TRENTON, N.J. -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie named a longtime loyal colleague, state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, to temporarily fill the U.S. Senate seat Thursday that opened up this week after Frank Lautenberg's death.
Chiesa, 47, has never held or run for political office and will not seek the office in an October special election to fill the seat for a longer period, Christie said.
Appointing a caretaker to the Senate means that Christie has not anointed anyone the Republican favorite for the special election. Christie said he'll evaluate the choices once that field is set.
The jockeying has already begun, with one Democrat and one Republican in the race and others likely to join them before a Monday deadline.
For now, the office will belong to Chiesa, who worked with Christie in private practice, the U.S. attorney's office and in another Trenton job before Christie made him the state government's top lawyer. He will take office effective Monday just ahead of expected debates on immigration policy.
"I will try to contribute in any way I can," Chiesa said, noting that a limited time in Washington -- just four months -- is likely to restrict just how much he can accomplish.
He will be the first Republican to represent New Jersey in the Senate since 1982, when Nicholas Brady was chosen by Gov. Tom Kean to serve out a term after Harrison Williams resigned amid scandal. The last time New Jersey elected a Republican to the Senate was in 1972.
Lautenberg, a liberal Democrat, served nearly 30 years in the Senate. When Chiesa takes office, the Senate will have 52 Democrats, 46 Republicans and two independents who generally vote with the Democrats.
Christie said he had been thinking about who might replace Lautenberg because he knew the senator was ill. He said he went to Chiesa's home Monday night to meet with him and his wife. Chiesa texted Christie the next morning, the governor said, declaring: "I'm in."
Though he's been joined at the hip with Christie throughout his career, the governor said Chiesa, who describes himself as a conservative Republican, would be an independent voice in Washington.
"Anybody who knows Jeff knows he has a mind of his own. He always has," Christie said.
Chiesa has known the governor for more than 20 years. Their relationship began when Christie interviewed Chiesa as a law clerk. Chiesa would spend nine years in the U.S. attorney's office before leaving for a short stint as a partner at a law firm. He then worked on Christie's transition team.
As attorney general, he initiated a statewide taskforce to address human trafficking, overseen statewide child-pornography stings and ran an extensive series of gun buybacks across the state.
"I've only had these chances because of the governor," Chiesa said Thursday. "I don't kid myself."
Raised in Bound Brook, Chiesa graduated from the University of Notre Dame and went on to get a law degree from the Catholic University of America. He is married with a son and a daughter and lives in Branchburg.
He has not had a particularly high profile in New Jersey, a contrast with past attorneys general, who most often become household names because of controversies under their watch.
His selection Thursday was greeted warmly by Republican state lawmakers.
"Mr. Chiesa is a venerable public servant, devoted to protecting people from corruption and violence," said Sen. Kevin O'Toole, the minority whip, in a statement. "He is a smart, deliberative individual who will represent this state in Washington with honor and distinction."
Any initial complaints about the select weren't about Chiesa but his party.
"I have worked with Attorney General Chiesa on many issues over the last few years and believe he is capable of filling the seat. Still, New Jersey voters overwhelmingly re-elected Senator Lautenberg, so his replacement should have been a Democrat," said state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat. "The will of the people should not have been ignored."
Christie said he'll appoint an acting attorney general on Monday and said there is no timetable to nominate a permanent replacement. He said it's unlikely that Chiesa will return to the position but did leave the door open to Chiesa returning to his administration in some capacity.
Christie has scheduled a special election for October to fill the seat until it expires in 2015. Whoever wins in October would have to run again in 2014 to keep the seat for a full six-year term.
The campaign for the special election is on a compressed schedule with a primary in August and general election in October.
On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt became the first Democrat to announce he's seeking his party's nomination.
"I am the best candidate to continue the passionate advocacy for progressive values that Sen. Lautenberg exemplified," he wrote in an email to supporters.
Holt, now 64, was assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory for most of the 1990s before being elected to Congress in 1998. Around his central New Jersey district, it's not uncommon to see a bumper sticker that proclaims, accurately: "My congressman IS a rocket scientist."
He's considered one of the most liberal members of New Jersey's congressional delegation. He's pushed for laws against racial profiling and has been critical of drilling for oil and natural gas on public lands and waters.
Two well-funded Democrats, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, had expressed interest in the seat before Lautenberg died, but neither has made an announcement.
The only Republican in the race so far is former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, who has twice sought his party's nomination for governor.
Lonegan, who runs the state office for Americans for Prosperity, said Wednesday that he looks forward to weighing in on national issues such as the Obama administration's handling of the attack last year in Benghazi, Libya, and the selective scrutiny of conservative groups' nonprofit tax applications.