Your guide to the Aug. 13 N.J. Senate primary

The death of New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg in early June invoked a series of unusual proceedings that will come to a head in a special senate primary election Tuesday, Aug 13. On this day the political parties will nominate one candidate to represent them in a general election scheduled for Oct 16. 

With the party primaries less than a week away, many New Jersey voters may be wondering how these decisions about elections are made, who’s steering the ship right now, and moreover which candidates they should keep on their radar beyond the primaries. 

Who was Frank Lautenberg?

Former New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, the oldest sitting senator at the age of 89, maintained a consistently liberal voting record in office. During his last term, he served on three Senate committees: Appropriations; Commerce, Science and Transportation; and Environment and Public Works. He was also chairman of two Senate subcommittees.

Lautenberg was known to promote pro-choice rights, gun control, and transit safety. At the end of his third term in 2000, Lautenberg announced his plans to retire from Washington and focus on his family, but soon after leaving office he realized how much he missed working in the Senate and ran for his fourth term in 2003. In the period after his return to the Senate, Lautenberg became a vocal opponent to the Bush administration’s national security policies. His death in early June of this year interrupted his fifth term, making him the last World War II veteran serving in the Senate as well as the record-holder for the most number of votes cast by a New Jersey Senator. 

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So who’s my senator now?

Governor Christie appointed Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa to fill the vacant senate seat until October. Chiesa’s relationship with the governor goes back to 2009 when he served as executive director of Christie’s transition team after the election. He also served as Christie’s chief counsel until he became New Jersey’s attorney general in December 2011. Chiesa has never pursued or held a political office before and does not plan to run in October’s special election.

John Weingart, Associate Director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, told NewsWorks that Chiesa was a somewhat surprising choice. “He was quite candid when he was picked, explaining that the issues he would be dealing with were not issues he was particular involved with or had given much though to,” Weingart said. “Suddenly with virtually no advance warning he had to go to Washington and vote on a major immigration law bill.”

According to Weingart, Chiesa’s term in office marks the first time a Republican is representing New Jersey in the Senate since the last interim senator in 1982; before that, New Jersey had not elected a Republican senator since 1972. He will serve as interim senator until the special election in October when the new appointment will be immediately sworn in.

Why is a special election being held separately from the general election?

Weingart clarified that when a vacancy occurs in an elected office the New Jersey governor can appoint an interim and hold a special election at the next scheduled election day; however, depending on the timing the governor can schedule the election to be on a date of his or her choosing.

“There are two sections of the state constitution that somewhat conflict about how close to an election it must be for a governor to be obligated to call an election for a vacation seat,” Weingart explained. In fact, some critics are still in disagreement over Christie’s decision to call for the special senate election on October 16, calling it an attempt to curb Democratic voter turnout in the general election scheduled for November 5. As Weingart said, “He could have had the two party organizations choose the nominees and he chose to have a primary instead. I don’t think there’s been any criticism of that decision.”

Will this election have to happen all over again in 2014?

In a way, yes. The purpose of October’s special election is to fill the vacant seat until the current term officially expires in January 2015. That means that, as usual, an election will be held in the fall of 2014 to fill a full six-year Senate term.

Now that we’re approaching the primary, who are the candidates?

The primary election will take place on August 13, 2013. There are four Democrats and two Republicans vying for the open senate seat.



The Democrats

Cory Booker (D)Newark Mayor Cory Booker is arguably the most widely known candidate on the ballot this summer. He has established his reputation as a hands-on problem solver ever since entering office in 2006 through stints like hosting Hurricane Sandy victims in his home and living on a “food stamp” budget to stimulate discussions over New Jersey’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Booker is also known for conversing with and responding to his constituents via Twitter. Booker campaign website

Rush D. Holt, Jr. (D)Congressman Holt joined the House in 1999 after an established career in physics and alternative energy research. He also participated in a non-televised episode of the popular game show Jeopardy! in which he bested his IBM computer opponent. Currently, Holt serves on the Committee on Education and the Workforce as well as the Committee on Natural Resources, where he plays a key deciding role in determining nation-wide long-term energy goals. Holt campaign website

Sheila Oliver (D)State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver has a career history in nonprofit management, program development, and grantsmanship. Since taking office in 2009, Oliver has sponsored legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage, authorize marriage equality, and improve standards of living for the working poor. She is the first African American woman to lead a legislative house in New Jersey and, if elected, could become the state’s first female senator. Oliver campaign website.

Frank Pallone (D)Congressman Pallone’s political career began in his home city of Long Branch where he was elected to the City Council in 1982. He has held a congressional office since 1988. Pallone is known for having one of the strongest liberal ratings and for co-authoring the Affordable Care Act. Environmental concerns rank high on his agenda as a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and member of the Environment and Economy Subcommittee. He also acts as Communications Chair of the Democratic Policy Committee, making him an active leader in shaping the Democratic Party’s message on the House floor. Pallone campaign website



The Republicans

Alieta Eck (R)Political newcomer Eck has an established career as a physician and served as president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. She cites her experience when speaking out against the Affordable Care Act and demanding health care reform. In 2003, she founded the Zarephath Health Center to provide charitable medical care for the uninsured and underprivileged in New Jersey. She attests that real health care reform in the Senate will only be possible with a physician’s voice and vote. Eck campaign website

Steve Lonegan (R)Since serving as mayor of Bogota from 1996 to 2008, Lonegan has led two unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns to earn the Republican nomination and one failed run for New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District seat. He also serves as the state director for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group backed by the oil billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Lonegan campaign website


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