New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appointed state Attorney General Jeff Chiesa as the state's first Republican U.S. senator in 30 years, on Thursday, filling a temporary opening in the Senate.
"This is an incredible honor for my family and I," Chiesa said, noting he will use his "best judgment" in the Senate.
Chiesa, a registered Republican since 2000, would not be a candidate in the primary or general election, said Christie. The governor said that while he made the final decision this week, he had been considering his options for the Senate for awhile.
“I’ve been thinking about it on and off for a period of time," Christie (R) said at a news conference in Trenton Thursday afternoon. "I started thinking about it in earnest on Monday morning when I got the news of Senator [Frank] Lautenberg’s death.”
Christie noted that he trusts Chiesa, but also said that Chiesa would operate on his own as a senator. Chiesa has filled the role of telling the governor bad news and no, Christie said. "There are very few people in my life who I know better than Jeff."
The choice is a surprise since Chiesa was not mentioned as a Senate appointee prior to Thursday. At the same time, Christie has long favored members of his inner circle for top appointments.
"It was unexpected for sure," Chiesa said, adding that Christie first discussed the appointment with him on Monday.
He thanked Christie for his posts in Trenton and now the Senate. "I have had these opportunities because of the governor," Chiesa said.
He became the state attorney general in January 2012 after two years as Christie's chief counsel in the governor's office. The chief counsel is one of the most powerful positions in New Jersey government, and serves as the governor's chief liaison with the state legislature as well as a legal adviser. As attorney general, a gubernatorial appointment in New Jersey, Chiesa has been the state's top law enforcement officer, overseeing the state police, criminal justice, consumer affairs, civil rights, gaming enforcement and the state's litigation. Chiesa served seven years in the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey, while Christie headed the office. While there, Chiesa led the office's public corruption unit and served as executive assistant U.S. attorney. Public corruption was Christie's top issue as U.S. attorney.
On Thursday, when questioned about the immigration bill pending before Congress, Chiesa identified border security as one of his top issues as senator and said he plans to meet with other senators to discuss immigration and other issues when he arrives in Washington. "I am a conservative Republican," Chiesa said. "I don't want to get into a litany of issues."
Chiesa is the first Republican U.S. senator from New Jersey in 30 years. The last was Nicholas Brady who served an appointed term in 1982 and was replaced the same year by Lautenberg. Brady went on to serve as U.S. Treasury secretary. New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Clifford Case in 1972.
The governor's appointment comes as New Jersey politicians scramble to enter a special election for the seat, left vacant after the death of Lautenberg (D) on Monday. Christie set an Aug. 13 primary and Oct. 16 general election to find a senator to finish Lautenberg's term, which expires in January 2015. Candidates have until 4 p.m. June 10 to file with the state Division of Elections to run in the primary.
On the Democratic side, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Rep. Rush Holt and Rep. Frank Pallone have indicated that they will enter the August primary; state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) is considered a potential candidate as well. On the Republican side, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, the state director of Americans for Prosperity, is the only announced candidate. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., and state Sen. Joe Kyrillos are potential Republican candidates.
Christie found himself under fire for his decision to call for the August and October special elections, which will cost the state a total of $24 million. He said Thursday that his decision is "consistent" with the state Constitution and that despite the cost, he believes it is needed. If he held the election in November, Christie said he would have insisted on a primary to pick party nominees, which would have cost $12 million. New Jersey law dictates that state party committees choose the nominee absent a primary election.
If Christie called the election for November, when the governor's seat is up for grabs, it left open the possibility of he and Booker appearing on the same ballot. While Christie leads Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono by 30 points in recent polls, the popular Booker's presence on the ballot could have helped Buono. Booker on the November ballot also could have helped Democratic candidates for the state Legislature, potentially hurting Christie's goal to flip the Legislature to GOP-control. Christie has said politics did not play a role in his decision.
Christie said he will appoint an acting attorney general on Monday, but did not detail his plans for naming Chiesa's successor. Under state law, the new attorney general would serve until January.