06/04/2013 05:50 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2013

Senator Lautenberg's Legacy and His Successor

America lost a champion of public health and environmental protection when Senator Frank Lautenberg passed away on Monday. All of us benefited from his accomplishments, even if we never lived in his home state of New Jersey. Lautenberg helped create smoke-free workplaces, tough drunk driving laws, and the right to know what kind of chemicals we are exposed to--concepts that most Americans now take for granted.

What no one can take for granted, however, is who will replace Lautenberg in the Senate.

Appointing a successor after the death of an elected official is never simple. Each state has its own set of rules, and each appointment is guided by local politics. But in New Jersey, the process is further complicated by conflicting laws and bad timing.

The rules on the books say that an empty congressional seat must be filled by the governor's appointee until the next statewide election. According to one provision in the law, that would be this November when New Jersey voters return to the polls for the gubernatorial race.

But another provision says this sequence only works when the vacancy occurs 70 days before the primary, and New Jersey held its primary on Tuesday--the day after Lautenberg died. If the state follows that rule, the appointee would hold the position until the next primary and election cycle, 17 months from now in November 2014 (The Cook Political Report has a good summary of the legal issues, but subscription required).

The confusion in the law gives Governor Chris Christie some flexibility and on Tuesday he announced that the special election would be October 16th and the primary will be on August 13th. This plan will resolve the question of succession quickly, but it could also open Christie to some tricky political problems.

Some are questioning why Christie would spend taxpayer money for an election when there is already a statewide vote scheduled less than a month after this race. Theories as to why he scheduled a separate election differ. Some say he decided for a different path than outlined in the divergent laws in order to avoid a lawsuit. Others say he doesn't want Democratic hopeful Cory Booker on the same ballot as his gubernatorial re-election because it might cause a heavy Democratic turnout.

Whatever your theory, Governor Christie has a unique leadership style that appeals to some Democrats and Independents. But in the end he is still a Republican and he will probably choose a Republican to replace Senator Lautenberg in the interim. After all, the New Jersey GOP hasn't had a Republican Senator since Richard Nixon was in the White House and the Poseidon Adventure was in movie theaters. This is an opportunity to update the party's presence in the Garden State.

But having a special election this year is also a good thing for Democrats since it is likely that a Republican caretaker in the seat wouldn't have time to build inroads in a way that would make him or her difficult to beat.

Experts from both parties are busy weighing the odds and mapping out legal strategy, and of course recruiting candidates. But no matter who gets appointed or when the special election takes place, there is something we must not forget: Senator Lautenberg's legacy.

New Jersey has a proud history of supporting a leader who puts public health first. In his effort to protect people from dangerous chemicals and hold polluters accountable for their mess, Lautenberg created the nation's toxic right-to-know law, established the U.S. Chemical Safety board, and helped craft the Superfund Law. His sister died from asthma several decades ago, and he became a tireless advocate for clean air standards. He was also dismayed by the thousands of toxic chemicals Americans are exposed to every day in our food and household products, and just last month he introduced a bipartisan bill to strengthen the nation's chemical safety laws.

Things like toxic chemicals and dirty air don't observe party lines. They endanger Republicans and Democrats alike, and the safeguards Lautenberg put in place protect all American families equally. Hopefully, no matter who fills his seat or when, the next Senator from New Jersey will do the same.