New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday tapped Jeffrey S. Chiesa, the state's Republican attorney general and a longtime adviser, to the Senate seat left open by the passing earlier this week of Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, sending Mr. Chiesa to Washington just in time for high-profile legislative scraps over immigration and taxpayer-funded farm subsidies.
Mr. Chiesa has never held elective office and will hold the Senate seat through the Oct. 16 special election when voters will select someone to fill out the remainder of Mr. Lautenberg's term, which ends in 2014. He will be the first Republican to represent New Jersey in the Senate since 1982.
Mr. Chiesa told reporters has no plans to run for the Senate seat, leaving a wide-open race for the slot that will include party primary elections in August.
On the Democratic side, Democratic Rep. Rush Holt told supporters Thursday he will enter the race to succeed Mr. Lautenberg, one of the Senate's most liberal members. The 64-year-old Mr. Holt, who holds a doctorate in physics, was first elected to Congress in 1998 and is a member of the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Charismatic Newark Mayor Cory Booker had long been considered the Democrats' heir apparent to Mr. Lautenberg, but the special election's timing made it easier for U.S. House members — who aren't up for re-election until 2014 — to run for the Senate slot without having to give up their current seats. Longtime Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. is also expected to join Mr. Holt and Mr. Booker in the Democratic primary.
Democrats far outnumber Republicans in New Jersey, so the winner of the Democratic primary is expected to easily win October's special election.
Although he will be a short-timer, Mr. Chiesa has his work cut out for him, walking into fast-moving debates on comprehensive immigration reform, spending and the five-year farm bill, which the Senate plans to vote on next week. The first major test vote on the hotly contested immigration bill is expected Monday — which happens to be Mr. Chiesa's first day on the job.
A self-described "conservative Republican," Mr. Chiesa, 47, on Thursday briefly weighed in on the immigration debate.
"I think the first thing we have to do is make sure the borders are secure," Mr. Chiesa said. "From there, these issues are new to me."
Mr. Christie's announcement came as lawmakers paid their final tributes on Capitol Hill to Mr. Lautenberg. The last remaining World War II veteran in the Senate, the 89-year-old died Monday from complications from viral pneumonia and he lay in repose Thursday in the well of the Senate chamber.
In the GOP primary to succeed Mr. Chiesa, Steve Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota, N.J., and state director of Americans for Prosperity, has announced his candidacy. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., and state Sen. Joe Kyrillos are also considering bids.
Speaking at the news conference in Trenton on Thursday, Mr. Christie praised Mr. Chiesa as the right person for the job. The two men have known each other for more than two decades, and Mr. Chiesa headed Mr. Christie's transition team in 2009 and then was the governor's chief counsel before becoming state attorney general in 2012.
He is a Roman Catholic who received his law degree from Catholic University in Washington. Mr. Chiesa attracted national notice recently by spearheading the "Operation Swill" raid targeting nearly 30 New Jersey bars allegedly substituting cheaper liquor brands for premium labels.
Mr. Chiesa described the Senate appointment as "an incredible honor."
"I'll use my best judgment and the skill that I have to conduct myself in the way that I hope will make everybody in New Jersey proud, and to do everything I can to advance the interests of the people that live here as I've tried to do in all the positions that I've had the honor to have," he said.
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