By Christopher J. Durkin
In a span of 4 years – from January 2001 to November 2004 – New Jersey residents saw seven Governors occupy the top spot in the State House.
The revolving door began spinning in January 2001 with Governor Christine Todd Whitman resigning to take a position in President George W. Bush’s cabinet and continued to November 2004 when Senate President Richard Codey assumed the helm as Governor on November 15, 2004 after the resignation of Governor James McGreevey. In between, Donald DiFrancesco, John Bennett and Richard Codey (twice) dually served as Senate President and Acting Governor. Let’s also not forget that for 90 minutes in 2002 then-Attorney General John Farmer, Jr. was our Governor.
The Governor of New Jersey is vested with awesome powers; the line item veto and the appointments of the Attorney General and State Superior Court Judges along with key appointments to many powerful Authorities that ooze public money.
DiFrancesco and Codey both served long periods as both Acting Governor and Senate President: DiFrancesco for 11 months and Codey for 15 months. During those times, one person posted bills and then signed them into law.
Now that’s real power.
In an effort to ensure that too much responsibility did not fall to one person again, in November 2005, voters passed a Constitutional amendment creating the position of Lieutenant Governor and making New Jersey the 45th state with such an office. The lieutenant governor must be from the same party as the governor and assumes the governorship in the event of a vacancy.
In most states, when a vacancy occurs in the governor’s office, the lieutenant governor ascends to the governor’s office for the remainder of the term. But, not here in New Jersey. Article V of the Constitution states, “if a lieutenant governor becomes governor, or in the event of simultaneous vacancies in the offices of governor and lieutenant governor, a governor and lieutenant governor shall be elected to fill the unexpired terms of both offices at the next general election, unless the assumption of the office of governor by the lieutenant governor, or the vacancies, as the case may be, occur within 60 days immediately preceding a general election(this year that date would be after September 5, 2014), in which case they shall be elected at the second succeeding general election.”
In the event, the governor and lieutenant governor vacate their respective offices, the senate president; in an act of déjà vu becomes the “acting governor.”
A vacancy in the office of governor between the dates of 55 days before a primary (in 2014, this would mean April 9th N.J.S.A. 19:23-12) and more than 60 days before the general election (in 2014, the date would be September 4th), except for the last year of the term would trigger a meeting of the Republican and Democratic State Committees to elect the nominees for each respective party; who would then face-off in the general election.
Every four years, members of the Republican and Democratic State Committees are elected to a four-year term at the primary election where candidates for governor are nominated. There are 42 members of the Republican State Committee; one man and one woman from each of the twenty-one counties. The Democratic State Committee, of which I am a member, consists of 98 full votes that are apportioned among the counties based on the total population of each county. The voting body is made up of members with whole votes and members with half votes.
New Jersey’s constitution also has its limits when it comes to winning the unexpired term, by stating that, “no person who has been elected governor for two successive terms, including an unexpired term, shall again be eligible for that office until the third Tuesday in January of the fourth year following the expiration of the second successive term.”
Therefore, in theory, it is possible for a governor to be elected to successive terms and only serve 6 years in office.
Our constitution should be further amended to allow for a governor to serve two consecutive full terms, even after serving an unexpired term. And, in the event the Governor and Lieutenant Governor both vacate their offices, the Senate President should relinquish his or her Senate Presidency to the Senate Majority Leader while “acting” as governor. After all, wasn’t that the intent of the constitutional amendment in the first place?
Christopher J. Durkin is the Essex County Clerk.