SPRINGFIELD — Bob Hugin, a multimillionaire pharmaceutical executive, launched his Republican campaign for Senate on Tuesday by saying he was “embarrassed” by the behavior of Democratic incumbent Bob Menendez.
“This campaign is going to be a contrast — a stark contrast in candidates,” Hugin, 63, said at an Elks lodge in Springfield, Union County. “I have to tell you I am offended by Senator Menendez’s actions. He’s violated the public trust and, at the same time, he’s failed the people of New Jersey.”
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Menendez faced a 2 1/2-month corruption trial last fall that ended in a hung jury, with 10 of 12 jurors favoring acquittal on most counts against New Jersey’s senior senator. The Department of Justice announced last month that it will not retry Menendez.
The trial — in which Menendez was accused of doing favors for Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen in exchange for political contributions, private jet flights and lavish vacations — damaged the senator’s standing in the polls, with a majority of voters saying he doesn’t deserve reelection.
“New Jersey deserves better. I’m embarrassed about how people think about New Jersey based on Senator Menendez’s behavior,” Hugin said. “He must be and he will be held accountable by the voters this November.”
Hugin’s former employer, Summit-based Celgene — from which he retired as executive chairman on Feb. 5 after working there for nearly two decades — has its own controversies that threaten to blunt his anti-corruption message.
Last summer, Celgene paid $280 million to settle a lawsuit that charged it committed fraud by re-purposing a leprosy drug for unapproved cancer treatments and that it filed false claims with Medicare. Medicare abuse was also at the center of Menendez’s corruption trial, with prosecutors alleging he went to bat for Melgen so that Melgen would not have to pay back millions for overbilling Medicare for “multi-dosing” an expensive eye drug. (Melgen was convicted of Medicare fraud in a separate trial that did not involve Menendez).
Celgene also made news last year for “aggressively” raising prices on cancer drugs during Hugin’s leadership and was cited in a Bloomberg report for keeping more than three-quarters of its cash overseas.
“I intend to do everything in my power to be sure people in New Jersey know that Bob Hugin made millions by exploiting people fighting cancer and taking advantage of poor people on Medicare,” David Mitchell, a cancer patient who took a Celgene drug and founded the organization Patients for Affordable Drugs, said in a statement. “Bob Hugin is the very definition of a robber baron — a ruthless and unscrupulous businessman.”
But Hugin said he’s proud of his work at Celgene, which he said was near bankrupt when he first joined it. He said the company is on the “verge of curing several cancers” and has created thousands of jobs in New Jersey.
“Celgene changed my life. It gave a new sense of mission and purpose of my life,” he said. “You meet cancer patients, you know who you work for.”
Hugin grew up in Union City — also Menendez’s hometown — and was the first member of his family to attend college. He went to Princeton on a full scholarship, then joined the Marines. Today, he has two sons who are Marine officers.
“I learned about leadership. I learned that leaders go to where the problems are to make a difference,” Hugin said of his experience in the Marine Corps.
Celgene had several ties to the Christie administration and Hugin is close with Bill Palatucci, a confidant of the former Republican governor. Hugin was also a supporter of President Donald Trump, donating more than $200,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC and the RNC during the 2016 election. Hugin last year praised Trump on national TV.
But Hugin mentioned Trump just once during his remarks on Tuesday, saying he will be “an independent voice for New Jersey in Washington.”
“If Governor [Phil] Murphy or Senator [Cory] Booker have a good idea that makes sense in New Jersey, I will stand up and support them,” Hugin said, referring to the two Democrats. “If President Trump or any other Republican has an idea that’s bad for New Jersey, I will forcefully stand up and disagree with them.”
Hugin offered no specifics about what policies he would pursue in Washington and did not indicate where he stood on abortion rights, a major issue for many in the GOP. He did not take questions from reporters.
Hugin also slammed Menendez over New Jersey’s perennial status as a state that pays far more in taxes to the federal government than it gets back in aid. He said there were “good things [and] bad things” in the Trump tax plan, H.R. 1 (115), but that Menendez had not done enough to negotiate a better deal for New Jersey taxpayers, saying the $10,000 cap on the state and local tax deduction was too low.
Hugin is expected to put millions of his own money into the race. He also is unlikely to face a tough primary. One Republican who was running, Richard Pezzullo, dropped his candidacy to endorse Hugin. Hirsh Singh, who finished a distant third in last year’s Republican gubernatorial primary, is among a few Republicans who have registered to run in the primary.
But much of the state’s GOP establishment — including Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt and former lieutenant governor and gubernatorial nominee Kim Guadagno — attended Hugin’s event. Hugin plans a second kickoff announcement in Delran, Burlington County, later Tuesday.
Despite his financial resources, Hugin will be an underdog against Menendez. New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972, and anti-Trump sentiment is strong in the state’s urban areas as well as some of the the state’s wealthy suburbs — including towns Republicans have reliably carried for decades.
“We will make the case loud and clear that New Jersey deserves better from our next senator,” Hugin said. “New Jersey deserves a senator as good as its people, not one working to stay one step ahead of the law.”
A spokesman for Menendez declined to comment.