Rigors of residency

In a clever "move," Christopher Cerf, acting education chief in N.J., almost maneuvered a confirmation hearing.
In a clever "move," Christopher Cerf, acting education chief in N.J., almost maneuvered a confirmation hearing. (MEL EVANS / Associated Press)

For N.J. politicians, where you live could jeopardize your job. Or not.

Posted: February 19, 2012

Home may be where the heart is, but in New Jersey, home is wherever politicians and judges say it is.

From Congress to the Legislature, the quirks of residency laws have become the Garden State's latest political sideshow.

Last week, Republican Gov. Christie's acting education commissioner, Christopher Cerf, seemed to be on the verge of getting a long-awaited confirmation hearing.

The fact that Cerf lives in Essex County has allowed the Democratic state senator there, Ron Rice, to single-handedly block any Cerf hearing through a process known as senatorial courtesy. Rice opposes Cerf's confirmation.

In response, Christie has refused to nominate judges to the Essex County bench, leading to a chaotic backlog in the courts. Want to get divorced in Essex right now? Tell your new girlfriend: Too bad.

That maneuver, however, didn't get Rice to budge. So Cerf "moved": He rented an apartment in a central Jersey suburb, Montgomery Township, in a district represented by Republicans, while keeping his home in Montclair, the North Jersey suburb.

That satisfied the Democrats who control the Legislature. A Cerf hearing was scheduled for Thursday.

But then Cerf told the Asbury Park Press editorial board, twice, that he lives in Montclair. He "chuckled" and tried to explain that he keeps two residences, but the damage was done. Confirmation hearing canceled.

Residency seems to have taken on more import even as technology renders it less relevant to whether an elected official can do the job.

If a politician can live in a WiFi-equipped tent in Timbuktu and watch live online proceedings from the state Senate floor, read the texts of a bill as soon as it's introduced, and monitor all whispers on political blogs, does it matter whether his or her voter registration is in north-central or south-central Jersey?

If a politician can sail the Atlantic while IMing constituents, holding virtual town halls, raising money, reading PDFed policy briefings, and launching YouTube ads, does it matter which address is on his or her driver's license?

Last year, Democrats couldn't persuade courts that Olympian Carl Lewis lived in Burlington County. Lewis had voted in California but owned property in Burlington. Judges pondered such questions as whether paying taxes makes you more of a resident than voting.

South Jersey Democrats were back in court this month, defending the residency of a winning candidate. On Thursday, the state Supreme Court ruled that Democrat Gabriela Mosquera, who won an Assembly seat in November to represent Camden and Gloucester Counties, could not take her seat because she had lived in her district only 11 months instead of the required 12.

But by the time the court ruled, she had met the 12-month requirement. She was legal. Democrats are now free to appoint her to the seat.

If Mosquera had run for Congress, however, it wouldn't have mattered. Federal law lets lawmakers represent places they don't live in, and two candidates for Congress in New Jersey this year want to do just that.

Rep. Steve Rothman (D., N.J.) got the short end of the redistricting stick when his town, Fair Lawn, was snipped from the district he represents. Instead of staying put and taking on his new congressman, Scott Garrett (R., N.J.), Rothman is challenging his old friend and fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell in a June primary for a seat in the district next door.

In South Jersey, the widow of late Democratic U.S. Rep. John Adler is running against the Republican who beat her husband in 2010, Jon Runyan. But Shelley Adler lives in Cherry Hill - which, thanks to redistricting, is now in another district.

Runyan's camp hinted at Adler's residency in a news release the day she announced her run. But it should be noted that when the ex-Eagle announced his candidacy in 2009, he was still playing football for a team on the far side of the country, the San Diego Chargers.

Adler and Rothman have said they intended to move into the correct districts.

The rigors of residency requirements are no longer limited to the political class. It is now illegal to live in Morrisville, Pa., and walk across the bridge to work as a clerk at the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

State employees must now live in New Jersey, thanks to a bill sponsored by State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) - who lives in Camden but who has faced questions about a residence out of the district, in Voorhees.

The bill was signed by Christie - who has three homes in New Jersey. But that's a story for another time - and another place.


Contact staff writer Matt Katz

at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com,

or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles,"

at philly.com/christiechronicles.

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