Gov. Christie on Wednesday named a Hispanic civil rights activist to the Rutgers University board of governors, invoking a provision in legislation that enables the restructuring of the state university system to leapfrog a 19-month block on the nominee by Senate Democrats.
In a statement, Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D., Gloucester) contested the appointment of Martin Perez, saying the maneuver was illegal. A spokesman said Sweeney was reviewing legal options.
In announcing his appointment of Perez, whom he nominated on May 12, 2011, the Republican governor accused Democrats of a pattern of "obstructionist conduct."
Perez's nomination was left in limbo, Christie said, by Senate Democrats invoking "the archaic practice of senatorial courtesy," which enables senators to block gubernatorial nominees from their districts.
The merger of Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey gives Christie an opportunity to bypass the Senate. By expanding the size of the board from 11 to 15 members, it gave him the power to initially appoint two of the new members without Senate confirmation.
But Perez does not meet the requirements for appointment because he lives in Middlesex County, Sweeney said.
"The legislation clearly states the additional appointments to the board need to be from Camden and Essex Counties," he said. "The action [Christie] announced today is in direct violation of the law."
Christie's office disagreed with that reading of the law.
Perez is president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey and a native of Puerto Rico who earned his law degree from Rutgers-Newark.
Christie hailed the appointment as a triumph of diversity. Perez would be the second Hispanic member of the school's board of governors and the first in 10 years.
"You look at the record of the Democrats over the last decade in their appointments to the Rutgers board of governors and almost every one of them looks like me," Christie said.
Sweeney said the move was meant to distract from Christie's actions, which he said often hurt Latinos. Of five nominees to the state Supreme Court, Sweeney noted, none has been Latino.
Though Perez is a fellow Democrat, the legislative leadership has been miffed at him for backing a GOP redistricting proposal last year that would have concentrated minorities in some legislative districts. Perez had sought the realignment believing it would help elect more Latinos. Eventually, a tie on the redistricting panel was broken by a mediator in favor of the Democratic alternative.
Sweeney said the plan Perez backed would have left Latinos underrepresented.
About one in five New Jerseyans identify as Hispanic, according to census estimates.
At a news conference at Rutgers in New Brunswick, Christie said State Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex) had blocked the nominee. He also accused Democratic Sens. Barbara Buono and Joseph F. Vitale of playing politics in the matter.
Smith was away and could not be reached for comment.
Members of the board of governors serve six-year terms. Perez's term would begin in July.