N.J. Gets GOP Governor? Time To Change Senate Succession Law!

There was a big stinkeroo earlier this year, when Democratic lawmakers in Massachusetts changed state law and gave the power of naming a Senate successor in the event of a vacancy to the governor.

The controversy stems over what these same Democrats did in 2004. Back then, with a Republican governor (Mitt Romney) and Democratic Sen. John Kerry a possible winner in the presidential race, the Legislature stripped the power of appointment from Romney and instead called for a special election; after all, we can't have a Republican governor naming a Republican to fill a Senate vacancy.

This year, with a Senate vacancy following the death of Ted Kennedy, and with a Democrat (Deval Patrick) as governor, the Legislature changed the law once again — still calling for a special election, but allowing the governor to name an interim appointee. (And that's what he did, picking former DNC chair Paul Kirk, a longtime Kennedy family ally. Kirk's term ends shortly after the Jan. 19 election.)

On Nov. 3, voters in New Jersey ousted their governor, Jon Corzine (D), and replaced him with a Republican, Chris Christie. Now, a Democratic state lawmaker, Assembly Majority Whip John McKeon, has introduced a bill that would require the governor to fill a Senate vacancy with someone of the same party as the previous senator.

It just so happens, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) turns 86 next month.

Adrienne Lu, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, quotes Seton Hall University political analyst Joseph Marbach as saying that McKeon's bill is "clearly a political move to limit the power of Gov.-elect Christie in a potential Senate appointment":

Most states allow the governor to fill a temporary vacancy without regard to the appointee's political party, Marbach said. He said he thinks such a change would stand up to legal challenges but he is curious how the legislation will be received during the lame-duck session of the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

"It's really the first major test of this notion of bipartisanship that's been talked about," Marbach said. "If it does pass, it's going to mean we won't see much bipartisanship, because it is really an attack on the power of the governor."

As for Gov.-elect Christie, he called McKeon's bill a "political power play."

The last time a New Jersey governor filled a Senate vacancy was in 2006, when Corzine picked then-Rep. Robert Menendez to replace, well, Corzine himself, who left the Senate to run for governor in '05. Before that, it was in 1982, when Harrison Williams (D) resigned in advance of a likely Senate move to expel him for his role in the Abscam scandal. Gov. Tom Kean (R) named a fellow Republican, Nicholas Brady, to fill the seat. Brady did not seek to hold the seat in the '82 election.

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