Steve Lonegan, the firebrand former mayor of Bogota, N.J., and current dark-horse gubernatorial candidate, is waiting in “the vault.” When he first suggested this as the location for our interview, I had assumed he was speaking figuratively. But subtlety is not the rebel Republican politician’s style, and the vault turns out to be exactly that: an empty, fortified vault in the back of what used to be a bank—that is, before it became Lonegan’s makeshift campaign headquarters here in Oradell, N.J.
It is an unusual setting to discuss Lonegan’s underdog bid to win the Republican party’s nomination for governor this June, and with it the chance to challenge Jon Corzine, the increasingly vulnerable Democratic incumbent, in this fall’s election. But the bank vault—with its thick, automatically locking metal door (Lonegan good-naturedly assures me that there is “enough oxygen to survive for 24 hours”)—is also fittingly symbolic.
This is not just because it calls to mind the current financial crisis, and Washington’s trillion-dollar response to it, which has fueled a populist backlash against government spending and energized free-market loyalists like Lonegan. It is also fitting because, running as an unapologetic “conservative Republican” in this deep-blue state, Lonegan has been written off by the local media, ignored by Corzine and his moderate Republican rival, former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, and snubbed by much of the state GOP establishment, giving his campaign the bunker-like feel of an insurgent underground. Politically, Lonegan is very much in the vault.
It doesn’t help that the Garden State has been hostile territory for Republicans in recent years. The last time a Republican candidate won a statewide office in New Jersey was 1997, when Governor Christine Todd Whitman won reelection. Voter rolls offer little encouragement. While 60 percent of the state’s 4.8 million registered voters are independents, they tend to vote Democratic, and Democrats still outnumber Republicans by 1.72 million to 1.04 million.
Bleaker still are the prospects for self-styled conservatives. When the GOP fielded Jersey City mayor Bret Schundler, the tax- and toll-cutting foe of abortion and gun-control, in the 2001 race, Democrats won handily. So it’s not surprising that despite some favorable signs—polls show that more than half of New Jersey voters oppose Corzine’s reelection—Republicans still see this year’s race as an uphill struggle. “If we can win here we can win anywhere,” one veteran Republican strategist says.
To understand why Lonegan thinks he can prevail against the odds, you have to go back to the beginning. Lonegan honed his political chops during the 1990s in Bogota (pronounced bo-GO-da), a solidly middle-class borough of 8,000 that he calls “a real microcosm of New Jersey.” Bogota has long been a Democratic stronghold—at least until Lonegan, a former businessman and owner of a kitchen cabinet manufacturing company, arrived on the scene.
As Lonegan tells it, Bogota was the victim of one-party politics. Taxes were among the highest in Bergen County, municipal government spending was out of control, and corruption ran rampant. “It was another example that big government and high taxes destroy economies, even on the local level,” says Lonegan, who at 53 still has the burly, square-shouldered build of the football center he was in college.
So in 1995, Lonegan ran for mayor. Outspent 2 to 1, he won anyway. “I did it by running on a solid conservative message. I said, ‘I am going to cut the size of government. I am going to lay people off.’ And I got elected on that. What’s really shocking is I did it. That’s where the trouble came in.” Indeed, listening to Lonegan recount his mayoral years is a bit like listening to a military historian: It is a tale of bitter battles fought, usually over contracts and budgeting, with the police, with the teachers’ unions, with the recreation department, among others. Still, by the time he ran for reelection in 1999, Lonegan had cut taxes, privatized municipal services, and reduced spending. He had also made a lot of enemies.
“My first reelection was brutal,” Lonegan recalls. “Everyone said, ‘This guy doesn’t have a chance. He’s too conservative.’ I remember going to the county Republicans and asking for help, and they said, ‘Listen, you’re on your own. You’ve pissed off everybody on the planet.’…[I]t seemed like every house in town had a sign that said ‘We support Bogota police,’ ‘We support Bogota workers.’ I won that reelection with 63 percent of the vote. In fact, the headline in the paper was, ‘Lonegan Leads Republican Sweep.’ I was one of the only towns in Bergen County where Republicans won up and down the ballot. Bottom line is I learned a real good lesson: When you stand up for taxpayers, they pay you back. And that’s been my philosophy of government.”
It’s also his strategy to become governor. For Lonegan, New Jersey is not so much a state as a collection of towns—specifically, the kinds of towns whose overtaxed residents will appreciate a no-nonsense fiscal conservative who promises to slash their taxes (some of the highest in the nation), weed out corruption (not for nothing is New Jersey known as the “Soprano State”), and reduce the state’s record debt ($35 billion and climbing). It’s no coincidence that Lonegan gave his 2008 political manifesto the endearingly straightforward title Putting Taxpayers First: A Blueprint for Victory in New Jersey.
In short, Lonegan sees the state as Bogota writ large. “If you look at New Jersey structurally—567 towns and cities—we have more small towns than any state in the country,” Lonegan says. “So aren’t local governments by their nature conservative? Each one of them has their own church or synagogue, a parish of some type, a lot of volunteerism. Those are my voters: all the Bogotas of New Jersey.”
It was a gray, drizzly day in Morristown, N.J., and beneath a somber sky the crowd was subdued. True, the signs were out in full-force: “Stimulate Business, Not Government,” “Obamaunisim: Trickle Up Poverty,” “Can we bankrupt the country? Yes we can!” and of course, “Taxed enough already,” the mantra of the so-called tea parties, the nationwide protests against the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus package, and the reason that some 500 people from across the state had braved the rain to assemble on the city’s downtown green. But there was a problem: The man that many had come to see, the man whose name was on nearly all the campaign signs being held aloft, was nowhere to be seen. Steve Lonegan was running late.
His absence was most acutely felt when the tea party’s organizers decided to hold an impromptu debate between the visiting political candidates. A diminutive fellow in a baseball cap, the lone Democrat, called for the repeal of NAFTA, earning jeers from a free-trade friendly audience. Next up was Republican Christopher Christie, the favorite of state GOP mandarins, who came closer to the going concerns but was clearly deficient in stage presence. “Are you overtaxed?” he droned. There was a faint rumbling of agreement. “I think you’re overtaxed, too,” he said. It sounded awkward, forced. A few people shuffled their feet.
Suddenly, a roar went up. And before you knew it, there was Lonegan, bounding up on the podium, somehow getting a hold of the microphone, displacing the others. “How about we freeze the size of government and take back America!” he boomed. The crowd erupted. This was what they had come for, and Lonegan was delivering, as he launched into a practiced stem-winder against “big government bureaucrats” in Washington and incompetents in the New Jersey statehouse. There was a slight slip-up—Lonegan confused the 10th Amendment, on state sovereignty, with the 14th, and was corrected by a full-throated chorus—but there was no doubting the crowd favorite.
Watching from a few feet away, Dennis Leary, a software developer from neighboring Randolph, was impressed. “Lonegan seems to be speaking my language,” he said. “A lot of guys will talk about changing things but you don’t really believe it, like with Christie. That’s the problem with Republicans, they’re spending as much as the Democrats, so there’s only one party.” Leary surveyed the Lonegan signs. “Maybe this will be the formation of a new one."
Lonegan has certainly been a hit with the grassroots. “He was able early on to capture that network of staunchly conservative voters who don’t have a lot of people to give their money to right now,” says Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at New Jersey’s Montclair State University. “They see him as a representative of an ideology that goes beyond New Jersey, and its supporters are willing to invest in it wherever it may be.”
The campaign frequently trumpets its 10,000 individual donors—4,000 of whom have never even lived in New Jersey. They are folks like Mary Barton, a 66-year-old Republican retiree from Spokane, Wash., who told the New Jersey Star Ledger that she gave two donations to Lonegan because she was “fed up with the Democratic liberals.” The amounts are small, but as Lonegan likes to say, “That’s a lot of people writing $50 to $100 checks.”
The contrast with the Christie campaign could hardly be more pronounced. A March review of fundraising reports by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission found that Christie drew his support from large in-state donors, collecting an average contribution of $1,250, and just 10 percent of supporters came from outside New Jersey. By contrast, Lonegan’s average donation was $395, with most in the $25-dollar-or-less range and with nearly 55 percent of those coming from out of state.
This wellspring of support from the Republican rank and file represents Lonegan’s best chance to win the June 2 primary. “One of the great things is that 68 percent of primary voters are conservatives,” says Rick Shaftan, Lonegan’s longtime political strategist. “And Lonegan is beating Christie among conservatives by almost 20 points.” Christie still leads among likely GOP voters, but Shaftan contends that this lead “is based on the 17 percent who think that he’s a conservative. We’re winning everybody else.”
In this sense, the New Jersey primary race is just the latest front in the larger war within the Republican party. It is, as Lonegan says, a “classic battle between the conservative and the moderate wing of the Republican party,” but it is also more than that. As the party struggles for relevance in the age of Obama, it is faced with a choice between the back-to-basics vision of base favorites like Lonegan and the more conciliatory approach favored by establishment figures like Christie. At bottom, it’s a strategic question: Can the Republican party be conservative and competitive, or does it need to broaden its appeal to moderates and independents?
Lonegan personifies this dilemma. “Lonegan enjoys a passionately loyal group of supporters,” observes Harrison. “But in some ways that’s a double-edged sword because while he may win the primary it’s not clear that he can win a statewide office.”
Some on the Republican side are wary of precisely that. Just as his hard-edged conservative credentials have endeared Lonegan to the grassroots, they have hurt him with prominent GOP backers and party leaders who think he’s too polarizing a figure to win a general election. When I asked publishing magnate and New Jersey native Steve Forbes about Lonegan in early April, he preferred instead to talk about Christie, whom he would endorse just a week later. Although Lonegan is running on Forbes’s favored flat-tax platform, Forbes didn’t even speak his name.
New Jersey GOP leaders are also keeping their distance from Lonegan. Proof of that comes from the Republican county conventions, largely symbolic intraparty affairs that have overwhelmingly supported Christie. To be sure, Lonegan discounts the conventions, saying that he has chosen not to participate. “In order to compete, you have to sit down with the party bosses and hacks and cut your deal,” he says. “And I will not do that.” But even he must consider it a disappointment that among the delegations siding with Christie is Lonegan’s hometown Bergen County GOP, which rejected the three-term mayor’s pitch that winning in Bogota is like winning in New Jersey.
“I don’t think that’s a valid analogy,” says Bergen GOP chairman Bob Yudin. “For a Republican to win in New Jersey you have to go into these overwhelmingly Democratic districts, like New Brunswick and Newark, and at least lessen the Democratic vote for your opponent. Lonegan can’t do that.”
Tom Wilson, who as chairman of the state GOP has been on the receiving end of Lonegan’s frequent barbs against the state party leadership, offers a more charitable, if still skeptical assessment. While he doesn’t believe Lonegan is too conservative to win a general election, he does caution that Lonegan will have a hard time uniting the Republican party behind him. “It becomes a little difficult when you’re constantly talking about how awful a group is to then turn around and ask for their support. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Not many candidates have run off the line and been successful.”
Lonegan is dismissive of such warnings. “The party line in New Jersey on the Republican side does not mean a whole lot. History has proven that over and over again. People live off the line here all the time. So I built my own line and my own message.” Lonegan has even less patience for the suggestion that he should moderate his blunt-speaking image, a criticism that he interprets to mean that “Lonegan should be vague and maybe bullshit people a little bit.”
In any case, the Barry Goldwater-quoting Lonegan insists that moderation is no virtue given the grim realities of state politics. “Right now, the Republican party needs to be taken in a new direction and the Republican leadership—and I use that term loosely—has no vision for the future of the state, other than to get control of it themselves. It becomes the shirts versus the skins. One of the things I think I recognize is the need to rebuild the Republican party from the bottom up in the image of the Founders and of Ronald Reagan, and these guys aren’t going to do it."
For all his appeals to Reaganesque purity, others see Lonegan’s strength in his resemblance to another president: Barack Obama.
Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, notes that “Barack Obama has introduced to this country what I call the politics of maturity. He thinks before he speaks, he talks in complete paragraphs. As a result, people demand more from politicians than the usual talking points and political homilies. They are looking for a more detailed politician.” Lonegan benefits from that, Dworkin thinks. “He presents strong conservative views, yes, but he goes beyond slogans. He will say that he supports a flat tax, but he can also explain why.”
Improbable as it may seem, there is something to this comparison. For instance, when I ask Lonegan about the first thing he would do if elected, I expect him to invoke some version of his fiery campaign pledge to gut the state budget by 20 percent. (”I feel like a kid in a candy shop. There are so many places to cut,” Lonegan once told the Philadelphia Inquirer.) But instead he gives an unexpectedly pragmatic answer. “The first thing I would do, and the thing I am already doing, is working to recruit the brightest minds because the governor right out of the box puts into place about 180 key policy people, policy people who will run different departments, and I need those people who understand limited government, free-market principles, and how to get to that point. That’s the biggest challenge: putting the best possible team together.”
Of course, Lonegan is anything but an admirer of the 44th president. One of the reasons he wants to be governor is to resist more effectively what he calls “the assault from the Obama administration and everything that goes with it.” He wants his best and brightest to bring discipline to Republican spending priorities, pointing to what he calls the “five bills that screwed up New Jersey”—bills that included measures like card check and small business tax hikes. “Despite Democratic control in the legislature, all five of those bills could not have passed without Republican support,” he says. “So that’s exactly why the Republican party is where it is.” But in unguarded moments, the combative conservative can seem a lot like the Democratic president he so vigorously opposes.
There is a confidence about Lonegan bordering on cockiness. Asked what he will do if he loses the primary, he seems baffled. “Losing is not an alterative,” he says. “I’ve never even thought of it.” In another politician, this might come off as contrived, desperate even, but when Lonegan says it you have the distinct sense that he means it. Despite the very real possibility, he has never contemplated defeat.
Still, things look grim. Even with his support among small donors, Lonegan lags behind his opponent in fundraising. As of early May, Christie had more than doubled Lonegan’s fundraising haul, collecting a total of $4.7 million compared to Lonegan’s $2.3 million. Polls show him trailing Christie by at least nine points among likely GOP primary voters. Then there is his running feud with the GOP establishment, and a generally aloof press that treats his campaign as a sideshow. With the primary fast approaching, he is still in the vault.
As he has throughout his turbulent career, however, Lonegan believes in the taxpayers. “The Democrats have taken control of New Jersey not because of some amazing vision that they have, because their vision is one of higher taxes and massive entitlement programs. It’s because of the lack of vision of the Republican party to put forth a standard-bearer and a message to resonate with voters.” Lonegan has staked his campaign, and indeed his entire political philosophy, on that simple proposition. On June 2, he will put it to the test.
This article first appeared in Doublethink magazine. To read more, please click here.