved” since that time.
“I’m proud to say that my views are a lot different than they were 40 years ago,” Hugin said in a statement. “On this issue I was probably more influenced by my kids than anything else. They had insight at a very early age on the issues of equality and fairness that made me re-evaluate the way I saw the world.
“Personal growth should be seen as a strength, and more elected officials should embrace and be open to discussing it in their public lives,” he added. “As Senator, I will be a leader on issues of equality from day one.”
Hugin’s campaign has also implied that Menendez is being hypocritical, pointing to comments he made in a 2011 op-ed regarding his newfound support for same-sex marriage, despite having voted for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
At the roundtable, Hugin had cited gay marriage and women in the military as two issues where his views had changed since being a college student. He also said he regretted his role in and stance on the Tiger Inn court case, and his inflammatory comment about “politically correct fascism.”
But Menendez’s campaign hasn’t let up, arguing that Hugin has supported candidates who have fought to “roll back women’s rights.” Soliman said that Hugin, if elected, would support “extreme Supreme Court justices who would reverse Roe v. Wade,” and pointed to the pharmaceutical executive’s role as a presidential delegate for Trump.
“As the nation’s highest-ranked elected Hispanic, Bob Menendez has fought his entire career to end discrimination and ensure all Americans, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or status in life, have an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential,” Soliman said in a statement.
Menendez is one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the U.S. Senate who is up for re-election this cycle, largely because of a 2015 indictment on corruption charges. Although the trial ended with a hung jury and federal prosecutors declined to retry the case, the Senate Ethics Committee — made up of both Democrats and Republicans — admonished Menendez that same year, saying he violated Senate rules, federal law, and “applicable standards of conduct.”
Hugin has sought to remind voters of Menendez’s ethical troubles, while Menendez has previously attacked Hugin’s record as chief executive of Celgene, a pharmaceutical company that has been attacked for increasing prices on drugs, particularly fighting to keep an expensive cancer drug from becoming generic.
But Menendez’s attacks seem not to have made a dent in Hugin’s poll numbers, as at least two polls have shown the two statistically tied. It remains to be seen whether his attack on Hugin’s views on social issues — and his campaign’s attempt to link the GOP candidate to President Trump — will sway any voters, particularly apathetic Democrats, to throw their support behind Menendez as the November election approaches.