Lonegan positions himself as N.J. GOP leader

February 12, 2008 3:48:08 PM PST
New Jersey may be dominated by Democrats, but Steve Lonegan is convinced conservative New Jerseyans simply await bold leadership to rally them. The 51-year-old former college football captain has lately been positioning himself to be that leader, and people are taking notice.

"Steve is an outstanding organizer, probably the best the Republicans have," said Assemblyman Richard Merkt, R-Morris.

Even Democrats concede the former Bogota mayor has emerged as a factor, though they're not necessarily worried about that.

"He's done a great job of grabbing the leadership of the Republican Party, which is following him like lambs," said Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, D-Union, the state Democratic Party chairman. "If they want to attach themselves to his right-wing politics, that's fine by us."

After years railing against Democrats, Lonegan last fall helped rally voters against dedicating sales tax money to property tax relief and borrowing $450 million for stem cell research.

Now he's a leading Republican critic of Corzine's plan to increase highway tolls to pay state debt and fund transportation, an effort that led to Lonegan being arrested for trespassing outside a Cape May meeting where Corzine was promoting his plan; the charges were later dropped.

"The message here, that Corzine's delivering, is that if you want more big government then this is the way we're going to fund it," Lonegan said. "We are going to ask the tough questions that the governor particularly doesn't want to hear."

Lonegan unsuccessfully sought the 2005 Republican gubernatorial nomination and many speculate he's eyeing a 2009 bid.

Lonegan has kept his www.loneganforgovernor.com Web site, but said he hasn't decided whether to run.

"I guess anything's possible," Lonegan said. "My commitment is to defeating the governor's toll plan and to work to mobilize the citizens of New Jersey to fight back. I don't know where that will lead, so I'm not going to say yes or no."

Merkt said he's been amazed by Lonegan, not only because of his organizing skills but because Lonegan is legally blind. Lonegan has Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, though he prefers not to discuss it.

"Steve is remarkable fellow," Merkt said. "He has a severe visual impairment, but this has not kept him from pursuing his dream of political involvement. He has an incisive intellect and a dogged determination."

But Cryan called him "a right wing Republican who has spent years chasing headlines."

"His agenda is way outside the mainstream for New Jersey," Cryan said.

Lonegan recently alleged subpoenas sent by the state Attorney General's Office to Bogota were revenge against his activities against Corzine. The subpoenas didn't cite Lonegan's name, and state Attorney General Anne Milgram's office said they don't play politics.

Born in Teaneck in 1956, Lonegan grew up in Ridgefield Park, where he ran track before graduating from William Paterson College, where he captained the football team. He got a masters at Fairleigh Dickinson University, then became a custom homebuilder and a finance vice chair for the National Federation of Independent Business.

He became Bogota mayor in 1995, but the married father of two daughters didn't seek re-election last year.

His political efforts include fights against the Newark arena, state borrowing without voter approval, a gas tax increase and use of Spanish language advertising by McDonald's in Bogota.

A staunch opponent of affirmative action and quotas, abortion and gay marriage, Lonegan supports the right to carry firearms and wants to deport illegal aliens, but was accused last year of hiring illegal aliens to do campaign work. Lonegan insists they told him they had proper papers.

He once hosted a rally protesting the Maplewood school board's ban on religious songs in holiday shows, and is now state director for the conservative Americans for Prosperity.

"He obviously has political ambitions, and I cannot fault him for that," Merkt said. "He has the fervor and energy to press his agenda."

Democrats doubt that agenda will advance.

"When he's not contradicting himself he's trying to take credit for outcomes he didn't influence," Cryan said. "He never gained statewide legitimacy, but he now seems to have co-opted leadership of the Republicans in the Legislature."