01/11/2013 06:10 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Brendan Gill, Essex County Freeholder, Pushed To Challenge Chris Christie

In this Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right, Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty, left, and others wat
In this Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right, Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty, left, and others watch a pile-driver during a ceremony to kick off the construction of a new boardwalk in Belmar, N.J., to replace the walkway destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. The stop was one of many on Gov. Christie's schedule following his State of the State message this week. With his popularity and visibility at record highs after Superstorm Sandy, Democrats are wondering if there is anyone left in the party to challenge him for re-election, beyond the one declared candidate who is not the first choice of the party establishment. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

A relatively unknown county freeholder who is a top aide to U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is being pushed by a colleague as a potential challenger to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).

Essex County Freeholder Leonard Luciano (D-West Caldwell) told The Huffington Post that he's pushing for Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill (D-Montclair) to enter the Democratic field to oppose Christie in November. While state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) is the only Democrat to have entered the race for governor so far, Democratic leaders in the state have been frantically searching for another candidate to oppose Buono, who has been trailing Christie in the polls. Gill, Lautenberg's state director, was mentioned last year by PolitickerNJ.com on a list of potential Christie challengers.

"He's got federal-level experience. I think he brings youth, energy and enthusiasm, as we saw in his county campaign," Luciano said of Gill to HuffPost. "That is what we want to see on the state level."

Luciano laid out the case for Gill by noting the importance of Essex County in statewide races. The northern New Jersey county is dominated by Newark, where Mayor Cory Booker (D), opted against a gubernatorial campaign to instead seek Lautenberg's Senate seat. Lautenberg has not said if he will run for another term in 2014. Essex County state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Roseland) has also been mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate.

Luciano's push for Gill comes as Democratic leaders continue to look for alternatives to Buono, who has garnered support from Democratic leaders in Middlesex and Somerset Counties, but lags in the polls behind the popular Christie. State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage (D) are also considering entering the race. State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) earlier this week pushed Codey to run. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) announced this week he would not run for governor. Gill is a former top Pascrell aide.

At least one Buono supporter is calling on Democrats to stop the search for another candidate.

"It is not only insulting to her but to women," Somerset County Democratic Party Chairwoman Peg Schaffer told HuffPost. "She has proven herself as a strong leader. She is on the right side of the issues Democrats care about."

Buono is the only woman seeking a governorship in the nation this year. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) will become the nation's only Democratic woman governor when Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) leaves office this month.

Luciano also played up Gil's age as a benefit for the potential statewide candidate. Gill, 38, would be the nation's youngest governor if elected. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), 40, currently holds the title. Haley was 38 when she took office in 2011, while Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) was 36 when he took office in 2008. Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz (R) is the nation's youngest statewide-elected official at 33, a title he cedes next week to Missouri Secretary of State-elect Jason Kander (D), 31.

There would be precedent for Gill to use his county office and appointive posts to make the leap to the governorship. Christie was a Morris County freeholder and a U.S. attorney prior to running for governor, while former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) was a former Somerset County freeholder and state Board of Public Utilities president before winning the governorship in 1993. In 1990, Whitman, then largely unknown statewide, almost upset then-Sen. Bill Bradley (D) in a race comparable to this year’s gubernatorial race, in which Bradley was viewed as unbeatable.

Gill, for his part, said he is focused on his county work and is not looking at a gubernatorial bid. He did say gubernatorial candidates should make their intentions known soon.

"I'm very flattered. Right now I'm focused on being the best possible Essex County freeholder I can be," Gill told HuffPost. "If opportunities arise, what I have learned is you focus on the job you have and do it the best you can. You never say never. If opportunities arise, I am clearly interested in public service and I have made my career in public service."



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