Regardless of our position on the issue of an elected attorney general in the state of New Jersey, we credit Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno for bringing this idea to the Republican Gubernatorial Primary. We applaud Guadagno for broadening the sphere of discussion and debate with her expressed belief that New Jersey insist on an elected as opposed to a governor-appointed state attorney general.
In our machine-politics driven state, seldom do statewide candidates actually put forward compelling and daring ideas. The fact that Guadagno put one forward here speaks well of her substantive effort to give Republican Primary voters a real choice.
We can’t help too but be fascinated by the Shakespearean irony of Guadagno’s proposal, as the chief second of that team that went to Trenton promising prosecutorial fervor, who backed up the man who led chants of “Guilty, Guilty” at the Republican National Convention last year, now seeks a dial back of that state constitutionally-invested power.
All that said, we disagree with the esteemed lieutenant governor.
Guadagno makes the argument that if New Jersey voters elect their attorney general, as they do in 43 other states, they would have an independent watchdog in Trenton who answers directly to the people and not the powerful chief executive under whom she or – as in our current case he (Chris Porrino) – currently serves.
This sounds good, but unfortunately, however, in New Jersey, we fear that an elected AG in our boss land politics would simply give tighter and more direct rein of party bosses over our attorney general, and possibly undercut and factionalize a state government already usually scrutinized in this state by a federal U.S. Attorney appointed by the other party.
We won’t name names, but – for the sake of argument – if the three most powerful bosses in the state align behind an attorney general candidate and make a point to control this person in exchange for his or her receiving county committee support, why would that person once in office not understand that it is his or her first responsibility to shield those powerful bosses from scrutiny and prosecution?
Failing control of the governor, these bosses could conceivably exert greater mischief by puppeteering the state’s chief prosecutor, an alarming proposition.
Certainly Guadagno can make the case that such interference already exists; that those lawmakers who occupy the Senate Judiciary Committee dais and approve of the AG jump and twitch at the same flick of a boss-controlled lever back in their home counties.
Those deals even the strongest governor must cut include the appointed AG, who at any time under the auspices of a corrupt or weak governor can become a vassal of the state’s worst interests.
But the strength invested in the governor in New Jersey is what makes the office here compelling and potentially powerful for the right reasons and better than in other states watered down by elected cabinet positions, including attorney general.
The wrong person in there can do considerable damage, as we’ve seen, but the right person can exert tremendous good – driving the stakes in any and every gubernatorial contest.
A strong governor ultimately accountable to the voters can appoint a public servant – checked by senate power, incentivized by the built-in competition of federal law enforcement – who is preoccupied with law and order, not running for office and burnishing a political name.
But that governor must answer to the same bosses, and build a cabinet constructed by the politics of those same controlling relationships, so why not give the people at least another layer of possibility with the vote, Guadagno can argue.
Here’s the deeper crux of our argument, and arguably the most worrisome and intrusive reason for resisting an elected AG, identified Sunday at the Belmar St. Patrick’s Day Parade by Guadagno’s rival in the gubernatorial contest, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli.
A governor-appointed AG gives the state a check on what we have seen over these last number of years as a dangerous condition: the runaway politicization of law enforcement. Now this is ginger-footed territory, for one could make the case that it couldn’t possibly be more political than it is now in New Jersey, or was, after the run of former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, who turned corruption busting headlines into saber-rattling political capital.
But do we really want more of that in our state? More presidential office-seeking prosecutors who will stop at nothing to advance their political ambitions? Perhaps their presence is inevitable, and welcome – all human interaction unavoidably political, after all. But Christie’s own self promotion aside for a moment, those prosecutors of recent vintage: Stuart Rabner, Anne Milgram, Jeff Chiesa and Chris Porrino, put together records that (in most cases) appeared to exhibit the stronger attributes of the governors in whose cabinets they served, not the naked politicization that unfortunately too often became the chief plot thread in the Christie Story.
Obsessed with press coverage and headlines, slapping the right backs and kissing the right rings, politicians must exist in that public province of the people, but the AG, we think, should be a different animal, provided cover by the politician in order to be apolitical: a law enforcer with his head under the hood.
In any event, we look forward to hearing more from Guadagno on the subject as we continue to cover the campaign.
We look forward particularly to her explication of what she, as a former prosecutor herself selected by Christie to help strike fear into Trenton, saw in the current structure and in the sitting administration, which motivates her now to make this argument one of the cornerstones of her own campaign for governor.
And also, of course, we look forward to your comments and opinions on this important matter.