New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday appointed the state’s Republican Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to serve as an interim senator to succeed the late Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
Chiesa, a longtime Christie aide and former federal prosecutor, will not run for the October special election Christie set. His absence leaves a wide-open GOP field and a growing Democratic primary for the seat.
Since Christie on Tuesday called for a special election, the governor has been criticized by both parties for making a shrewd political calculus in picking an October date. Detractors argue Christie didn’t want a competitive Senate race concurrent with his own re-election bid. While the governor is heavily favored over Democrat Barbara Buono, many believe that Christie didn’t want to endanger a crushing margin, helping him make a case for a possible 2016 presidential bid that he’s won big in a solidly blue state. Christie has argued he set the date as early as possible to give New Jersey voters a voice, and defended even the $24 million it will cost to hold another vote just three weeks before the state’s regularly scheduled general election.
The choice of Chiesa is a safe pick, as Christie looked to a longtime confidante and friend to fill the seat for the next four months. Christie has known Chiesa since the 1990s, when the two worked at a law firm together. Chiesa would go on to serve in the U.S. attorney’s office, and later was Christie’s chief counsel as governor and manager of his transition team. Christie appointed Chiesa as attorney general in 2012, when he was confirmed unanimously by the state Senate.
“I only have these chances because of the governor,” Chiesa said at a press conference announcing his nomination, saying the governor had first met with him about the position on Monday. After discussing it with his family, Chiesa accepted via text message.
Christie praised Chiesa as a man of integrity, saying there were “very few people in my life I know better than Jeff.”
Chiesa will head to Washington on Monday to assume his duties, and admitted he’s a novice to the legislative process.
“These issues are new to me and the details are new to me,” said Chiesa.
On the issue of immigration, he did not that border security was an important issue to him, something that’s been a lynchpin as a bipartisan compromise moves through the Senate.
Chiesa said he’s a “conservative Republican, generally speaking,” but like Christie, he’s supported some policies that could irk some on the right. When he was sworn into office, Chiesa said he would defend the state’s civil union laws as constitutional. Chiesa has also enforced the state’s gun buy-back program.
With Chiesa not seeking a full term though, the field to succeed Lautenberg becomes even more murky, especially on the Republican side. Former Bogota mayor and conservative activist Steve Lonegan, who now directs the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity and ran against Christie in the 2009 gubernatorial primary, became the first to announce his candidacy on Wednesday.
At the press conference announcing Chiesa, Christie seemed to brush aside his past squabbles with his former primary opponent, but said he wouldn’t speculate on the field on either side.
“Steve hasn’t been a sharp critic of mine,” said Christie. “We’ve agreed of much more than we’ve disagreed on.”
Among Democrats, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who was already running in 2014, and Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt have all made moves to run. Booker still has an edge, but Pallone has a $3.7 million war chest that can’t be ignored. Booker had $1.6 million in his Senate campaign account at the end of March, while Holt has about $800,000 in his House campaign fund.
With the compressed time frame Christie set, candidates only have until Monday at 4 p.m. to submit 1,000 signatures. Christie brushed aside criticism that was too quick a turnaround, saying viable candidates should be able to get those signatures easily.
“You think it’s hard to get 1,000 signatures, wait until you try to get one million votes,” Christie laughed.
“People should have the right to make a choice,” Christie said, underscoring again that he felt a primary process and election was the right move, and he blamed the state’s seemingly contradictory statues for the ensuing confusion.
“It’s the fault of legislature for setting up less than clear guidance,” said Christie.