Following the death on Monday of New Jersey’s senior senator, Frank Lautenberg, the Garden State’s governor, Chris Christie, had several options (well, two) as to how to go about replacing him.
One such avenue, if traversed, would prove to be straightforward and inexpensive; the other, rather complicated and quite costly. Given the political landscape of the moment, however, the former approach would likely prove to Governor Christie’s disadvantage, while the latter would allow his political fortunes to flourish.
Can you guess in which direction he proceeded?
The governor’s decision, announced with impressive swiftness, is for New Jersey to hold a special election for the now-open Senate seat on October 16, a seemingly random date just three weeks shy of the already-scheduled contest for governor—i.e. Election Day—when Christie could have opted to hold the Senate vote as well.
Creating this second event on a separate day, rather than simply adding an additional column to a preexisting ballot, is expected to cost the state $24 million. As a strident fiscal conservative—in both word and deed—Christie would surely wish to avoid imposing such fees on his constituents if at all possible.
What is more, holding an election in October rather than November gives prospective candidates less time to cobble together their campaigns, and voters less time to digest and ruminate on them.
Why, then, did Christie nonetheless choose to unleash this needless, unsightly mess?
Because, dear reader, were the votes for senator and governor to occur simultaneously, a whole lot more Democrats would turn up to the polls and Christie’s prospects for a commanding victory would be jeopardized.
In short, Christie did what is best for Christie at the expense of the state he rules. In this case, his appetite for fiscal prudence ended where his future plans for high office began.
It is, of course, entirely within Christie’s power to behave in this way. New Jersey’s laws on special elections permit him, as the chief executive, to do pretty much whatever he wants, and his ultimate decision is (according to most analysts) a politically shrewd move. No rational, ambitious public official so empowered could, or should, be expected to go out of his way to make his own life difficult.
However, what Christie does owe the good citizens of New Jersey, and has thus far failed to deliver, is a simple acknowledgement that this—in the words of Walter Cronkite—is the way it is.
If the governor insists upon behaving as the calculating political animal that he is—acting in his own interests first, and those of his constituents second—he ought to say so. Insisting, as he has, that an October vote is the most fortuitous option for the voters, well worth the added expense, is an exercise in disingenuousness that ought to strike any Jerseyan as a wee bit insulting.
By dropping the righteous theatrics and leveling with us, Christie would merely be recognizing what is a wholly common practice in state-level politics, as all who follow it are well aware.
In Massachusetts in 2009, for example, when Governor Deval Patrick was granted the power to schedule the replacing of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, he did not for a moment hesitate to change a state law that he, himself, had previously supported in order to produce a result that was to his own personal liking.
The question in the Kennedy case was whether the governor should have the authority to appoint a temporary seat-filler to cast Senate votes between a vacancy and the installation of the winner of a special election. In 2004, the Massachusetts legislature had removed such a prerogative in anticipation of Senator John Kerry being elected president and the state’s then-governor, Mitt Romney, appointing a Republican to replace him. Five years later, having a Democratic governor suddenly made the idea easier for the deep-blue state to swallow. What are the odds?
A lesson we might draw is that any process left in the hands of politicians is doomed to be sorted out in a political manner. This is not necessarily something over which to despair; however, it does require constant vigilance by us, the people. What we would hope, and what we ought to demand, is for the officials to whom we bestow certain authority to exercise it in an open and intellectually honest fashion.
Is that really too much to ask?