The Surreal Existence of Jeff Chiesa, New Jersey's Accidental Senator
Jeff Chiesa had been a U.S. senator for less than an hour when he was called to the floor for his first vote. Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont introduced a measure on June 10 that sought to expand broadband service in rural areas—the ins and outs of which it’s fair to say Chiesa hadn’t spent much time pondering. A Republican lawyer, he was attorney general of New Jersey until GOP Governor Chris Christie appointed him to temporarily occupy the seat of Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who died on June 3.
There was no shortage of colleagues willing to help Chiesa make the right decision on the broadband proposal. Leahy greeted him with warm congratulations and leaned in for a quiet talk, only to see him snatched away by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican summoned an aide to have a private chat with the Senate’s newest member, and Chiesa disappeared into the cloakroom off the Senate floor as one by one Republicans headed to the front of the chamber to vote “no.” When Chiesa emerged a few minutes later, he was immediately surrounded by well-wishers who shook his hand and clapped his back until an aide urged him to cast his ballot. Pausing to shake hands with both Senate clerks, Chiesa registered his vote: “No.”
In a chamber where Democrats hold a modest 54-46 majority, the unexpected turnover of a seat to the Republicans is a gift for GOP leaders facing votes on major issues, including immigration reform and possibly the nation’s debt limit and budget. Chiesa’s time is limited—Christie called an October special election to permanently fill the seat, and Chiesa has said he won’t run for it—but he’s eager to make the most of the temp job. In an interview squeezed between meetings and briefings (his staff says he’s been cramming on national issues and Senate rules), Chiesa says, diplomatically, that he appreciates all the attention he’s received. “I’ll listen to any member. I understand there are differing viewpoints, and I’m trying to form my own opinions,” he says. “There’s been no leaning, no pressure, nothing like that.”
Former New Jersey Congressman Mike Ferguson, a friend and adviser, puts it more plainly: Chiesa’s “being inundated and will continue to be inundated by folks on a lot of different issues who will want to persuade him to their side.” That’s especially true on immigration, where the GOP is bitterly split over whether to support a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. On his second day as a senator, Chiesa was back in the chamber for another vote, this one on a procedural step to inch the immigration legislation forward. Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a leading proponent of the bill, pulled him aside for a intense chat, quickly followed by Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the legislation’s top foe. Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican co-author of the bipartisan bill, later joked that he would do whatever is necessary to get Chiesa to side with him. “I’m going to subject him to intense interrogation—I may waterboard the guy,” McCain said. “Or maybe tell him that he’s either going to support this legislation or hire someone to start his car in the morning.”
During his first week, Chiesa sided with immigration reform advocates on two procedural votes to open debate on the bill. He also joined most other Republicans, including the legislation’s opponents, in backing a proposal that would have blocked citizenship for undocumented workers until the government can prove U.S. borders are secure. It was defeated largely along party lines. Chiesa says he sees border security as a priority, given his law enforcement background, and has yet to decide whether he supports a path to citizenship.
Although he’s flattered and courted, Chiesa is reminded daily of his humble place in the Senate pecking order. His more senior colleagues walk marble corridors to spacious paneled offices. Lautenberg’s staff is still clearing out the late senator’s suite, so Chiesa has been assigned a temporary space in a vinyl-sided structure outside the Russell Senate Office Building that resembles a double-wide trailer. Dry cleaning hangs on a coat rack in the entrance, near a stack of plastic office chairs. (One perk: It’s a short walk to the Senate gym.) His wife and two kids have stayed home in New Jersey while Chiesa crashes with friends in D.C.
On June 26 the immigration bill passed an important test when 13 Republicans joined 53 Democrats in agreeing to stop debating the legislation so that it could be brought to a vote later in the week. Chiesa wasn’t one of them. He wouldn’t say that day whether he’d ultimately support the legislation. Given all his newfound friends, it wasn’t a decision he’d be left to make alone.