Gov. Christie Appoints Attorney General Jeff Chiesa to Senate

PHOTO: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christies chief counsel Jeff Chiesa stands in the Statehouse, in Trenton, N.J., after Christie announced that he is nominating Chiesa for attorney general, Dec. 22, 2011.Mel Evans/AP Photo
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's chief counsel Jeff Chiesa stands in the Statehouse, in Trenton, N.J., after Christie announced that he is nominating Chiesa for attorney general, Dec. 22, 2011.

Chris Christie has done it again.

The colorful and often unpredictable New Jersey governor today surprised the political universe by tapping his largely unknown state attorney general to replace U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday.

"There's very few people in my life that I know better than Jeff," Christie said during a hastily called news conference at his office in the Trenton statehouse. "I've known him since he was a brand-new lawyer 22 years ago."

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The announcement comes as Lautenberg lies in repose at the US Capitol a day after funeral ceremonies in New York. The oldest member of the Senate and the body's last World War II vet died of pneumonia in the predawn hours Monday.

Chiesa will hold the Senate post through a special election, scheduled for October. He said he will not be a candidate for the position in a campaign that is to begin when nominating petitions are filed this Monday. He will be the first Republican to represent the Garden State in the Senate since Nicholas Brady left in 1982 after also serving as a caretaker, appointed by then-Gov. Tom Kean.

Today's appointment caps a meteoric rise for Chiesa, who just five years ago was driving Christie around Southern New Jersey when the then-candidate was first embarking on a longshot bid for governor.

The 48-year-old Chiesa described himself as a "conservative Republican." His presence in the Senate will make the chamber's partisan split 52 Democrats to 46 Republicans (two independents caucus with the Democrats).

The new senator has never held elected office. He worked with Christie first in private practice and then as a leading federal prosecutor when Christie was New Jersey's U.S. attorney during the Bush administration. After Christie was elected governor, Chiesa first ran Christie's transition and then was named the governor's chief counsel, leaving only to become state attorney general about 18 months ago.

"It really is extraordinary to me that I'm standing here," Chiesa said. "It was unexpected for sure…I've got a limited time to contribute what I can."

Before joining Christie's staff, the only headlines Chiesa had made were for his work as a prosecutor, specifically leading the charge on some of the most high-profile corruption cases brought by Christie's U.S. Attorney's Office.

Stressing he does not have a set of priorities to pursue in Washington, Chiesa said his law-enforcement background makes him believe the "first thing we have to do is make sure the borders are secure."

Christie said he would have backed Chiesa if the new appointee would have wanted to run in the special election and he is equally supportive of Chiesa's choice not to run.

The governor said Chiesa would be a good addition to a Congress stuck in what feels like endless partisan battling.

"Jeff brings a great approach for solving problems to this job," Christie said. "I think it will be a good thing to have him down there."

Chiesa is a graduate of Notre Dame and Catholic University Law School. He and his wife Jenny have two kids, 14-year-old Al and Hannah, 12. He has served as a Eucharistic minister and taught Sunday School at his church and coached soccer and baseball.

His family lives in the Republican stronghold of Somerset County, west of Newark.

Much of the news conference was again devoted to questions about Christie's quick decision to hold a special election in October only three weeks before the general balloting when his own re-election will be at stake. He defended the choice even though the two part special election – a special primary and then statewide general ballot – comes with a price tag approaching $25 million.

Already, conservative activist Steve Lonegan and Democratic Rep. Rush Holt have announced their candidacies. Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone are both expected to enter the fray as well.