DiFrancesco: Three-in-One

Article excerpt

Constitution makers in New Jersey might have slipped when planning what to do when a governor gets called to D.C. The Senate president becomes governor, but also remains at the helm of the Senate. And, in this case, he's running for governor, as well.

It was an oath that Senate President Donald T. DiFrancesco had recited some 50 times before when he assumed the powers of acting governor while New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman was out of state.

But this past Feb. 1 there was a critical difference as DiFrancesco said the 106-word oath.

This time, as he swore to uphold the New Jersey and United States constitutions, it was for real.

DiFrancesco served many times as a temporary custodian while the governor was traveling, but it was a ceremonial job. Under what had become state custom and tradition, acting governors agreed not to exercise independent judgment while the governor was away.

But with Whitman resigning as New Jersey's chief executive earlier that day to take the helm of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, DiFrancesco assumed the duties of acting governor until the end of her term in January 2002.

With that come the full duties of one of the nation's most powerful governorships. New Jersey is the only state with no other statewide elected official. Thus the governor appoints everyone, from Supreme Court justices and cabinet officers to county prosecutors and members of the medical and chiropractic licensing boards. And the governor has line item veto power over the state budget.

WEARING THREE HATS

After the 11 a.m. ceremony in the governor's outer office, DiFrancesco went to his second-floor Senate president's office.

He is legally entitled to use that office, too, because he wears a second hat. He remains Senate president, thanks to a clause that dates back to the 1776 New Jersey Constitution, (adopted two days before the Declaration of Independence was signed). The clause makes the Senate president acting governor when the governor cannot serve or leaves the state, but also leaves him in his position as Senate president.

Under the New Jersey Constitution, if the Senate president resigns his Senate post the role of acting governor goes down the line of succession to the Assembly speaker.

To confuse matters even more, DiFrancesco also will be wearing a third hat--gubernatorial candidate as he runs in the June Republican primary. If he wins that, he'll be campaigning in the November elections.

It's a rare situation indeed.

New Jersey has no elected lieutenant governor who becomes the chief executive if the governor leaves office early or dies in office. In 42 other states, (Texas, is an example), an elected lieutenant governor becomes governor when there is a vacancy. An elected secretary of state or the Senate president or Senate speaker takes over in the remaining states. In this case, DiFrancesco's power is heightened by the fact that the Republicans control the upper house by a 24-16 vote.

"If you believe in the separation of powers what's going on now is an abomination," said former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, who served two terms as New Jersey's chief executive in the 1980s. "The founding fathers, the framers of our constitution, never intended this."

Under the new arrangement created in Trenton, Kean says it is perfectly legal for DiFrancesco to propose a bill, vote for it as Senate president, and then sign it into law as governor.

"The separation of powers goes out the window," said Kean. "You have no checks and balances."

Kean says it has nothing to do with fellow Republican DiFrancesco, but insists one person "should not hold two jobs."

DiFrancesco, a veteran legislator of 25 years, and the Senate president since 1992, says changing the system may be necessary. But even if the Senate and New Jersey's lower house, the General Assembly, were to approve amending the constitution, it would need voter approval. …