Meet New Jersey’s Newest Senator

Elahe Izadi

If you had told Jeffrey Chiesa 10 years ago that he’d be walking the halls of the U.S. Capitol as a senator, he “would have just dismissed it as a completely impossible scenario.”

“My last elected office was senior class president in high school,” Chiesa (pronounced kee-AY-sah), R-N.J., tells National Journal Daily.

The 47-year-old may not be in Congress for long, but he will be around during high-stakes fights over key legislation, such as immigration reform. Republican Gov. Chris Christie appointed Chiesa, who was New Jersey’s attorney general, to fill the seat previously held by the late Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg. He’ll be in office until after a special election is held in October—he is not running.

Chiesa grew up in a middle-class family in Bound Brook, N.J. His father, who died when he was 8, worked at a chemical plant, and his mother was a public-school teacher. Chiesa attended the University of Notre Dame and earned his law degree from Catholic University.

Chiesa met Christie while both practiced at the law firm now named Dughi, Hewit & Domalewski. In 2002, he joined Christie in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and has been working for him since. In 2009, Chiesa headed up Christie’s transition team after he became governor, and was eventually named Christie’s chief counsel. In 2012, Chiesa became attorney general.

He has come to Washington after a busy 18 months in Trenton. Chiesa oversaw statewide stings into child pornography and zeroed in on human trafficking by creating a new unit within the state’s criminal-justice division. He also instituted a $100,000 gun-buyback program earlier this year.

Chiesa is viewed as a “law-and-order conservative” back home, says Christie adviser Mike DuHaime. “He’s someone who is very smart, very funny, very affable, but at the same time, he’s very tough,” DuHaime said. “He’s someone you definitely want on your side, no doubt about it.”

Although Democratic New Jersey state Senate President Stephen Sweeney strongly disagrees with Christie’s choice not to appoint a Democrat for the seat, he praised Chiesa as honest, “easy to work with, and a true professional. I consider him a friend. I think many of the Democrats in the state consider him a friend. People on my side of the aisle confirmed him quickly” as attorney general.

Chiesa isn’t thought of as a partisan back in New Jersey. Attorneys general in New Jersey are appointed rather than elected, which means many of Chiesa’s colleagues back home aren’t exactly clear on his ideological standings, though he is a self-described “conservative Republican.”

“He doesn’t have a political bone in his body,” Sweeney said. “I think that’s why the governor selected him. He’s one of the governor’s closest friends and he trusts him.”

Those close to Chiesa describe him as a principled man but willing to hear out varying points of view.

On his politics, Chiesa said he is “pro-life. I support the Second Amendment, although as attorney general, I took steps in every way to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.”

Chiesa spoke to National Journal Daily only five days into the job, and he said he’s working hard to get himself up to speed on the legislative debates of the day even as measures come up for votes. Peter Verniero, a former New Jersey Supreme Court justice and attorney general, says Chiesa has proven adept at managing a massive organization as attorney general. “I’ve seen him make difficult decisions, and I’ve seen him act very conscientiously with respect to very significant issues.”

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said on the Senate floor last week that he looks “forward to working with him closely on the issues of importance to New Jersey and to the nation.” Menendez is particularly interested in discussing immigration reform with Chiesa. “Senator Chiesa comes at a time in which we are having some momentous debates in this nation.”

On immigration, Chiesa says, “My initial concerns were about border security, because as a federal prosecutor, I understand the impact of having people coming into the country who shouldn’t be here.”

Gun-control legislation may come back up while Chiesa is in Washington. He said he hasn’t studied the Manchin-Toomey proposal to expand background checks, but “I’ll talk to them and anybody else interested” in the issue.

Although his time on Capitol Hill will be short, Chiesa is particularly interested in anything Congress can do on issues related to human trafficking.

As for life after the U.S. Senate, Chiesa says he won’t be returning as New Jersey’s attorney general, but isn’t exactly clear on his next career move. “In October, I’ll be looking for something to do.”