By Elise Young & Terrence Dopp – Bloomberg
Republican Governor Chris Christie, who shrugged off the $24 million cost of special New Jersey elections he called to replace deceased U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, kept a tighter purse May 9 in vetoing early voting.
The Democratic-sponsored proposal he killed last month would’ve let residents start casting ballots at polling places 14 days before an election. In his veto message, Christie called the measure “hasty, counterproductive” and, at a cost of $25 million, too burdensome for taxpayers.
Now voters will spend almost that much to pick a successor to Lautenberg. The five-term Democrat and the oldest senator, at 89, died June 3. Christie, whose focus on shrinking government and the $31.7 billion state budget made him a national figure, could’ve cut the cost of the special election in half had he set the final vote on the day of the state’s general election.
“People deserve to have an elected representative and the statute gives me the right to make that determination and I’m not going to shy away from making those decisions,” the 50-year-old governor, who is seeking a second term in November, said at a June 4 news briefing.
Making the votes concurrent would’ve put the Senate race at the top of the Nov. 5 ballot, and threatened to boost Democratic turnout and cut into Christie’s anticipated victory margin over Democrat Barbara Buono, a state senator from Metuchen.
“The issue here is that Chris Christie doesn’t want to win by 10 points,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University polling institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey. “He wants to win by 25 points.”
If Christie had set the special election on Nov. 5, the Senate race would have played out alongside his own campaign. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising Democratic star who weighed a challenge to Christie, has been preparing a senate bid. Lautenberg had said in February that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term in 2014. Booker didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Christie, enjoying high voter approval ratings after his response to Hurricane Sandy late last year, holds an edge of more than 30 percentage points in recent polls over Buono, a 59-year-old lawyer whose campaign fund is half the size of his.
Under options outlined in a legal opinion from the state’s non-partisan Office of Legislative Services, Christie set the special-election for Oct. 16, with a primary on Aug. 14. Both dates are Wednesdays — New Jersey elections are typically held on Tuesdays. The general election, led by the governor’s race, occurs less than three weeks after the final senate vote.
The timing left would-be candidates with less than a week to gather the 1,000 signatures of registered voters they need to submit to qualify for the primary ballot, according to the state Elections Division. The filing deadline is June 10.
The dates were the earliest he could set, Christie said. He rejected charges by Democrats that he was playing politics with the process.
“I want to have an elected senator as soon as possible,” Christie told reporters. “It’s three weeks before the general election. The political purpose is to give people a voice.”
The governor said he plans to appoint an interim replacement by next week.
The primary and special elections each will cost $11.9 million, according to a breakdown by the legislative services office. Printing ballots, running required advertisements, renting polling places and setting up voting-machines will cost about $6.5 million while paying workers will add $5.4 million.
“I don’t know what the cost is and I quite frankly don’t care,” Christie said. “I don’t think you can put a pricetag on what it’s worth to have an elected person in the United States Senate.”
Christie, who took office in January 2010, has focused on spending and tax cuts. In his first year, he lowered school and municipal aid to close a budget gap. He also ended an $8.7 billion transit project to create an additional commuter-rail tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan, saying New Jersey couldn’t afford it. In 2011, he signed measures boosting pension and health-care costs for state workers.
State revenue may miss Christie’s targets by as much as $937 million through June 2014 as collections from online gambling and energy taxes come up short, the legislative services office said last month. Receipts have exceeded targets for five straight months after trailing expectations in the first half of fiscal 2013, which ends June 30.
“In a lot of the policy choices the governor makes, he kind of relies on the rubric that we don’t have the money,” said John Wisniewski, the state Democratic Party chairman. “The question you have to ask anytime someone changes their story is whether they were lying then or now?”
The cost of the October vote would be enough to fund the $3 million Back to Work N.J. program that Christie rejected. The effort pairs jobless workers with businesses through six weeks of training, according to Democrats in the state Assembly. There would be enough left over to restore $7 million the governor cut in women’s health-care funding, said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Teaneck Democrat.
“The fundamental issue here is that we aren’t really sitting on a lot of money,” said Wisniewski, an assemblyman from Sayreville. “We don’t have $12 million lying around.”
The governor had discretion in setting an election date, according to a ruling by the legislative services office. The interim appointee could have served until the November 2014 general election, the memo said.
Christie said he dismissed the chance to appoint a fill-in for the 18 months remaining in Lautenberg’s term because voters’ needs outweighed “the political advantage that would come to me” from placing an ally in Washington through 2014.
New Jersey voters haven’t sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, when they elected Clifford Case.
“This is about guaranteeing the people of New Jersey both a choice and a voice in the process and the representation that they deserve in Washington,” Christie said.
Democrats control the state legislature, where all 120 seats are up for grabs Nov. 5. Party leaders said they wanted a 2013 special senate election on that date as well.
Buono called Christie’s decision “cynical and arrogant.” Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, an East Orange Democrat, said it was “transparently political.” Special elections historically result in low voter turnout, said Wisniewski.
“The decision by Governor Christie to hold a special election in October instead of November is mind boggling in every rational way,” said Senator Richard Codey, a Democrat from Roseland. “It’s as if he gave the residents of this state the finger and that finger will cost $24 million.”