For years, conservative activist Steve Lonegan has been seen by the state’s moderate, mainstream Republicans more as a thorn in the side than a boon to their party.
But after leaving office as the mayor of Bogota, the ever-controversial Lonegan has – at least on the surface – made nice with some of the party’s more high profile members as he’s dramatically increased his statewide profile.
Take the convention run shortly before the U.S. Senate primaries at the Trenton Marriot, where Americans for Prosperity – the anti-tax group whose New Jersey chapter Lonegan heads up – brought out a couple national Republican luminaries and a few New Jersey Republicans who typically aren’t seen with Lonegan.
Once you got past the 3,000 pound fiberglass pig perched atop a trailer parked outside the hotel, you could meet not only some of the of the Republicans’ most conservative legislators — like Assembly members Michael Patrick Carroll, Richard Merkt, Allison Littell-McHose and State Sen. Gerald Cardinale. But also present were members of the new crop of Republican leadership like Tom Kean, Jr., Kevin O’Toole and Joe Kyrillos.
The convention came about six months after the November surprise defeat of two ballot initiatives that Lonegan fought hard against, including one to borrow money for stem-cell research. Political observers differ on how much credit Lonegan gets for the measures’ defeat, but he was most vocal opponent, and became the face of the effort.
And Republican legislators spoke up on Lonegan’s behalf after he was arrested on public property while protesting one of Gov. Corzine’s town hall meetings on his asset monetization plan, turning him into something of a martyr of the wider Republican cause against raising tolls to relieve part of the state’s debt. It also mitigated any political damage Lonegan faced from allegedly being caught hiring two undocumented workers to assemble signs against the initiatives, despite his outspokenness against illegal immigration.
Lonegan, for his part, isn’t sure that he wants mainstream acceptance. He insists that he’s not going to compromise his ideological underpinnings, and casts a wary eye at the Republican establishment that he says is still reluctant to adopt the views he says they need to win.
“I’ve stayed on a very clear message for more than a decade based on philosophical principles that the mainstream — those who at one time controlled the republican legislature and government — did not particularly share,” said Lonegan, who in 1998 walked out of Gov. Christie Whitman’s second inaugural address. “But they have proved to be the best principles for the management of government.”
But despite paying lip service to conservative principles, Lonegan said, party leaders remain more or less committed to the old way.
“They may make a few good sound bites here and there, but when it comes down to it, those who control the Republican party from the inside are too busy thinking about how to capitulate to [Assembly Speaker] Joe Roberts than to take him on head-on and win,” he said.
And the feeling remains mutual. Many mainstream Republicans, including those who tend to lean right, won’t talk about Lonegan on the record. And while his travels across the state on behalf of his advocacy group have given him a platform to base a gubernatorial bid next year, some Republican chairmen already predict that their county lines will go to someone like U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie or biotech executive John Crowley. If Lonegan chooses to run for governor in 2009, he’ll likely face the same challenges he did for his unsuccessful go at it in 2005.
Cape May County Republican Chairman David Von Savage, who’s one of the most conservative county leaders, said that he tends to agree with Lonegan ideologically, but not practically. He won’t support Lonegan if he runs for governor.
Von Savage said that Lonegan hurt his district’s sitting State Senator, Nicholas Asselta (R-Vineland), by putting out a critical mailer about his stance on the Paid Family Leave Act in the run up to last year’s legislative election. That, he said, ultimately helped then-Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) unseat him.
“His brand is that of stridency,” said Von Savage. “His thing is to stand on principle and conviction regardless of how much collateral damage there is from friendly fire.”
Von Savage acknowledged that Asselta didn’t perfectly adhere to conservative principles, but said the party was better off with him than a Democrat in the seat.
“How has what (Lonegan) has done advanced the cause? We’ve gone in reverse,” he said.
Bob Yudin, who chairs the struggling Republicans in Lonegan’s home county of Bergen, was not critical of Lonegan, but said it’s too early to decide who he’ll support in 2009.
“He is an influential personality, an influential politician. He does have his supporters, he also has his detractors, and it remains to be seen how viable a gubernatorial candidate will be next year,” he said.
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said that Lonegan remains on the periphery of Republican politics, despite his frequent appearances statewide and gift at attracting attention from the media.
“Lonegan has really improved his profile but he’s still seen as a niche candidate who appeals to a certain segment of the Republican electorate. It doesn’t look like the Republican Party is going to fall over itself to promote him,” said Murray.
But, Murray added, Lonegan’s outspokenness on the bread and butter, not so ideological issue of taxes has “injected him into the mainstream.”
“He’s not himself a mainstream candidate, but he’s making sure he’s part of that debate on the issues all New Jerseyans care about.”