TRENTON - Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie yesterday reached across the political aisle - but stayed within his professional circle - as he nominated a Democratic prosecutor to be his attorney general.

If confirmed by the Senate, Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow would take on one of the biggest roles in the new Republican administration.

Dow, who was raised in Yeadon, Delaware County, and went to law school at the University of Pennsylvania, is Christie's first cabinet nominee, underlining the importance of the position and, according to the governor-elect, his commitment to finding the best staff members, regardless of party.

Christie, appearing with Dow at a Statehouse news conference, said he wanted an attorney general who would be "tough" and the best choice "purely on the merits."

"The person who is standing to my right is the person who comes in first on all of those counts," said Christie, a former prosecutor who rose to statewide prominence as U.S Attorney.

Dow, 54, served in that office from 1994 to 2003, overlapping with Christie for about a year and a half. Christie was so impressed by Dow that he promoted her to counsel and later recommended her to Gov. McGreevey to become the Essex County prosecutor.

Christie and other Dow admirers credited her with restoring morale to the county office and tackling gang crime in a jurisdiction that includes Newark, Irvington, East Orange and Orange.

Dow called her new job "one of the greatest challenges I've ever had."

"And I always respond to [a] challenge," she said. "I love being a prosecutor, so who could not love being considered for the next attorney general?"

The job is one of the biggest in state government.

Her office has a budget of roughly $1.1 billion, when state and federal dollars are counted, and just under 9,000 employees.

Her duties will include overseeing the state police and highway patrols; monitoring consumer affairs, Atlantic City gambling, and racing and liquor licenses; prosecuting major crimes such as corruption, gang activity and racketeering; and serving as the state's legal counsel.

As attorney general, Dow, like all cabinet members, would be paid $141,000 a year.

In Essex County, Dow's office handled about one of every four criminal prosecutions in the state, reviewed about 20,000 cases a year, and issued 7,000 indictments, office spokesman Paul Loriquet said.

Last year, the county was the site of more than one out of every four murders in the state.

Now a Maplewood resident, Dow went to high school in Yeadon. A single mother with boys ages 15 and 11, she graduated from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and from Penn's law school in 1980.

She spent seven years as a lawyer for Exxon before joining the U.S. Attorney's office in New York's Southern District in 1987. In 1994, she went to New Jersey's U.S. Attorney's office, and she met Christie in 2002, when he took over that operation.

When he met Dow, then a line assistant working on public corruption, Christie had one of the most candid conversations he has ever had with an employee, he said. The pugnacious Christie said he quickly told a top aide, "She just spent a half-hour insulting me; we've got to find a job for her."

Dow became the office's counsel, and when McGreevey needed to name an Essex County prosecutor, Christie said, "I sent him one name, and it was Paula Dow."

Dow's ascension to the post was hampered by county politics, with several Democratic senators standing in the way, but yesterday she won praise from lawmakers of both parties.

"She's highly intelligent, she's highly motivated," said Sen. Kevin O'Toole, the lone Republican senator from Dow's home county.

Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, an Essex County Democrat who will become Assembly Speaker next month, said Dow has a "proven record of success."

"Her willingness to take on the scourge of gang violence is especially noteworthy," Oliver said in a statement.

According to Dow's office, she created a gang and drug interdiction and intelligence unit. In the past two years, roughly 300 gang members and associates have been arrested in Essex County.

Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said Dow "totally turned around" the department. Before she took over, the office was losing attorneys and had been taken over by the state amid accusations of mismanagement and wasteful spending.

"There was no direction," DiVincenzo said. "She came in, took over and cleaned things up and gave them a sense of direction."

Dow could inherit a politically complicated case from her home county. The attorney general's office, under Anne Milgram, is investigating election fraud in a 2007 Essex County race that saw a top DiVincenzo aide, Teresa Ruiz, elected to the Senate. Ruiz's husband, county freeholder Samuel Gonzalez, is among those who have been indicted in the case.

As a senator, Ruiz has the authority to block Dow's nomination, because, by tradition, senators from a nominee's home county can invoke "courtesy" to stop appointments. In a statement yesterday, however, Ruiz praised Dow as "extremely qualified" and said she looks forward to working with her.

At least three Essex senators used senatorial courtesy when Dow first became the county prosecutor, leaving her as the acting prosecutor for nearly two years before a formal confirmation.

As many as five senators, including Ruiz, have the power to block Dow this time. But in telephone interviews yesterday, O'Toole and Democrats Ronald Rice and Richard Codey, the Senate president, all backed her. The remaining Essex County senator, Democrat Nia Gill, did not return a call seeking comment.

Dow would not comment on the Essex County voter fraud case but said she has a "deep respect" for Ruiz. The case is "part of a recognition that corruption is an important issue here in New Jersey . . . and it shows that there is much more to be addressed," Dow said.

Christie was best known for his high-profile corruption cases as U.S. Attorney, and he often criticized the state's attorneys general for not working with his office.

He said he hopes Dow works with new U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman but that he would leave the direction of the department to his nominee.

"It's extraordinarily important to have a strong, tough, independent attorney general," Christie said.

Christie also named three top deputies to Dow. Marc Ferzan, who worked under Christie at the U.S. Attorney's office, was named executive assistant attorney general, a new position that Christie hopes will help streamline management at the massive department. The post mirrors one Christie created at the federal office.

Phillip Kwon, another of Christie's top aides at the U.S. Attorney's office, was named first assistant attorney general. Carolyn Murray, who worked with Dow in Essex, was named counsel to the attorney general.

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 609-989-9016 or jtamari@phillynews.com.