WASHINGTON – Shortly after being elected New Jersey's governor, Democrat Jon Corzine speculated aloud that he might appoint a woman to fill out his unexpired Senate term. Then he singled out black state Sen. Nia Gill, calling her an "extraordinarily capable woman."
Gill did not shy away from the hint.
"I have the qualifications," she told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "If I am chosen by Jon, I am more than qualified to rise to the occasion."
If Corzine does select Gill -- a 57-year-old attorney -- she would become only the sixth black, and second black woman ever to serve in the U.S. Senate. New Jersey has never had a female or minority U.S. senator. The only black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate was Carol Mosely-Braun of Illinois.
Political analysts say that by choosing Gill, Corzine would be seen as rewarding a faithful base that turned out for him on Election Day — and possibly sending a signal about his higher political aspirations.
"It would certainly cement his status with African Americans and progressives in general, and would come in handy down the line if he's thinking about running for president," said David Bositis Sr., a political analyst at The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. He studies black politics.
Corzine, 58, said on Thanksgiving Day that he planned to choose his successor in early December. Besides Gill, six of New Jersey's seven Democratic congressmen have expressed interest in the job. Two of them, Reps. Robert Menendez and Donald Payne, are minorities.
New Jersey law gives the governor the power to fill House and Senate vacancies. Corzine's Senate term expires in 2006 and Republicans have a strong challenger in state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the son of popular former Gov. Thomas Kean.
The Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers' Council of New Jersey, said choosing Gill would be a bold move on Corzine's part.
"You would add another minority to the Senate who is very capable and very qualified," Jackson said. He added that he has discussed the appointment with Corzine, but declined to say whom he would like to see named.
According to an AP-Ipsos poll on Election Day, Corzine won nearly all the black votes cast in New Jersey's gubernatorial race, and two-thirds of the Hispanic vote. He also had a 20-point edge among female voters. Corzine defeated Republican opponent Doug Forrester by nine percentage points.
Gill is a second-term state senator who previously served four terms in the state Assembly. She would not reveal whether she and Corzine had discussed the U.S. Senate seat, saying any such conversations are private.
She faces stiff competition for the Senate appointment. Three congressmen -- Menendez, Robert Andrews and Frank Pallone -- campaigned hard for Corzine and have significant war chests. And they have better name recognition than Gill, who represents a small sliver of Essex and Passaic counties in northern New Jersey.
But Gill is an intriguing possibility, said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor.
"Choosing her would be a signal that perhaps Corzine will be different and perhaps business will not be conducted in the usual way in New Jersey," Baker said.