Over Eight Days, N.J. Will Have Five Different Governors
Monday, January 07, 2002
TRENTON, N.J. — Eight days, five governors, one state. In some places that's a formula for anarchy. In New Jersey, politicians are shrugging it off as just business, however unusual.
By Jan. 15, New Jersey will have had five governors in just over a week with only one of them actually elected to the job.
This time last year, critics were carping about a constitutional crisis supposedly so severe that New Jersey needed to rewrite its laws and elect a lieutenant governor. But few people are talking about changing the system now.
Especially silent are the two veteran lawmakers who spent months negotiating how they will share the job -- and the perks -- of acting governor.
One boasted that he would spend as much time as he could writing letters to supporters just so he could sign them as acting governor. The other sent out formal invitations to a reception at the stately governor's mansion in Princeton hosted by him and his wife, listed in embossed script as "First Lady."
Former Gov. Christie Whitman began the political confusion when she resigned last January to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Donald DiFrancesco followed her into office under the state law that makes the Senate president acting governor. DiFrancesco, who ran for governor but dropped out of the race in April, also stayed on as Senate president.
His term ends at 11:59 a.m. Tuesday. But Gov.-elect James McGreevey won't be sworn in until noon Jan. 15, a week later.
That means the new Senate president will be acting governor for the week, with all the powers of the elected governor as well as state police bodyguards, drivers and keys to the mansion.
But the 40-member Senate is split between Democrats and Republicans, giving the leaders of each party claim to the title and the job of acting governor. They've agreed to split the job for the week -- Republican leader John Bennett first, then Democratic leader Richard Codey -- and then rotate the responsibility for the next two years as needed during McGreevey's term.
The fifth governor will be state Attorney General John J. Farmer, Jr. He gets the job Tuesday afternoon for the hour or so it will take to swear in the new Senate president.
New Jersey is one of seven states that does not have an elected lieutenant governor, and with New Hampshire, it is one of only two states with just one statewide elected official.
Until Whitman resigned, New Jersey's use of the senate president as acting governor went largely unnoticed. DiFrancesco did the job temporarily more than two dozen times while Whitman was out of the state, never more than a few days at a time.
Government watchdogs now worry that New Jersey's system is outdated. DiFrancesco had been on the job nine months when he had to manage the state's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and anthrax outbreaks.
"If Sept. 11 were Jan. 11, we might be at the most serious disadvantage we could ever imagine," said Secretary of State DeForest B. Soaries Jr. "Worse than the fact of the insanity of it all is that most people don't even know. Most people don't know about state government."
When DiFrancesco took office, one survey said nearly 70 percent of the state's residents did not know who he was or exactly how he got the job.
"Why so many governors? Can you tell me that again because it doesn't make any sense," said Trentonian Justin Jones, a 23-year-old gas station attendant.
The parties, ceremonial bill signings and other perks make it worse, Jones said.
"If you want to be governor, be governor for the right reasons," he said.