Former New Jersey spokesperson talks politics past and present

The Governor’s race, Christie’s coat-tails and political leadership past and present. If you want to know anything about New Jersey politics sit next to Bob McHugh. That’s what Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron is doing.

Aron: Bob, you are one of the few spokesman I’ve known who’s worked with both Democrats and Republicans. Tell us what your work history is?

McHugh: Well, I was a reporter for 10 years. I started off at the Asbury Park Press and then I worked at the AP (Associated Press). I was lucky enough to work in Washington, D.C. for a couple years, so that was very exciting. At the time Tom Kean was governor and I thought Tom Kean hung the mood, which I still do in some degree, I was lucky enough to get a job as a deputy press secretary. Kean was of course, a Republican, and I only went to work for him for about a year until his term ended and then I went to work for Bill Bradley who of course was a Democrat. And people used to say to me, ‘Well, how can you do both of those?’  I used to say, ‘Well, I voted for both of them so this didn’t seem like a big deal to me.’

Aron: So, you were an AP reporter covering New Jersey politics?

McHugh: That’s exactly what I was doing, yes.

Aron: Never the Ledger?

McHugh: I actually did work at the Ledger briefly.

Aron: I thought you did. You and I have seen a lot of governor’s races, what’s your impression on this one?

McHugh: I would almost be more interested in asking you that question because you’ve seen as many as I have maybe more. It strikes me as kind of a non-event. It’s a big deal obviously, one of these two people is going to be our next governor. But, I don’t hear people talking about it, I don’t hear people caring about it. I mean, I don’t know whether it’s the Trump factor that sort of eclipses it or that Christie is such a larger than life figure and maybe that’s casting a giant shadow over the whole thing, but it just doesn’t seem like a big deal to me.

Aron: I think you’re right about the Trump factor in this, but there is also the one-sided nature in how it appears right now. What’s your impression of Phil Murphy as a political candidate?

McHugh: Well, I’ve never met him, I know a number of people who work for him. They are all top-notch people like the best of the bunch and I think that has to do probably with the advice he’s getting and the experience that he does have and the fact that he has a lot of money. I do think it’s a little bit of a shame that he’s not really a people’s candidate he’s more of a machine candidate. It was money and counter chairman that got him where he is. I mentioned that once to his campaign manager, Brendan Gill, but he said that’s going to change.  We are going to make him the people’s candidate. So, we will see.

Aron: And how about Kim Guadagno? How does she impress you as a candidate?

McHugh: She doesn’t. I mean, I don’t know the woman, but I am sure she’s a nice lady and a competent person, she’s held some high-level jobs. I mean, being Christie’s lieutenant governor was just a fail flaw. I don’t see all of sudden just changing gears in the last year that she tried to do. Particularly with what Christie has done to his own reputation.

Aron: By?

McHugh: Sitting on the beach. I mean, I am not the first one to say it but that was just so emblematic of the whole thing. It just kind of screamed, ‘I don’t care about you guys. I am the governor, I am going to do whatever I want as long as I am the governor.’

Aron: His approval rating is down to 15 percent right now. Why do you think it’s so low? He’s probably the most talented politician that you and I have seen in that governor’s chair or at least talented in his own way. I know you would say Tom Kean was more talented.

McHugh: But, Chris Christie is a very gifted politician.

Aron: So, what happened that he’s at 15 percent?

McHugh: You know, I think Michael, I think obviously it has everything to do with Christie’s personality. But, I think that in some ways, the race for the president was sort of a turning point. He kind of left New Jersey both literally and figuratively and he really hasn’t come home.

Aron: Every governor that has ever run for president has done the same thing without engendering such backlash. George W. Bush was a governor, Barack Obama was a senator, Clinton was a governor. Did their people resent them in a way New Jerseyans seem to resent Christie leaving the state?

McHugh: That’s a good point, I guess the difference is that Christie doesn’t know how to be contrite. He doesn’t know how to say, ‘Well, I was there, but now I’m back.’ If a reporter asked him that question, he would just say shut up as he is to answer the question.

Aron: Is it the bombast that he’s boastful? How do you see it?

McHugh: You know, I hate to beat up on the man. I don’t really know him, I do have respect for him and at everybody who gets elected governor twice, it’s not easy. But, I just think its ego. Bombast is not a bad word. Lack of sensitivity, maybe narcissism is what you hear nowadays. Trump is supposedly a narcissist. I am not a psychologist, but the Greeks had a word, humorous, they lose their way.

Aron: Two of the major figures from our time in the 80’s in Trenton died in the past 10 days. Clinton Pagano and John Russo. Let’s take 30 seconds on each. For those who don’t know, who was Pagano?

McHugh: Pagano was arguably the most notable New Jersey state trooper since Norman Schwarzkopf. Schwarzkopf was the founder of the state police and probably played a key role in the Lindbergh kidnapping it as you know. Pagano became a trooper in 1952 and he really brought the New Jersey State Police in the modern age. Troopers were doing some very backward unexceptionable things when Pagano became Superintendent.

Aron: He was a strong leader but how about John Russo?

McHugh: You know, I knew John Russo personally as I think you did. He was a larger than life figure. He used to fly his airplane from Toms River to Trenton, if you remember, on legislative session days. He was the Senate President, so he would always insist the same restaurant from Ocean County before coming to the legislative sessions, I don’t know if you mentioned that. And, he was an old sort of back-slapping kind of politician, and a politician not like Pagano, but a bygone era. I remember very well that Gov. Kean and John Russo came as the governor, Russo was the highest elected Democrat, they would go and play tennis in the afternoon to try to work things out.

Aron: That’s how things got done.

McHugh: It doesn’t work like that anymore.

Aron: Alright, Bob McHugh, thanks so much for coming in.

McHugh: Michael, it’s been great, thank you.