This could be the year former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, a staunch conservative, finally wins the Republican nomination for a statewide office — in this case, the U.S. Senate.
The 57-year old, who headed the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity until earlier this year, has twice been unsuccessful in seeking the GOP nod for governor — in 2005 and 2009.
With 41 years having passed since New Jersey voters chose a Republican to serve in the U.S. Senate and a compressed campaign schedule due to Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to hold special elections, Lonegan is one of only two Republicans to get into the race.
According to the most recent poll, released early last month by Quinnipiac University, he has a commanding 62 percent to 5 percent lead over opponent Alieta Eck, a doctor.
“The Republican race looks even more one-sided than the Democratic primary,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Alieta Eck hardly registers.”
So it is not surprising that Lonegan, who is legally blind, has been running against Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who is far ahead in the polls on the Democratic side, rather than his primary opponent.
All of the positions on his website contrast his views with those of “Cory Booker and the other Democrats.” And last Tuesday, Lonegan traveled to Booker’s Newark campaign headquarters to announce his own opposition to the National Security Agency’s surveillance of phone calls and emails and attack Booker for not taking a strong stand on that and many other issues: He called Booker’s campaign “vapid” more than once.
“One of the key elements that angered the colonists …was the ability of the crown to use what was called the general warrant. A general warrant authorized the police or the military forces of the crown to go into the homes of colonists, go through their papers, go through their personal effects, without any due cause, without any reason,” Lonegan said, asserting that the NSA program violates the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.
“What we are watching is our Constitution being torn up for the purpose of allegedly protecting us from terrorism. What we are seeing now … is a return to the same general warrants that were used by the crown against the colonists,” Lonegan said.
Lonegan said he would have supported a bipartisan attempt two weeks ago by two Michigan congressmen to stop indiscriminate surveillance. That narrowly failed in the U.S. House of Representatives, which voted to continue funding the controversial program. He said Booker had only made some vague statements about the issue, although the Booker campaign pointed out that its website includes a statement on the issue — on it Booker states, “We need to vigorously guard our Fourth Amendment privacy protections while still protecting Americans from terrorism.”
The issue clearly illustrates Lonegan’s conservative, libertarian beliefs.
“This goes to the centerpiece of my campaign for U. S. Senate,” he said. “Every single vote I will cast in the U.S. Senate, I will have one determining factor: Am I preserving your liberty, your privacy, your freedom from government, from the shackles of big government, from the invasion of your privacy?”
He repeated this pledge last Wednesday night during a debate with Eck televised on News 12 New Jersey. He and his rival cordially seemed to agree on most issues
“I don’t think there’s any difference in what we believe in between Dr. Eck and myself,” Lonegan said. “We both believe in liberty and limited government.”
Among the issues on which they concurred is one sensitive to many New Jerseyans who suffered or continue to suffer due to superstorm Sandy last fall. Both said that they would not have supported the original $60 billion Sandy aid package. Congress eventually passed a $50.5 billion relief measure and Gov. Chris Christie has said New Jersey could get as much as half of that.
“I would have voted no on it just because of the same reasons Dr. Eck said,” Lonegan said. “Because we’ve created this system now where the government is going to bail out every crisis and politicians pile on and just add every pork barrel project they can think of.
“Billions are going to be wasted,” he added. “I would have been there at least to be a voice to slow down the spending.”
Mayor of the Bergen County borough of about 8,200 for a dozen years, Lonegan has been consistent in his conservative positions, including a focus on smaller government that spends less, for years.
He says that as mayor he worked with divided councils in the borough, which is 2-to-1 Democratic, to keep spending and tax increases below the rate of inflation through such cuts as combining the zoning and planning boards and outsourcing bookkeeping services. He was reelected twice and did not seek reelection in 2007.
Raised in Ridgefield Park, Lonegan has made a name for himself beyond Bogota over the years.
He filed lawsuits seeking to stop the state from borrowing without voter approval, losing in one case and having a second dismissed. In 2003, he launched a website and got 10,000 signatures on an online petition opposing a gas tax hike to fund the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. He took credit for the narrow defeat of a ballot question that sought to borrow $450 million to fund stem cell research in 2007. He was arrested in 2008 after refusing to remove signs while protesting a proposed toll hike outside a town hall meeting at which then-Gov. Jon Corzine would be speaking in Cape May Court House.
More recently, he takes credit for helping to convince Christie, his one-time rival, to take New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and to not create a health exchange to facilitate the ACA.
“I been out there in forefront of issues for taxpayers now for two decades and had some terrific successes and want to bring that ability to succeed to Washington,” Lonegan said during the debate last Wednesday night.
He has also received publicity for some less positive controversies.
In 2006, he called on McDonald’s to take down a Spanish-language billboard in Bogota, and later tried to have a public referendum on a proposal to make English the official language of the borough. The sign did not come down, the referendum didn’t happen and the issues drew rebukes from some Hispanic groups.
A year later, Lonegan picked up two day laborers to help assemble lawn signs for Americans for Prosperity, the conservative organization founded by David and Charles Koch of which Lonegan was state director, and police found the men to be illegal aliens. At the time, according to press reports, Lonegan criticized the police for unfairly targeting him and the men.
Lonegan also came under fire in 2009 when he got $2.7 million in public matching funds for his gubernatorial bid despite his prior position with Americans for Prosperity. State law requires a candidate to disclose recent work with issue advocacy groups. In 2008, he was listed as having received $132,500 from Americans for Prosperity’s 501c and 501c3 arms. That prompted William J. Brennan, an unsuccessful Democratic legislative candidate, to file a suit in 2011 on behalf of the state of New Jersey contending Lonegan was not entitled to the public matching funds because of his participation in an issue advocacy group during the four years prior to the election.
According to 2011 tax filing for Americans for Prosperity’s 501c and 501c3 arms, Lonegan received a total of $156,163 for working 15 hours a week and was listed as one of a dozen of the highest-paid employees. Lonegan left his official role as head of AFPNJ in March, according to Mike Proto, a spokesman for the group. “For a brief time he served as a consultant and senior fellow but vacated those roles upon launching his senate candidacy.”
Lonegan, who received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from William Paterson College and master’s in business administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University, said he used to operate a kitchen cabinet retail business that employed 80 people. He sold the business in 2003. He maintains a small homebuilding company and this year took out another mortgage on his home to buy a lot to develop this year.
In high school, he ran track, setting several records, according to the biography on his campaign website. In college, he was captain of the football team and an All-Conference Division Center. He still has the broad shoulders of a football player. His political idol is Ronald Reagan because of the former president’s “ability to communicate” and give the nation “hope” during a tough time.
Lonegan said he first got involved in politics because he was unhappy with the way Bogota was being managed — “the mayor was pretty much a monarch.” Two years after being elected in 1996, he ran for Congress in the 9th District, losing to incumbent Steve Rothman almost two-to-one.
In this second bid for a spot in Washington, Lonegan has carved out a clearly conservative territory for himself. He opposes the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. He wants to limit the federal government’s role in education and supports school vouchers. He also opposes any new federal gun-control laws, gay marriage, and abortion. His website says he “rejects the notion that Americans should have to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year to fight alleged ‘Global Warming.’”
Last Wednesday, during the debate, Lonegan knocked what he called federal “income redistribution mechanisms that have pretty much taken over our economy.” He said he wants to “dismantle the IRS as we know it,” flatten tax rates, and cut corporate incomes taxes.
In past elections, Lonegan was viewed as too conservative to win the primary — he came in fourth out of seven in 2005 and four years later finished second of three behind Christie. This year, only he and Eck are on the ballot and he has gotten numerous endorsements from Republicans, including Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5th), who has been rated New Jersey’s most conservative congressman.
“He clearly has the grassroots energy, campaign organization, and knowledge of the issues to effectively represent our party in the election and our state in the Senate,” Garrett said of Lonegan. “It is critical that we work together to push back against the Obama administration’s numerous overreaches and set our country on course for a more secure, economically vibrant future.”
Lonegan himself said New Jersey needs a conservative Republican in the Senate and used the kind of partisan rhetoric that has been seen as divisive in Washington.
“Finding a middle ground with Barack Obama means agreeing with everything he says,” Lonegan said. “There is no such thing as a middle ground with the liberal left. If you don’t go for everything they say, then they’ll throw you under the bus.”
Lonegan said he supports the Tea Party movement, calling it the group that has given the GOP “a backbone” and is a sort of “conscience of the Republican party and the conservative movement.” Saying he has strong support among Tea Partiers, he also praised the group for standing up in defense of the Constitution and said they “are not just going to fold because of liberal media assaults or because they are politically incorrect.”
He doesn’t have support from all the state’s Tea Partiers, though, since the Bayshore Tea Party in Monmouth County is backing Eck.
Lonegan has not raised or spent much money to date, having taken in about $323,000 — including a $100,000 loan — and spent $172,000 through July 24, according to the Federal Election Commission. Still, he had about eight times more cash on hand than Eck.
Already focused on the general election, Lonegan said he is looking forward to a “real line-in-the-sand election” pitting a conservative Republican against “a liberal.” He said he supports the special October election as a way to focus specifically on the Senate race and not get tied up with this year’s gubernatorial and legislative contests, “a standalone election, mano y mano.”