TRENTON, New Jersey (PIX11) – While New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg laid in state in the U.S. Capitol the day before his Friday burial, the Garden State’s governor announced the five-term senator’s temporary replacement. Jeffrey Chiesa, who has been New Jersey’s attorney general since 2012, insisted that he had no intention to remain in the senate position once it’s filled permanently in a special election in October. Even still, the actions he’s likely to take while in the senate could have an impact counter to what Sen. Lautenberg’s political bent.
“I am a Conservative Republican, generally speaking,” now Senator Chiesa said to more clearly define himself in a news conference in Governor Chris Christie’s office Thursday afternoon, where the popular Republican governor introduced his interim senator.
Chiesa’s self-described political viewpoint is the opposite of that of the man he’s replacing. Lautenberg, a well-known moderate-to-liberal Democrat, drafted legislation that got smoking banned on airline flights, raised the drinking age to 21 from 18, made it illegal for domestic abusers to own guns, and got some 400,000 people trying to flee oppressive countries passage into the U.S. legally.
For his part, Chiesa recently made a name for himself by prosecuting nearly thirty restaurant bars statewide that were found to be selling a variety of liquids — some of them toxic — and marketing them as top-shelf liquor.
A promotional news release issued by Gov. Christie’s office Thursday afternoon pointed out specific achievements Chiesa has made both as attorney general and as a federal prosecutor and a lawyer in private practice.
As New Jersey attorney general, Chiesa “formed a new Human Trafficking Unit within the Division of Criminal Justice,” the release said, in addition to “seizing illegal weapons in violent areas, disrupting the supply-chains of those weapons, and aggressively prosecuting criminals involved in the illegal sale and possession of weapons.”
It also touted his record of combating gang violence, saying that Chiesa “opened 120 new ‘gangs and organized crime’ cases in 2012, filing charges against 285 alleged gang members, drug dealers and other dangerous offenders,” and listed his bona fides in fighting public corruption. “Chiesa’s office filed 40 new public corruption cases in 2012, charging current and former public officials at every level with crimes related to the exploitation of their positions for personal gain.”
He also won a strong reputation for fighting corruption over the last decade as a prosecutor under then U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, before Christie ran successfully for governor and took Chiesa with him to Trenton. “Chiesa led the … prosecution of several high-profile public corruption cases such as former state Senate President John Lynch,” the press release from the governor’s office said.
Once he takes office on Monday, it should come as no surprise that Sen. Chiesa will remain in close contact with Governor Christie. They have been close friends since 1987, when they started practicing law in private practice together in Central New Jersey.
“There are very few people I know better than Jeff,” said Gov. Christie. “He’s someone I know as well as I know my own family.”
Christie is polling extremely well among both Republicans and Democrats, as he seeks re-election in November. PIX11 News asked Christie’s close friend, Chiesa, if some of that popularity might favor him in his new position and possibly result in Chiesa deciding to run for his senate seat in order to stay in it permanently.
“If that were to happen,” the newly appointed interim senator said, “I’d have to have a conversation with my family.” When asked by PIX11 News if that conversation might happen before the special election for the senate seat in October, Chiesa responded swiftly and decisively, “No.”
The biggest issue Chiesa is likely to face during his five-month senate career is immigration reform. Lautenberg favored providing citizenship for people born outside of the U.S. whose parents brought them here illegally, among other left-leaning immigration policies. The G.O.P. appears to take a different stance. Based on Chiesa’s own comments about his political positions, he appears likely to vote differently than the man he’s been tapped to replace.