The announcement that 86-year-old U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg will undergo treatment for stomach cancer has Democrats worried that Gov. Christopher Christie would appoint a Republican to fill a vacant Senate seat if Lautenberg is unable to finish his term.
After Christie ousted Gov. Jon Corzine last November, there was a movement to change the way United States Senate vacancies are filled so that Christie could not immediately fill Lautenberg’s seat with a Republican. The plan failed after key Democratic leaders were unable to agree on a single plan.
From the start, there was no official Democratic plan to change the plan, mostly because different Democrats had different idea for writing the new law. Some preferred that the seat remain vacant until a special election could be held (that was the law Massachusetts passed in 2004 when it looked like Mitt Romney might fill John Kerry’s seat, and then repealed this year so a Democratic governor could replace Ted Kennedy), and others liked the Wyoming plan, where the governor would have picked one of three names submitted by the Democratic State Committee. Few Democrats liked a bill sponsored by Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange) that would require Christie to pick a Democrat of his choice. The most absurd concept of all was a discussion that party leaders should prevail on Lautenberg to resign so that Corzine could appoint a new Senator before Christie took over.
It’s easy to see how the different scenarios might help or hurt many of the players. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch), who has $4 million in the bank and a political base in Republican Monmouth County, would have benefited from a special election with no incumbent and in a contest that would not have forced him to risk his House seat. It is hard to imagine that Christie would have picked Pallone over any other two Democrats on the list. Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) might have been able to finish within the top three on a Democratic State Committee ballot, but is unlikely to finish first – if the nomination for a special election was up to the state party insiders. Democrats found McKeon’s plan unacceptable; Christie could have found a Democrat to appoint as a caretaker and allowed the Republican candidate to run for an open seat, not against an incumbent.
Public criticism and internal disarray helped push Codey to say last December that he would not post the any vacancy reform bills during the current session of the Legislature. Among Democrats, there are different takes on why Codey put an end to the issue, but it appears the real reason the lack of unity among Democrats on how to solve the problem.