Former Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer today endorsed Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton) for Mercer County Executive, marking the beginning of Benson’s parent company against five-term incumbent County Executive Brian Hughes.

“We don’t have to accept the status quo,” said Benson, a former county freeholder and Hamilton City Council member. “We can do better. We need to lead so we can build a better Mercer County that works for all of us.”

In his endorsement, Palmer sharply criticized what he called the county government’s neglect of Trenton, saying Benson would be a far better ally for New Jersey’s capital.

“The county hasn’t stepped up to the plate in 20 years,” Palmer said. “There has to be a collective belief that when Trenton succeeds, all of Mercer County succeeds. . . . I saw Dan as a risk-taker, someone who always fought hard for the people who needed it most.”

Also in attendance at Benson’s kickoff were former Freeholder Keith Hamilton, the husband-and-wife duo of County Commissioner Sam Frisbie and Trenton City Councilwoman-elect Teska Frisbie, and Trenton City Council candidates Algernon Ward and Crystal Feliciano. Benson said he will release the full endorsement list later this week.

Palmer had considered himself to run for office, saying in November that he believed it was “time for change” in Mercer County. But today he said he ultimately decided to defer to Benson, 47, because he wanted a new generation of politicians to take the reins.

“I realized it was a matter of young leadership,” Palmer said. “I’ve had a day.”

Unlike many challenges to incumbents, it’s highly likely that Benson will get a party line at the Mercer County Democratic convention, although Benson has pledged to continue running even if he doesn’t win. Mercer County is solidly Democratic — none of the 12 towns have voted for a Republican president since 2004 — so whoever wins the primary is virtually guaranteed to win in November.

Since next year is also a legislative election year, Benson will have to give up his seat to run for the executive branch, leaving the Assembly seat in the Democratic-leaning (but sometimes competitive) 14th Legislative District.

Hughes was rarely mentioned by name during today’s announcement, but he still looms large, and both Palmer and Benson have said repeatedly that Trenton has been neglected for the past 20 years — the same amount of time Hughes has served as executive.

“Now is not the time to be weak-kneed,” said veteran strategist Jeanine Frisby LaRue, Benson’s campaign chairman, who added that there have long been whispers about challenging Hughes, 66.

Hughes, meanwhile, expressed confidence in his chances earlier today, saying Palmer’s 20 years as mayor was nothing to brag about.

“When [Palmer’s] going to do for Dan Benson what he did for Trenton, then I feel pretty good,” Hughes said.

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