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Gov. Phil Murphy, left, with Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden). Photo by Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe.

How Norcross gets replaced in Congress if Biden makes him Secretary of Labor

Gov. Phil Murphy holds all the cards on scheduling a special election

By David Wildstein, August 26 2020 7:42 pm

An influential labor leader launched a trial balloon by mentioning Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) as a possible candidate for U.S. Secretary of Labor if Joe Biden wins the presidency.

The (Bergen) Record reported that United Brotherhood of Carpenters president Douglas McCarron said that Norcross, the former South Jersey AFL-CIO president and a former union electrician, might be a good fit to head the Labor Department.

McCarron, the Record said, wants “somebody who has worked with their hands, especially a construction guy.”  That’s code for a preferring that the next Labor Secretary come from the building trades, instead of the public employee sector.

While it’s premature to speculate whether Norcross might land a cabinet post, here’s how his seat would get filled if he does.

Spoiler alert: don’t lose sight that this is an fictional scenario.  Biden has not won an election, and surely has not decided on his cabinet.

Vacancies in the U.S. House of Representatives are filled uniquely.  Unlike other offices, where there are appointments or special election conventions, only voters can send someone to the peoples’ house.  There is no way around that.

In this particular situation, Gov. Phil Murphy wields extraordinary, unchecked power in determining how and when the seat would get filled.

Only the governor has the authority to issue a writ of election to fill a vacant congressional seat.

Murphy could order the seat filled in the next election — which means a June 2021 primary and a November 2021 general – or he could order a free-standing election to fill Norcross’ 1st district seat.

The governor has statutory authority to schedule a special primary between 70 and 76 days after the vacancy occurs, but only if he wants to.

Hypothetically, if Norcross were to resign on January 22 – that’s the date Rep. Hilda Solis (D-California) left the House to become Barack Obama’s Secretary of Labor – and if Murphy were to immediately call a special election, that could set up an April 6 primary and a June 15 general election.

Murphy isn’t obligated to issue the writ immediately.  The primary could be anytime in April or May, with the general election – that doesn’t matter much in a district Hillary Clinton carried by 24 points in 2016 – scheduled between 64 and 70 days later.

The governor could also hold the special congressional election in June, July or August and isn’t necessarily obligated to run it concurrently with the regularly scheduled primary and general elections.

But a Norcross resignation to take a cabinet post could force Murphy to choose between organization Democrats and progressive activists in the most politically potent part of South Jersey.

The Democratic machines in Camden and Gloucester counties might prefer to hold a primary for Norcross’ House seat in June, when the organization lines and preferential ballot positions could give their candidate an advantage.

There really wouldn’t be an organization line in an April stand-alone special election, since no other offices would be on the ballot. That might present an opportunity for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to compete.

It’s still unclear whether Murphy will seek or receive the Camden and Gloucester organization lines when he seeks renomination next June.  He has the option of running with a progressive congressional candidate and assemble his own slates.  Murphy has consistently refused to say if he supports or opposes organization lines.

There’s no clear line of succession in  the 1st district after Donald Norcross, especially since the point where Senate President Steve Sweeney, now 61, might not be interested in becoming a freshman congressman.

It’s more plausible that if Sweeney winds up in Washington, it would be to take a more national role with the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers.

That leaves the race for an open House seat wide open.

All Camden and Gloucester legislators would likely be in the mix.  So would a long list of past and current local officeholders – like former Camden Mayor and State Senator Dana Redd, Freeholder Melinda Hopkins Kane, or even ESPN legend (and former Philadelphia Inquirer statehouse political reporter/U.S. Navy officer) Sal Paolantonio.

New Jersey’s Special Elections

New Jersey has not held a free-standing special February 1951, when William B. Widnall (R-Saddle River) won a Bergen County-based congressional district a month after the incumbent resigned following was convicted on fraud charges.

Two years later, when Clifford Case (R-Rahway) resigned his House seat to head a think tank run by the Ford Foundation, Gov. Alfred Driscoll let the seat remain vacant for five months and scheduled the special concurrent with the 1953 general election.

(That strategy backfired on Republicans, who saw Harrison Williams, who had lost races for the State Assembly and Plainfield City Council, beat Plainfield Mayor George Hetfield by a narrow 51%-49% margin on the coattails of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Robert Meyner’s 14,171-vote plurality in Union County.)

Since then, New Jersey allowed House seats to remain vacant until the next regularly scheduled election 9 times.

In some cases, the seats sat vacant for nearly a year.

After Jim Florio became governor, he declined to call a special election to fill his Camden County-based seat in Congress.  By the time of the November special election, Florio had already proposed a $2.8 billion tax increase, and Democrat Rob Andrews won the seat in November 1990 by a narrow-than-expected 55%-45% margin against a Republican in a staunchly Democratic district.

Bob Menendez left the House in January 2006 when newly-elected Gov. Jon Corzine appointed him to fill his old U.S. Senate seat.  His seat went to then-Assembly Speaker/West New York Mayor Albio Sires, who preferred to wait until the fall to make his transition to Washington.

Rep. Donald Payne (D-Newark) died in March 2012 and Gov. Chris Christie eschewed a special election and let the seat be filled in the regularly scheduled primary and general elections.

Following the death of U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg in June 2013, Christie didn’t want a U.S. Senate special election to interfere with his own re-election in the fall.  He issued a writ calling for a special primary on August 13 and a special election on October 16.

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