A look at 'acting' cabinet members

Detective Rich Wheeler of the State Police financial-crimes division, with acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman (left), describes the alleged elder-care fraud in Atlantic County. Nine of the 10 victims have died.
Detective Rich Wheeler of the State Police financial-crimes division, with acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman (left), describes the alleged elder-care fraud in Atlantic County. Nine of the 10 victims have died. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 04, 2014

For more than a year, John Hoffman has led the state Attorney General's Office, though technically, he is not the attorney general.

Hoffman, the acting attorney general, is not alone in that circumstance. Four of Gov. Christie's 23 cabinet posts - including the heads of the Departments of Transportation and Education, and the Office of the State Comptroller - are held by administrators who have not been confirmed by the Senate.

That is not unprecedented. About 30 officials have held acting cabinet posts over the last 20 years, dating to Christie Whitman's administration.

Some serve for a few days, a couple of months, or a year.

Leadership turnover is almost inevitable, particularly during a governor's second term as cabinet members leave to take new jobs. The Senate Judiciary Committee must clear nominees, followed by a confirmation vote by the full Senate.

It may be difficult to attract candidates for certain jobs when leaders of both parties have demonstrated an unwillingness to spend the political capital needed to address entrenched policy issues such as New Jersey's depleted transportation fund, said a cabinet member in a previous administration.

Uncertainty over future agency funding also can influence whether prospective candidates agree to come on board.

And as Christie considers running for president, analysts and former cabinet officials said, potential nominees may worry they would be out of a job if Christie left office before his term ends in 2017.

"That's kind of the unspoken thing in many ways here," said Carl Golden, a former press secretary for Govs. Whitman and Thomas H. Kean, who is now a senior contributing analyst at the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College. "How long is the governor going to remain?"

Golden and others say acting appended to a title has little or no effect on a cabinet member's job performance. Anyone who holds the post is likely competent, they say, and acting administrators are frequently career bureaucrats who command their department's respect.

Hoffman, a former No. 2 in the Attorney General's Office who also worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office, "is perceived as a really good lawyer and advocate for the department," said John Farmer, attorney general from 1999 to 2002.

"The fact he's 'acting' I don't think has any bearing on how the department is functioning," Farmer said.

Hoffman has served in his current role since June 2013, or for 25 percent of Christie's tenure as governor. He took the job when Christie appointed his predecessor, Jeffrey S. Chiesa, to the U.S. Senate after the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

Christie said in December that he intended to nominate his chief of staff, Kevin O'Dowd, to be attorney general. But the George Washington Bridge scandal, which erupted in January, brought that process to a halt. Instead of getting a confirmation hearing, O'Dowd in June was subpoenaed to testify before a legislative panel investigating the lane closures at the bridge.

O'Dowd has not been accused of wrongdoing, and several senators have said he would be confirmed if nominated.

"But at the end of the day, it's the governor's nomination," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who added that he would vote for O'Dowd. "We can't do anything unless the governor nominates. That's where we are with a lot of these things."

Yet Christie, who is trying to recapture his early status as the GOP's establishment pick for the White House in 2016, may not want to provide Democrats and the media another opportunity to revisit the bridge scandal, political observers said.

Christie said in July that he still had "every desire" to nominate O'Dowd. But, he added, "Kevin's got a choice to make in this as well."

Other acting commissioners are David Hespe, who has headed the Education Department since March; Marc Larkins, chosen in December 2013 for the State Comptroller's Office; and Joseph Bertoni, who has led the Transportation Department since June.

"This is fairly usual at different points of an administration," Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts wrote in an e-mail. He added that "very few of these have been in acting status for that long, and we otherwise expect nominations to be made in a timely manner."

Christie nominated Hespe in May to the permanent position, though a hearing has not been scheduled.

Sweeney said he was confident Hespe would be confirmed shortly. "He's somebody that everyone respects, and we think has done a very good job," Sweeney said.

New Jersey also has had full-time acting governors, including Sen. Richard J. Codey (D., Essex), who stepped in when Jim McGreevey resigned in 2004.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno has served as acting governor off and on while Christie traveled out of state this year, often campaigning for fellow Republicans in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

The titles can result in tension. In 1988, an agency in Gov. Kean's Department of Environmental Protection mistakenly changed dozens of signs in the state to read "Commissioner Christopher J. Daggett," even though Daggett had not been confirmed by the Senate.

Democrats fumed, and the signs were taken down.

Today's Democrats say a job title is not just a matter of semantics. Acting commissioners "don't want to step out and do anything slightly risky or slightly above the norm," said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen), who sits on the Judiciary Committee. "That's kind of human nature."

She said Christie was "busy and distracted running for president, running around the country" for the Republican Governors Association.

"Maybe he's looking for a new cabinet member in Arkansas," where Christie campaigned last week, Weinberg said, half-joking. "That might be fertile field for him to go headhunting."

Christie's relationship with Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, has at times been rocky with regard to nominations.

Sweeney sparred with Christie over the governor's Supreme Court picks during his first term. In July, just as Christie appeared to have a deal with Democrats on a package of nominees for Essex County judges, he pulled the plug when the Senate delayed a confirmation hearing.

The Senate confirmed most of them in August.

The number of acting cabinet members "speaks more to the relationship that the governor and the Legislature have," said Farmer, the former attorney general.

Said Weinberg: "There have been some fights in the past. But then again, there have been nominees who just sail right through."


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

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