Inside the U.S. Senate: Jeffrey Chiesa’s Experiences on Capitol Hill and Beyond

Inside the U.S. Senate: Jeffrey Chiesas Experiences on Capitol Hill and Beyond

From his early days as a law clerk to his tenure as a U.S. Attorney and member of the United States Senate, Jeffrey Chiesa has dedicated himself to serving his community and country. “I’ve always had an interest in public service and not necessarily politics,” he reflects.

Chiesa began his journey alongside former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, forming a partnership that led to collaboration in law and public service. “[He] thought I’d be a good fit… [We] became very close,” said Chiesa.

Joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Christie’s leadership, Chiesa delved into cases ranging from public corruption to human trafficking. “We were prosecuting elected officials… most of the time for money,” said Chiesa.

In 2012, Chiesa was appointed as New Jersey’s Attorney General by Christie, and he continued to tackle a range of legal challenges. Just one year later, Christie appointed Chiesa to the U.S. Senate. “My head was spinning… I was obviously incredibly honored,” said Chiesa.

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To learn about his time representing New Jersey in the U.S. Senate, Eastside interviewed Chiesa, covering topics ranging from his legislative experience to personal preferences like his favorite movie. Here are the key highlights from the discussion.

How did you become interested in politics? 

“I had an interest in public service and not necessarily politics. I became a lawyer, I worked as a law clerk in 1990 and 1991. During that year, in June of 1991, I went to a job interview, and the person that interviewed me was a 28 year old Chris Christie. [He] thought I’d be a good fit for the law firm. He hired me and [we] became very close, tried cases together, [and] worked closely together on a bunch of things. And when he became U.S. Attorney in 2002, I joined him at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Now, that’s not a political job, but it is a presidential appointment.”

“I’ve always had an interest in [politics]. I’ve always been somebody who thinks it’s important to be engaged in voting and trying to make contributions to your community. I didn’t think I’d ever hold any of the positions I held because it requires a certain amount of luck. And the person who gave me those opportunities in every instance was Governor Christie.”

What was it like working with Christie as an attorney general?

“There’s two different jobs, right? New Jersey has an attorney general, and the United States has an attorney general. Every state has at least one U.S. Attorney, and that U.S. Attorney is essentially a deputy of the Attorney General of the United States.”

“The U.S. Attorney’s job was incredible. I did public corruption cases there. We were prosecuting elected officials and former elected officials who had abused their authority, most of the time for money. I did gang cases, I did drug cases, [and] about five years of corruption cases. I became very interested in human trafficking, which is in the news a lot now. I did some work on [human trafficking] when I was attorney general and when I was in the Senate. It was really an opportunity to be introduced to issues and work with people… to prosecute federal crimes.”

“[I worked] with the FBI, the Secret Service, the IRS, the DEA, the ATF, and others [like] the Postal Service. As a young lawyer having the chance to work with the FBI and the Secret Service, it was really exciting. But it was really important work. And you didn’t want to waste any of their resources or their time. And it was fascinating to me to do that [and] have a huge impact on the state in a very positive way.”

“I met some of the most extraordinary public servants, who are now serving as Supreme Court justices, federal judges, and others who went on to become Attorneys General. It was a chance to really be a part of an incredibly gifted and extraordinarily committed group of people.”

You were involved in the prosecution of John Lynch Jr., the former NJ State Senate President. What was that like?

“Senator Lynch had had a long and very productive and impactful career as a state senator. Our investigation showed that he had used his office for personal gain. So, we pursued that case. In many ways, those cases are important. It’s a reminder that everybody is held accountable.”

“If they had abused their positions of trust — because you have enormous responsibility when you have this position — they [are potentially impacting] millions of people depending on your position [and] your decision making. Decision making has to be guided by what is best for the people that gave you the trust to have that position. When people do not execute those positions that way, and they use it for personal financial gain, there has to be a consequence. Otherwise, people will think it is okay to do that.”

“And there are two things that happen. One, you will attract people who want to use the jobs for the wrong reason and you erode public trust to a point where it has a detrimental effect and pervades all areas of community life. [People start to say] ‘I don’t want to vote, I don’t want to be a good citizen, [and] I don’t want to be a good neighbor,’ because if they’re watching their elected leaders not [act correctly], why should they?”

When you were appointed to become senator by Governor Christie, what were you thinking?

“My head was spinning to be very honest with you. So Governor Christie appointed me as New Jersey’s attorney general. When Senator Lautenberg died, I never thought that [Christie] was going to pick me. When he did, I was obviously incredibly honored. I was honestly overwhelmed by the responsibility to be one of 100 people [in the Senate].”

“I went into [the Senate] in the beginning of President Obama’s second term. [At the time,] we were vetting Cabinet members. We were also voting on judges. We had hearings on the Boston Marathon bombings [and] we voted on the [2013] immigration bill.”

“I was only there for five months, and there were a lot of things that were happening. And honestly, every day that you’re in the Senate, you have a chance to do something that’s really important, which is to take that responsibility and do the best job you can. You have to make the best decisions for the people that you represent, and keep in mind that you represent New Jersey and the entire country.”

“I got to become friends with John McCain and Orrin Hatch. Joe Donnelly and I built a very nice relationship with then Vice President Biden. It was extraordinary. I met Supreme Court justices and went to their chambers… those kinds of opportunities are so rare.”

“You have to get your bearings straight, when all of a sudden John McCain comes up to you on the floor of the Senate and says ‘Hey, how are you voting on this bill?’ There’s a moment where you’re like, ‘you’re John McCain… what am I doing here?’ But you have to remember that you have a job to do.”

The one big legislative issue we had that I was there for was in June of 2013. We had a big vote on immigration, and I was one of 14 Republicans that voted for the bill. It made total sense to me from a national security standpoint, from a border security standpoint, from a humanity standpoint. It improved the way we treat people coming into the country and made sure that we have a secure border. Unfortunately, the House did not pass that bill.”


You were one of 14 Senate Republicans to vote for an important border bill. What was it like siding with members of the Democratic Party in the Senate to pass that bill? 

“Unfortunately, people didn’t understand what we were doing. The level of border security that was going to be in place was extraordinary. If we had done the job then and passed that bill, we would not be having any of these discussions right now, in my view.”

“I spent a lot of time studying [the bill] after I got to the Senate on June 10. I think the vote was at the end of that month, and I spent most of my time in meetings talking with people. There were people who I had great respect for who didn’t vote for the bill for reasons that they thought were important. But John McCain voted for the bill, Bob Corker voted for the bill, Kelly Ayotte voted for the bill, and Mark Kirk voted for the bill. These were a bunch of Republicans that I had great respect for… it was 14 [of us] voting for the bill.”

“I wish there were more [of us] because I think it was in the country’s interest to do what we did there. But, as you know, there are consequences to those decisions that sometimes drive decision making in a way that may not really reflect the person’s true belief on the issue. They’re trying to make sure that they have a chance to stay in elected office. Thankfully, I didn’t have that issue.”

“Unfortunately, when I did vote for the bill, Governor Christie took an enormous amount of criticism, even though it wasn’t his vote. I always felt bad about that, because he gave me the chance. I know he trusted my judgment. If they wanted to criticize somebody, [they should’ve] criticized the person who made the vote.”

During your time in the Senate, what new perspectives did you gain? How different is the public perception of the Senate from the actual experience?

“I obviously knew who members of the Senate were and what their function was. I realized it’s a great honor, but it’s a great sacrifice. If you live in New Jersey, you can take the train back and forth to the Senate. People living in Colorado, Wyoming, California and other places go home every week. So you’re in Washington D.C. from Monday till Thursday. Usually on Thursday night, most of the senators go back to their home states. Senators from Alaska and Hawaii are unable to do that because there’s not enough time.”

“There’s a family issue because I had young kids at the time. Even though I was only there for five months, it impacts your family. Unless you have great wealth, having a home in New Jersey and having a home in Washington creates a burden.”

“The thing that most impressed me was the quality of the people that were in the Senate. The thing that disappointed me the most was the unwillingness to sit down and share ideas and come to compromises on issues. And that was 2013. If you recall, there was a government shutdown in September of 2013, for 17 days. And that was a silly waste of time in my view. It never should have happened. It was all driven by politics, and that was not in the country’s best interest. Every senator has a huge influence on how the body works. There are different procedural mechanisms that a senator can use to bring things to a halt. In my view, that’s what sort of happened for the shutdown. We got nothing out of it.”

“The senators through the 1990s, and probably into the 2000s, were raising their families there. They’re not anymore, because they’re afraid that the voters back home will think that they’re no longer from their home state and think that they’re instead from Washington… the swamp and all that rhetoric that goes along with that. But if you do raise your family there, the important thing that happens is you develop personal relationships with the other members of the Senate. You go to their homes for dinner and your kids go to school together. Your kids become friends. If you’re running out of Washington every Thursday night, you’re not doing that.”

“It’s much harder to be hypercritical of somebody if you’ve been to their house for dinner, know their children, and spend time with their families. If you disagree with one another, that’s fine. I’m not saying anyone should walk away from their beliefs. All I’m saying is that there’s a better way to debate than the way we’re doing it right now.”

Was it difficult serving as the newest member of the Senate? Did other Senators help you learn Senate procedures?

“Everyone was extraordinarily generous. They invited me to their offices, invited me out to dinner, made me feel 100% included. When I called John McCain ‘Senator,’ he said ‘Jeff, never call me that again. You’re one of my colleagues. You call me John.’”

“It’s been a little while since I was down there, but these people were welcoming and generous, and made my time really great. I had a great time meeting with them, learning from them, and talking with them. And if you disagreed on an issue, fine.”

“I don’t have any criticism about the quality of the people that were there and the way they treated me. Again, Republicans were over here, Democrats were over there. There were few opportunities where people would come together. Now, we did come together on the immigration bill, because that was a very, very important measure. I think it was McCain and Corker and some others who put together that group of Republicans who were willing to support the bill.”

“In supporting it, they did what they were supposed to do. they got concessions on border security, they got concessions on other things that were important. And that’s what your role is there… it isn’t just doing whatever you want to do. There are 100 people, so there has to be compromise. And that compromise is generally good because you reflect views from all over the country when you come to that compromise.” 

“Every state has a very different population, with different concerns and issues that are important to their residents, and they are all very different. Some have very warm climates. Some have very cold climates. Some are very densely populated. Some are very rural areas. All of those people come to Washington and they’ve worked really hard to get there, with views that they’ve grown up with. And they want to be heard and to be present in whatever the final product is going to be in terms of pieces of legislation.”

You mentioned earlier that you compromised on the border bill. Were there any other times during the Senate or throughout your career where you made compromises or where your political views changed? 

“Of course. When Governor Christie got elected, my first job was called Chief Counsel, which is the governor’s lawyer. In that role, I was very involved in legislation and policy making, and all of those things require tremendous compromise. Governor Christie is Republican, and the Assembly and the Senate, which are the two houses of New Jersey’s version of Congress, were both heavily Democratic. We weren’t going to be able to do anything, including getting people on the Supreme Court, confirmed for cabinet positions, or passing legislation without compromise. So we did a lot of it there.”

“Governor Christie was always someone willing to sit down and talk things through. Obviously, you don’t walk away from your core beliefs when you do that. You try to find solutions. The job is to find solutions to the problems that are affecting a lot of people. New Jersey has nine million residents. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that.”

What are your thoughts on the current partisan division in Congress?

“I think, if you want to go work in Washington and be a member of Congress, you have to be willing to talk with your colleagues and find solutions. You can’t just say ‘this is what we’re doing.’ Unfortunately, I think both parties are affected by this. The extreme branches of both parties have pulled those people in directions that are making it very difficult to find common solutions to problems.” 

“These are very good people that are talented and hardworking. They love their country. All of those things are true. When it’s a legal argument, use the law. When it’s a policy argument, use the facts that support your argument. It doesn’t mean that the person on the other side is un-American, not a patriot, despicable, or whatever word that people are using.”

“Unfortunately, in my view, President Trump’s been particularly responsible for this kind of talk. Because some of the Cabinet members that left his staff were some of the most distinguished citizens in our country. When they left, he really killed them. To me, that’s not leadership. Leadership is bringing that group of really talented people together, giving them your trust, confidence and support. It’s exactly what Governor Christie did when he was governor, and would do if he ever becomes president.”

“Those cabinet jobs are hard. You’re asked to work really hard and find solutions to really difficult problems. But if the person who’s your boss is calling you names, it makes it really hard. When you’re someone like Rex Tillerson or James Mattis, it’s absurd for someone to be calling them names because their accomplishments belie any of those comments in an overwhelming fashion.”

Are there any American leaders that you look up to or who have guided your principles?

“Absolutely. My favorite personal president of my lifetime is George H.W. Bush. I admire everything about the guy. He enlisted in World War Two at a young age and fought for his country. He had a series of positions in government and  always represented the country in a way with class and dignity and respect.”

“I never met him. When I was in the Senate, though, I had the desk that was his father’s desk. Prescott Bush had served in the Senate from Connecticut, and I felt the connection… When you leave the Senate, you sign the desk. And so when they took that out for me to sign, I saw that he had signed the desk for me.”

“I think Governor Christie is the one leader that’s had the biggest impact on my life, and he continues to. I admire his intelligence, his work ethic, his principles, the way he treats his staff, the way he led the state, and the way he found compromises and solutions to so many difficult problems.” 

“When I was in the Senate, the two people I really admired were, John McCain and Orrin Hatch. They were different politically. But they were always gentlemen. They never name called. They used the force of their intellect and the force of facts to support their arguments.”

“You want to look up to people that are looking for solutions to problems and trying to find a compromise. And if there’s a disagreement, just disagreeing and not finding some petty way to criticize somebody’s appearance, or somebody’s beliefs, or somebody’s family. Those are false ways to have a serious discussion.”

You mentioned how much Governor Christie had an impact on you. Do you still keep in contact with him? 

“All the time. He and I had dinner together last Friday night with our wives. He’s one of my best friends. I can never fully thank him for what he did for me. He’s like a member of my family.”

Are there any other Senate traditions — besides signing your desk — that most Americans are not aware of?

“For the rest of my life, I have privileges on the Senate floor. Whether it’s a joint session with what’s ever going on in the Senate, I can walk onto the floor, so long as I’m not working as a lobbyist. And I’m not working as a lobbyist.”

“I went to the State of the Union address after I left, which was an incredible experience. So those are the kinds of things that you do now. I don’t  run down there all the time. But before COVID, I was down there a fair amount to visit my friends.”

“If you want to learn about something when you’re in the Senate, there’s no excuse for not learning about it because they have a lot of  resources available. If you want to call on a cabinet member, you can. If you want to call on somebody from the White House, they will respond to you at the highest levels, because in the end, they need your vote. They want to convince you that their position is correct. And so the amount of information that’s available and the professionalism of the staff down there is really extraordinary.”

What has your life been like since your time in the Senate?

“I’m a lawyer, and I went back to private practice. I’ve been doing that since 2013. My kids are now out of college and have jobs, and my son is in law school right now.” 

“It’s a much different life now. I had a five month snapshot [in the Senate], so it’s hard for me to say, because I didn’t serve a full term there. I was appointed to the senate. It was never part of my plan… and it takes a certain set of talents that I do not have to run for that spot. People like President Bush had them, people like Governor Christie have them, and those are not necessarily skills that I have.”

“Even now, as I look back, it’s pretty amazing to me that I was there as a United States senator. That title stays with you for the rest of your life… that’s the way people address me, but it’s not the way people certainly address me at my house, and not in my law firm. I’m very grateful to have had those experiences… whether it be the U.S. Attorney’s office, or the Attorney General position, or the Senate.”

What are your thoughts on the current U.S. Senators representing New Jersey?

“Booker and I are not super close, but he’s a friend and he’s enormously gifted and talented. He’s very honorable and hard working and whether or not we agree, he’s dedicated to serving New Jersey.”

“Obviously Senator Menendez has some serious questions to address. He and I served together. He was a gentleman to me while I was down there. He tried to be helpful like other members of the senate. He is facing some very serious charges… I respect that people are innocent until proven guilty. He has children and a family and this all affects a lot of other people. You hope that whatever happens, that his family is able to do what they are able to do. Senator Menendez has been there for a long time, so it’s a tough situation to be in.”

What are your thoughts on the future of the Republican Party in New Jersey?

“Well, I’m very excited about State Senator Jon Bramnick who’s running for Governor of New Jersey. Like Governor Christie, he is the other New Jersey leader who I have a lot of respect for. He’s incredibly hard working, incredibly dedicated. He was in the New Jersey State Assembly for a number of years. He is also someone that will work to find compromise on things. He won’t make fun of you or call you names. He is a very professional, very talented, very dedicated leader. I really hope that in about 20 months he is elected governor. I think he is great for the state.”

What are the biggest issues facing New Jersey and the United States?

“The issues that affect all of us are quality of life issues. We want to make sure that the communities are safe. We want people to have schools that they can have a good education in. I think New Jersey generally does well with that, both Republicans and Democrats.” 

“I think that the challenge with New Jersey is finding the correct balance on how we allocate our resources. We spend lots of money. Our budgets are now in the mid 50 billion dollar range and I don’t know if that’s sustainable. We have a large state, we have a densely populated state. Lots of people to educate, lots of people to keep safe in their communities.”

“I have many close friends that are Democrats in New Jersey, and I have the greatest respect for them. The NJ legislature is a part time job but it’s still an enormous sacrifice to make to run for those jobs, to spend that time… You want to have leaders that can manage things that aren’t predictable and are unexpected, like hurricane Sandy and the pandemic … it’s very stressful when those things happen.”

Our most important question: what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

“Chocolate peanut butter.”

Do you have any favorite books or movies?

“My favorite book is the Catcher in the Rye. My favorite movie is the Godfather, one and two together, because I can’t separate them.” 



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