A Year after His Appointment, Why Is Commissioner Cerf Still ‘Acting’?

Political grudges, impassioned rhetoric may be keeping Cerf from Senate confirmation

Chris Cerf, acting commissioner of education.
In Gov. Chris Christie’s battle with Democrats over the confirmation of Chris Cerf as his education commissioner, a lot of political energy is being spent on a job title that most agree doesn’t mean a whole a lot in legal terms.

The symbolism may be another matter.

At issue is Cerf’s continued title as “acting” commissioner of education, exactly one year tomorrow since his appointment by Christie.

The acting part sticks with him until he is confirmed by the Senate. But the Senate has yet to even hear the nomination, since state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) has exercised his “senatorial courtesy” to block consideration due to an evolving series of objections to Cerf that now seem unlikely to go away.

It started with a perceived slight to Rice’s Joint Committee on Public Schools, moving more recently to Cerf’s relationships to politicians in state and then education firms outside of it.

Christie, for his part, has raised the stakes significantly, taking Rice, along with other Democrats in Essex County, to task repeatedly in the past week. He is now holding up the appointment of new Superior Court judges to Essex County until the confirmation is resolved.

Ironically, the “acting” title has virtually no impact on the job’s functions; Cerf holds the same powers that he would when and if he is confirmed.

It’s not a new situation for the state. Former commissioner Lucille Davy holds the record of acting education commissioners, going 13 months from September 2005 to October 2006 before she was finally confirmed.

The circumstances were different, however. Davy was appointed by acting Governor Richard Codey and then kept the post while former Gov. Jon Corzine did a national search for a new commissioner, only to end up picking Davy.

While in office, Davy often said that she never felt impeded by the caveat to her title, since she served at the favor of the governor and that was all that counted.

“There are two ways in which being acting commissioner is less than just being commissioner,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “First, if you are clearly viewed as a placeholder until someone better can be found. Second, if you are not given the full power of the commissioner’s office. Cerf’s situation doesn’t apply to either. He isn’t going anywhere, and he has the full authority of the office at his disposal.

“So in this case, it comes down to the personalities and politics of Trenton, as well as the ongoing negotiations between the governor and the legislature on a host of issues,” he said. “But substantively, I seriously doubt that anyone questions whether Cerf is in charge of the education department.”

Still, there are issues of ego and respect, and Christie doesn’t hide his contempt for the legislature refusing to even act on his nominations. Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman, said last week as the Senate was meeting that Rice is treating Christie’s cabinet like it was a “provisional government.”

“Nobody questions that Cerf is qualified and has a terrific background, that he’s smart, intelligent and capable,” Drewniak said. “All governors, just like the Democratic predecessors, have had their own cabinets approved by the Senate. Why not this one?

“It’s the most minimal requirement,” he said. “How about a little respect?”

And there do remain some practical disadvantages, or at least inconveniences: Cerf and his staff are sometimes left to explain why he remains in an acting capacity to those outside the state, including potential recruits for the department jobs. The fact he has been slow to fill all the top positions has added to the perception, although Cerf denies the acting title has anything to do with it.

Either way, Rice doesn’t sound like someone who will back down soon. It actually started a year ago, with Rice’s insistence that Cerf first visit Rice’s committee before his confirmation. It then evolved into objections over Cerf’s friendship with Newark Mayor Cory Booker and his stand on local control of the city’s schools. Now, Rice said his beef is over Cerf’s alleged connections to private firms with their eyes on New Jersey public education.

“I have a lot of issues with his relationships,” Rice said Thursday. “There were integrity questions coming from New York City, and there are integrity questions here.”

Still, as much as Rice appears to be relishing the attention, Cerf’s supporters conversely said it may end up a badge of honor for the commissioner — acting or otherwise.

“In some ways, the story behind why he is still only ‘acting’ makes him sound like a bad-ass,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform in New York City. “For a guy who wants to break china and get things done, that’s not a terrible problem to have.”

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