It’s been almost seventeen years since John O. Bennett III served as governor of New Jersey, but his annual spotting at a New Jersey League of Municipalities panel where he joins other former governors merits some explaining as to how Bennett became part of a parade of governors – one of five New Jersey had that week.
Christine Todd Whitman resigned as governor on January 31, 2001 to join George W. Bush’s cabinet as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the days before New Jersey had a Lt. Governor, next in the line of succession was Senate President Donald DiFrancesco.
DiFrancesco remained as Senate President while serving as governor, with Bennett, the Majority Leader, sort of running the Senate on a day-to-day basis.
Republicans got a bad map in the 2001 redistricting and lost five Senate seats that year. That put the State Senate at 20-20, with Bennett and Democrat Richard Codey serving as Co-Senate Presidents.
The State Constitution installs the newly-elected legislature a week before the gubernatorial inauguration.
DiFrancesco did not seek re-election to the State Senate in 2001, so his term as a legislator ended at noon on January 8, 2002. Because he was no longer Senate President, he was no longer governor.
Because the Senate President and Assembly Speaker posts were vacant until after the Legislature reorganized. Attorney General John Farmer became acting Governor. He held the post for about 90 minutes.
Bennett and Codey agreed that each would serve 3 ½ days as acting governor before James E. McGreevey took office on January 15.
The 84-hour Bennett administration was full of hoopla and fanfare.
He moved into Drumthwacket, printed letterhead, and had pens made that said “John O. Bennett III, Acting Governor” to use when he signed his name to official documents. He delivered the State of the State address to the Legislature, hosted an engagement party for his daughter at the governor’s mansion, and issued daily schedules for himself and his wife, the Acting First Lady.
He even pardoned an old friend and campaign contributor.
The definitive historical account of the Bennett governorship was written by the New York Times’ David Kocieniewski, who said Bennett carried himself “with the measured exuberance of a high school yearbook advisor” and said that John and Peggy Bennett “toured New Jersey like a conquering Caesar visiting the provinces.”
There are some experts who say the Bennett/Codey governorship should never have happened, suggesting that there was no legal authority to transfer the governorship from Farmer back to the legislative leaders.
I have always maintained that New Jersey had a sixth governor during that time period. State Sen. Robert Littell was elected acting Senate President and presided over the Senate until Bennett and Codey had been duly elected. Maybe Littell had a few minutes as governor as well.
After his 84-hour term ended, Bennett returned to the Senate. He got himself in a little trouble – political, ultimately not legal — over billing practices at his law firm. He lost his State Senate seat in 2003 to Democrat Ellen Karcher.
During the McGreevey, Codey and Jon Corzine years, Bennett sat with the other former governors on the Assembly floor during State of the State addresses and other joint sessions of the Legislature. When Chris Christie became governor in 2010, he stopped inviting Bennett to sit there.
Bennett, now 70, continues to hold on. He later won a seat on the Republican State Committee and had a short tenure as the Monmouth County Republican Chairman. Today, the man who was the Governor of New Jersey for 3 ½ days now works as the Woodbridge Township Business Administrator.
He likes it when people call him governor.