Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey died today. He wasn't the most charismatic guy around, and his record of legislation may not rival Ted Kennedy's, but he worked hard on a few issues that were important to him, particularly environmental protection and containing the spread of guns, and he was a reliable advocate for liberal values and programs over a long career spanning two tours in the Senate. A World War II veteran and one of the founders of payroll giant ADP, Lautenberg made millions in business, but unlike many others who take their wealth into politics, he didn't believe people should be punished for being poor. In the last year he made news mostly for some spats with Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the fellow Democrat who announced his bid for Senate before Lautenberg announced he wouldn't run, and for spurring some debate on when a politician becomes too old to serve. But now Governor Chris Christie, of whom Lautenberg was none too fond, will be appointing his temporary successor.
Yes, it's crass and cynical to begin the political speculation the moment someone dies. But to paraphrase Hyman Roth, this is the business they chose. So what happens now? Christie will appoint someone to fill the seat, and then there will be a special election, presumably in November, to fill the rest of Lautenberg's term, which ends in 2014, then there will be another election. So New Jersey could have three different senators in this seat over the next year and a half.
Christie would like to be president. I'm not saying he's definitely running in 2016, but he pretty obviously would like it, as would just about every governor and senator. But he knows that in order to get there, he's going to have to go through the party base, the same one that made Mitt Romney so miserable. He knows they'll be watching what he does now, which means it's a bad idea to appoint some moderate Republican squish like former governor Tom Kean. That leaves him with two real choices. He can find some rabid right-winger, which will please Republican primary voters but be condemned in the press as shameless pandering to those Republican primary voters. Or he can appoint someone no one has ever heard of to warm the chair for a few months, like Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick did when he named his former chief of staff, Mo Cowan, to fill John Kerry's seat when Kerry became Secretary of State. I'm guessing you haven't heard too much about Cowan since then. That seems like the most likely route for Christie to take.
Or he could swing for the fences. Governor Patrick ignored my advice to appoint Carl Yastrzemski to fill Kerry's seat, missing an opportunity to make himself a hero for life to everyone in the state. But perhaps Christie could pick from one of the many famous New Jerseyans and give the seat some pizazz. Senator Bon Jovi, perhaps? Dennis Rodman was born in Trenton, and he has a strong background in foreign affairs. But as you may know, if there's one New Jersey cultural figure Christie worships, it's The Boss, Bruce Springsteen. Too bad he's a liberal.
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