By Barbara Goldberg
(Reuters) – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Thursday named state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to fill the state’s vacant U.S. Senate seat until a special election is held in the fall.
The seat belonged to Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who died on Monday at the age of 89 of complications from viral pneumonia.
Christie’s handling of the empty seat has come under close scrutiny, as the outspoken Republican is widely seen as interested in seeking his party’s presidential nomination in 2016.
Chiesa, a Republican, does not plan to run for the seat permanently, Christie said at a news conference in Trenton, New Jersey.
“He will not be a candidate in the primary or general election,” Christie said, adding, “I’m perfectly comfortable with that decision.”
Chiesa, 48, served on Christie’s transition team and before that worked at the law firm of Wolff & Samson and for the federal prosecutor’s office in New Jersey.
He is a former partner at the prominent New Jersey law firm of Dughi, Hewit & Palatucci, where Christie also once was a partner.
Christie earlier this week called the special election for October 16, with a primary election to be held on August 13. He said at the time that he would name someone to the open Senate seat on an interim basis until the special election was held.
The naming of Chiesa leaves the field wide open to candidates who want to succeed Lautenberg.
Some Democrats wanted Christie to hold the special election on the same day as the November 5 general election, when Christie is up for reelection. They hoped the special election would lure more Democrats to the polls.
Political observers said Christie likely wanted to avoid that. As a potential presidential contender, he wants the strongest possible backing in his home state in the general election, they said.
Many Republicans wanted Christie to fill Lautenberg’s seat with a Republican through 2014, when Lautenberg’s term was to expire. This was among the options open to the governor.
By not filling the seat for the next year and a half, some Republicans said Christie was mistakenly trying to win Democratic support, with an eye to his own political ambitions rather than the interests of his party.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by John Wallace)
[Photo of Jeffrey Chiesa via Wikimedia commons]