Codey: now is not the time for U.S. senate vacancy legislation

Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) today essentially struck a death blow to Democratic efforts to change the way U.S. senate vacancies are filled.

Codey said that he would not post a bill addressing the issue in his final weeks leading the state senate.

“I do believe that whoever replaces the United States senator should be of the same party,” said Codey. “But having said that, any party could have changed this at any point in time… it just looks strictly partisan and is the wrong message at this time.”

The idea took on life after Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie beat incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine last month, jolting Democrats into the realization that Christie could appoint a Republican in the event that one of the two Democratic incumbents leaves office early.

Left unsaid was the real motivating factor behind the legislation: U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-Cliffside Park), though by all accounts healthy, is 85 and has five years left in his term.

Currently, the governor is allowed to appoint anyone he wants to the post regardless of political party, or to leave it vacant and instead call a special election. But Democrats, noting that New Jersey voters have not elected a Republican to a U.S. senate seat since 1972, came up with two separate bills that would prevent Christie from naming a Republican to the post.

Three weeks after Christie’s election, Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange) introduced legislation that would do away with the option to call a special election and force the governor to appoint a replacement from the same political party as the departing senator.
At a press conference earlier this month, Christie reacted furiously to McKeon’s bill, calling it “garbage,” “political lying” and a “political power play by the party that’s losing power.” Those comments left little doubt that Christie would veto the bill if it passed after he took office.

Shortly after Christie’s statement, Codey said he would be open to posting a compromise version of McKeon’s bill that would allow the governor to appoint anyone he wants if there is a short amount of time before the next general election, but constrain his pick to the predecessor's political party if there is a long time remaining before then.

But the next senate vacancy bill to emerge — this time from Assembly Majority Leader-elect Joseph Cryan, the outgoing Democratic state chairman — was more hard-nosed. Cryan’s bill took the governor out of the appointment process altogether, forcing the seat of a departed senator to be left vacant until a special election is held.

“It’s become obviously very political. People have viewed it as political. Not that I necessarily agree,” said Codey. “As far as this goes, I’m going to be honest with you. I think Joe Cryan and John McKeon are about as good as legislators as you’re going to get. But this is the wrong time to drop this bill.”

There is one highly unlikely scenario in which the bill could pass, even without Codey’s approval. Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) will take over the senate presidency on January 12 – one week before Christie is sworn in. Sweeney would need to post the bill, both houses would need to pass it, and Gov. Corzine would need to sign it – all in one week.

"The governor still has to come to bat."
—Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, on Atlantic City.