POLITICS: PennAve

New Jersey's Jeff Chiesa backs immigration reform, but not because Chris Christie told him to

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Sen. Jeff Chiesa wants to be clear that when he stood on the Senate floor Thursday and cast his “Yea” vote for immigration reform, it wasn’t as a proxy vote for the man who weeks ago sent him to Washington: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

“He should not in any way be tagged or labeled with any of the decisions that I make,” Chiesa told the Washington Examiner at his office Thursday before the vote. “He asked me to come do this job and use my best judgments.”

Christie appointed Chiesa, a Republican, to replace Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died earlier this month. Chiesa, then New Jersey’s attorney general, was immediately thrown into a raucous immigration debate that remained unresolved in Congress for decades.

And it didn’t take long for Chiesa to break from his own party leadership. He joined 13 other GOP lawmakers and every Senate Democrat in backing a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would create a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants while strengthening border security.

“I took every chance I could through last night to consider the issues and to make the best judgment I thought I could,” said Chiesa, who announced where he stood only hours before the Senate voted. “Ultimately, I thought it was the right thing to do.”

To call Chiesa a freshman is generous. He is a temp and his office reflects it. It’s a cramped room in a short wing of the Russell Building with white walls and cubicles and a few hastily hung photos and simple decorations. And he’s been cramming since he got there for what has been one of Congress’ biggest undertakings since health care reform.

Chiesa said he didn’t rely on Christie for advice on how to vote, and insists that his support for immigration reform is no reflection on his former boss, a potential 2016 GOP presidential contender who would have to contend with broad Republican opposition to the reforms Chiesa backed.

“We’ve always talked in the past, we’ll continue to talk in the future. When he asked me to do this job, he said ‘I want you to go down there and do what you think is right on the issues that you confront,’” Chiesa said. “There’s no demands from anybody. There’s certainly advice from many people.”

Chiesa said he wanted tougher border security, a stronger worker verification system for employers, and greater scrutiny of criminals seeking citizenship. But his decision to back a bill that didn’t include those measures will reverberate back home, where Christie is now running for a second term as governor. Chiesa said his vote shouldn’t reflect on the governor.

“He’ll think for himself on every issue as I think we know,” he said. “It would be unfair for him to be labeled or criticized for anything that I do down here.”

Chiesa is the first Republican to represent New Jersey in the Senate since 1982, and if history holds, the seat will revert to Democratic in October’s special election. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, is already the race’s frontrunner.

Chiesa won’t be running in the fall and he’d told Christie that. In fact, Chiesa hasn’t run for any office since becoming class president his senior year in high school. He was appointed attorney general — by Christie.

For now, Chiesa hopes to contribute, particularly on law enforcement issues like human trafficking — a major issue in New Jersey — given his experience as attorney general.

“This is a wonderful job because of the kinds of issues that you get to deal with,” Chiesa said. “The people in the Senate are just terrific people. Interesting, thoughtful, really passionate. It’s a remarkable place.”

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