New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: “I had a choice of whether to pick a handpicked replacement or let the people vote on their new senator. …This special election is not about playing politics. It is about doing the right thing.”

Jimmy Fallon: “You ain’t lying, C.C.”

— exchange during “Slow Jam the News,” Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, June 12, 2013

Under fire from newspaper editorials for scheduling a special election to fill the Senate seat of the late Frank Lautenberg (D), Gov. Chris Christie (R) used an appearance on a late-night comedy show to offer a defense of his actions.

In Christie’s telling, he had the choice of “whether to pick a handpicked replacement or let the people vote on their new senator,” and so he opted for a special election. “The decisions that need to be made in Washington are too great to be determined by an appointee for 18 months,” he said.

The clip has gotten the most notice for a segment in which Fallon’s house band, The Roots,  refer to Christie’s apparent interest in running for president in 2016 by singing, “Baby, you were born to run.”  But Christie’s presidential aspirations actually have a lot to do with his decision-making — something he left out of his claim that the decision was “not about playing politics.”

The Facts

When Lautenberg died, many commentators quickly pointed to a conflict in the New Jersey laws regarding a Senate vacancy. While the governor clearly had a right to appoint someone to fill the seat until a successor could be elected, one provision (N.J.S.A 19:3-6)  pointed to the election being held in November 2013 and another (N.J.S.A 19:27-6) suggested it should be held in November 2014. Most analysts suspected the vacancy statute, with its 2013 election date, would hold sway.

Instead, Christie surprised everyone by announcing he would call a special election to be held on Oct. 16, less than three weeks before the general election. (Fallon joked it was being held “prematurely.”) The cost of both the primary and general election is expected to top $24 million. Christie also appointed a placeholder to fill the seat until the election.

Christie explained that he wanted to act as quickly as possible so an elected representative could represent New Jersey in the Senate. The date he selected was the earliest he could under the law, though it would only gain 20 days for the new lawmaker — during a period when little legislative business will be done because of upcoming elections.

As Jon Stewart of The Daily Show put it recently, “Three weeks of work in the Senate is basically 28 lobbyist meet-and-greets, 14 days of old-man smell acclimation, and six filibusters.”

Moreover, in 2009, Christie rebutted a Democratic effort to eliminate special elections in case of a Senate vacancy by noting, “I don’t think any responsible governor at this point would call for a special election that would cost ten million dollars.”  He said that the notion that Democrats just wanted to save money was “political lying.” (Since this clip resurfaced, Christie has said it was taken out of context — he was talking about the previous governor replacing himself.) 

Democrats have sued to move the special election to November. “The Governor is essentially cherry-picking those sections of the two statutes that support the actions he wishes to take — N.J.S.A. 19:27-6 for the authority to call the special election and N.J.S.A. 19:3-26 for the power to name a replacement — without any regard for the surrounding provisions of the statutes or the overall legislative intent,” they argued in the court filing.

The Governor’s Office has forcefully fired back in its own legal brief, saying that Christie is bound by the time frames set in NJSA 19:27-6: “The August [primary] election will be held not less than 70 days after the June 4 Writ of Election, and the October general election will be held not less than 64 days after the August primary.” Moving the election to November “promotes a result that would undermine the ability of New Jersey’s electorate to have a full complement of elected federal representatives as expeditiously as possible.”

What’s really going on here?

Christie is running for reelection and has high hopes of winning a landslide. A big victory in a solidly blue state could be a big part of Christie’s resume for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

But a Senate race on the same ballot — especially if it includes Newark Mayor Cory Booker, an African-American — could complicate that calculus if large numbers of Democrats come out to vote. A big Democratic turnout could also thwart Christie’s hopes of adding Republicans in the New Jersey legislature.

For the record, Christie has insisted there was “no political purpose” behind his special election decision. “My purpose is to give people a voice — a voice and a choice,” he said when he announced his decision.

The Pinocchio Test

We will leave aside questions about the intricacies of New Jersey election law — except to note that almost no one predicted Christie’s unique interpretation. In pitching this as a choice between appointing someone or giving voice to the people, however, Christie is leaving out the important fact that he scheduled the election day at the least cost to his own political aspirations.

Indeed, Christie has been sued not because he set a special election, but because of the date he set. So despite his denials, the special election involves a lot of political games. Perhaps Fallon should have called this segment “Slow Spin the News.”

Two Pinocchios


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