TRENTON, N.J. -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie named a longtime colleague, state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, to temporarily fill the U.S. Senate seat Thursday that opened up this week after Frank Lautenberg's death.
Chiesa, who worked with Christie in the U.S. attorney's office before becoming the top lawyer for the state government, will take office effective Monday just ahead of expected debates on immigration policy.
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Chiesa, 47, has never had or run for political office and said he will not seek the office in an October election to fill the seat, Christie said.
He will be the first Republican to represent New Jersey in the Senate since 1982, when Nicholas Brady was chosen by Gov. Tom Kean to serve out a term after Harrison Williams resigned amid scandal. The last time New Jersey elected a Republican to the Senate was in 1972.
Lautenberg, a liberal Democrat, served nearly 30 years in the Senate. When Chiesa takes office, the Senate will have 52 Democrats, 46 Republicans and two independents who generally vote with the Democrats.
Chiesa has worked for Christie almost his entire career. He was Christie's chief counsel until he was nominated in December 2011 to be attorney general.
"I've only had these chances because of the governor," Chiesa said Thursday. "I don't kid myself."
Though he's been joined at the hip with Christie throughout his career, the governor said Chiesa, who describes himself as a conservative Republican, would be an independent voice in Washington.
"Anybody who knows Jeff knows he has a mind of his own. He always has," Christie said.
Christie said he had been thinking about who might replace Lautenberg because he knew the senator was ill. He said he went to Chiesa's home Monday night to meet with him and his wife, Jenny. Chiesa texted Christie the next morning, the governor said, declaring: "I'm in."
"I just believe he is the best person for the job," said Christie. "Jeff brings a great approach to solving problems to this job."
Chiesa has known the governor for more than 20 years. Their relationship began when Christie interviewed Chiesa as a law clerk for the firm Dughi & Hewit. Chiesa would spend nine years in the U.S. attorney's office before leaving for a short stint as a partner at the law firm of Wolff & Samson. He then worked on Christie's transition team.
As attorney general, he initiated a statewide taskforce to address human trafficking, overseen statewide child-pornography stings and ran an extensive series of gun buybacks across the state.
He has not had a particularly high profile in New Jersey.
Raised in Bound Brook, he attended the University of Notre Dame as an undergrad and went on to get a law degree from the Catholic University of America. He is married with a son and a daughter and lives in Branchburg.
Christie said he'll appoint an acting attorney general Monday, theoretically leaving the job open for Chiesa's return after his stint in Washington.
Christie has scheduled a special election for October to fill the seat until it expires in January 2015. Whoever wins in October would have to run again in the fall of 2014.
The races will shape up quickly because of a deadline Monday for candidates to file papers declaring they are in the race. A primary is set for August.
On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt became the first Democrat to announce he's seeking his party's nomination.
In an email Thursday to supporters, he explained why he's running. "The reason is simple," he wrote. "I believe I am the best candidate to continue the passionate advocacy for progressive values that Sen. Lautenberg exemplified."
Holt, now 64, was assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory for most of the 1990s before being elected to Congress in 1998. Around his central New Jersey district, it's not uncommon to see a bumper sticker that proclaims, accurately: "My congressman IS a rocket scientist."
He's considered one of the most liberal members of New Jersey's congressional delegation. He's pushed for laws against racial profiling and has been critical of drilling for oil and natural gas on public lands and waters.
Two well-funded Democrats, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, had expressed interest in the seat before Lautenberg died, but neither has made an announcement so far. Booker began raising money to seek the seat in January and has brought in about $2 million.
The only Republican in the race so far is former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, a conservative who has twice sought his party's nomination for governor.
Lonegan, who runs the New Jersey office for American for Prosperity, said Wednesday that he looks forward to weighing in on national issues such as the Obama administration's handling of the attack last year at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the selective scrutiny of conservative groups' nonprofit tax applications.