New Jersey Governor Chris Christie named state attorney general Jeffrey Chiesa as the interim replacement for the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, as politicians began lining up to fill the remainder of his term.
Chiesa, who lives in Branchburg and described himself as a conservative Republican, accepted Christie’s offer with a two-word text: “I’m in,” the governor said. Chiesa will begin June 10, and won’t run in the special election to complete Lautenberg’s term, Christie said at a news briefing today.
Lautenberg, a five-term Democrat, died on June 3 of complications from viral pneumonia at the age of 89. He had said in February that he wouldn’t run again in 2014. Christie, a Republican seeking a second term in November, set an Oct. 16 special election for the Senate seat, with an Aug. 13 primary.
“Senator Lautenberg had been ill and I knew this day might come,” Christie said. “So I didn’t just start thinking about this on Monday. I’d been thinking about it on and off for some period of time.”
Chiesa, 47, said he was surprised by the appointment. Christie, who called the lawyer a close friend, said he phoned him on June 4, after Chiesa had said he would serve, and said: “Great! Now are you going to run?” Christie said Chiesa replied: “I have no interest in being a political candidate, governor.”
Chiesa, a Christie appointee, has been attorney general since January 2012. He has targeted issues including gun and gang violence, crimes against children and public corruption, and helped lead the state’s response to Hurricane Sandy, according to Christie’s office.
Immigration may be the first major issue Chiesa will deal with in Washington, as the Senate is scheduled to begin debate tomorrow on revising U.S. laws governing undocumented immigrants. Chiesa said that his background as a prosecutor makes border security a priority, though he hasn’t formed an opinion on a pathway to citizenship. He said he needs to study pending issues before weighing in.
Christie, a potential White House candidate in 2016, has said deporting undocumented immigrants isn’t a “practical plan,” has argued for a comprehensive rewrite of immigration laws and said he supports a “clear path” to legalization.
The choice of Chiesa was an attempt by Christie to remain above the political fray in an election year and avoid jilting members of his own party by hand-picking a candidate to run this fall, said Brigid Harrison, a professor of law and government at Montclair State University.
“This is not surprising and a safe appointment,” Harrison said. “In addition to appointing a foot soldier who is loyal to the Republican Party, the governor succeeded in appointing a foot soldier that is loyal to him. He won’t do anything embarrassing or surprising while he’s in Washington.”
The governor declined to speculate on potential election candidates from within his own party, and said politics didn’t enter into his decision. Democrats had pushed for holding the Senate election during the Nov. 5 governor’s race, which would have put a popular Democrat at the top of the ballot and could help the party’s other candidates.
The governor, a former federal prosecutor, said he first hired Chiesa when he was in private practice more than 20 years ago. Chiesa then spent seven years in the U.S. Attorney’s office, was executive director of Christie’s transition team, and served for two years as the governor’s chief counsel. He was confirmed for his current post by a unanimous vote in the Senate, the governor said.
“There’s very few people in my life that I know better than Jeff,” Christie said.
State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, a Republican from Westfield, said Chiesa has served “admirably and honorably” in Trenton and the appointment is needed as Congress takes action on several major fronts.
“He is the right man for the job and will be a dignified voice in Washington to serve the people of New Jersey,” Kean said in a statement. “Governor Christie’s swift action assures that the people of New Jersey will not be without a voice in the U.S. Senate.”
Chiesa’s term ends Oct. 16, the day of the special election, according to Christie.
U.S. Representative Rush Holt, a nuclear physicist and five-time winner of the TV game show “Jeopardy!,” today became the first Democrat to enter the special-election race. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a 44-year-old Democrat who had been preparing a bid before Lautenberg’s death, is collecting signatures and will “make an official announcement at an appropriate date,” spokesman Kevin Griffis said in an e-mail.
Holt, in a statement on his website, asked for signatures by June 10, the deadline to qualify for the ballot. First elected to Congress in 1998, Holt was born in West Virginia and lives in Hopewell Township. His father was one of the youngest people ever elected to the U.S. Senate, at 29. His mother served as West Virginia secretary of state and was the first woman to hold that position, according to his website.
“I am the best candidate to continue the passionate advocacy for progressive values that Senator Lautenberg exemplified,” Holt, 64, said in the statement.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a 60-year-old Democrat from East Orange, is taking a serious look at entering the special-election campaign, the Star-Ledger in Newark said on its website. She has discussed a bid with members of her party and others, the newspaper said, citing Chris James, her chief of staff.
Democratic congressman Frank Pallone also has expressed interest in Lautenberg’s seat. Republican Steve Lonegan, former mayor of Bogota, is gathering signatures.