New Jersey Governor Chris Christie picked Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa as an interim replacement for deceased U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, while candidates to succeed him began lining up for a special-election ballot.
Chiesa, a Branchburg resident who described himself as a conservative Republican, accepted Christie’s offer with a two-word text: “I’m in,” the governor said yesterday. Chiesa will begin June 10, and won’t be a candidate to complete Lautenberg’s fifth term, which has about 18 months remaining.
The move sets up a truncated and potentially fiery Democratic primary campaign set to conclude Aug. 13. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who chose to seek the Senate seat in 2014 and not challenge Republican Christie’s re-election bid in November, signaled he’ll enter the special-election race. Congressmen Rush Holt is running and Frank Pallone has expressed interest.
“Senator Lautenberg had been ill and I knew this day might come,” Christie, 50, said yesterday at a Trenton news briefing. “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.”
Lautenberg, a Democrat who didn’t plan to seek a sixth term, died June 3 at 89. The next day, Christie set an Oct. 16 special election for the seat. Democrats have a 700,000 vote edge over Republicans, giving their candidate an advantage in October. Most New Jersey voters aren’t members of either party.
The governor declined to speculate on potential Republican candidates, saying politics didn’t enter into his decision on appointing Chiesa or on setting the special election. Republican Steve Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota, New Jersey, is gathering signatures to get on the August primary ballot.
Democrats had pushed for holding the election on Nov. 5, concurrent with voting in the governor’s race. That threatened to put a popular Democrat such as Booker at the top of the ballot, potentially increasing voter participation and diminishing support for Christie and his party’s candidates.
Christie, by setting the dates he did, left would-be candidates less than a week to gather the 1,000 signatures of registered New Jersey voters needed to qualify for the August primary. Whoever wins the seat also faces the prospect of a second statewide campaign to retain it next year.
Holt, 64, became the first Democrat to formally enter the special-election race yesterday, asking supporters to sign ballot petitions for him in an appeal on his website. A nuclear physicist and five-time winner of the television game show “Jeopardy!,” he was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998.
Holt, of Hopewell Township, was born in West Virginia, the son of a U.S. Senator and the first woman to serve as West Virginia secretary of state, according to his website.
Booker, 44, is considered the frontrunner for the seat. A Rhodes scholar and lawyer, he rose from the City Council in 2006 to defeat incumbent Sharpe James for the top job in the state’s biggest city by population. He won re-election in 2010.
The mayor will “make an official announcement at an appropriate date,” Kevin Griffis, a spokesman, said yesterday by e-mail.
Christie said Chiesa, 47, told him he had “no interest in being a political candidate” after the governor had given him the interim job on June 4. Chiesa said he was surprised by the selection.
A Christie appointee, Chiesa began as attorney general in January 2012. He has focused on gun and gang violence, crimes against children and public corruption. He also helped lead the 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. He also supports a “clear path” to legalization.
The choice of Chiesa was an attempt by Christie to remain above the political fray in a state election year and avoid jilting members of his own party by hand-picking a candidate to run this fall, said Brigid Harrison, who teaches 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, a former U.S. attorney in New Jersey, said he first hired Chiesa more than 20 years ago, calling him a close friend now. Chiesa worked for the Justice Department for seven years, served as executive director of Christie’s first-term transition team, and spent two years as the governor’s chief counsel.
“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 sending him to the nation’s capital 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.
The newly minted lawmaker “is going to be a Christie proxy in Washington,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It makes sense the governor would pick one of his closest friends.”