Bogota Mayor Steven Lonegan has not announced plans to run for governor again in 2009, but if he does, he doesn’t think that the latest flap about him hiring illegal immigrants to assemble political signs hurts his chances.
Lonegan said that this weekend’s incident may give political opponents ammunition, but it won’t resonate with voters. But revelations of officials hiring illegal immigrants have been political poison before. It killed Zoe Baird’s nomination for Attorney General by President Bill Clinton in 1993, as it did the nomination of his next candidate, Kimba Wood. And the discovery that Bernie Kerik used an illegal immigrant nanny was the first of many issues to emerge that ended his nomination for Homeland Security Chief.
“Part of the test if you ever want to run for office is the ability to handle issues like this properly,” said Lonegan. “I challenge people to tell me that if I’m hiring a Latino that I have to have a different standard. If I had hired two of the Bogota High School white kids at 9am would the cops had done the same thing?”
And Lonegan has faced the issue head-on, counter-charging that he did everything by the book and that police officers used racial profiling to find something wrong with his hired help after contract negotiations between Lonegan and the force went sour.
Montclair University Political Science Professor Brigid Harrison pointed out the case of Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons, who had a record of taking tough stances against illegal immigration in Congress but still won the executive seat even after it was revealed that he hired an illegal immigrant nanny.
So for a politician as outspoken on illegal immigration as Lonegan – the same man who tried to ban a Spanish-language McDonalds advertisement – the incident isn’t necessarily the death knell for his political aspirations.
“I think it’s an indicator and it demonstrates the nature of this crisis in our state and our country,” said Harrison. “Is this the final nail in Lonegan’s coffin as far as a gubernatorial run? I’m not sure this one thing is enough to doom him, but I think this kind of action doesn’t sell with his traditional constituency.”
The general public will be quick to forget Lonegan’s hiring of illegal immigrants, but his right wing base may not. Still, most hard-line conservatives may still choose Lonegan over a more moderate Republican in the Christie Whitman mold if they’re not given any other options.
“If Lonegan is the only conservative standard-bearer, conservatives will rally around him,” said Joseph Marbach, a political science professor at Seton Hall. “But if there’s a conservative to challenge him they might abandon him.”
The most likely candidate against Lonegan in the ’09 primary is Christopher Christie, the United States Attorney.
Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello, a Democrat who’s one of the state’s most vocal opponents of illegal immigration, said that Lonegan may lose some core sport from anti-illegal immigration groups, but never had much of a shot at being governor to begin with. But, Cresitello said, for someone outspoken on the issue, Lonegan ought to be more careful.
“It could have been an honest mistake on his part, but he has to be real careful. If he has to take positions like I do and he does, he shouldn’t have hired them at all,” said Cresitello.
But one member of that base, Ron Bass, who founded the anti-illegal immigration group United Patriots for America, said that Lonegan shouldn’t be faulted for not carefully checking the workers’ immigration status. He analogized the situation to going to a diner and later being criticized because the staff is made up partly of illegal immigrants.
“That’s what happened to Lonegan – he was just living in this world. Well I’m not the governor of the state or the president – it’s not my job. I don’t find any fault with Lonegan – he’s just a citizen like us, caught up in this problem with all of us,” said Bass.
Conservative strategist Rick Shaftan, a staunch Lonegan ally, defended the Bogota Mayor as being persecuted by the “liberal media.” But he said that Lonegan is unphased by criticism over the incident and welcomes the media attention to promote the opposition of his group, Americans for Prosperty, to the four ballot measures on November’s ballot, which include borrowing $450 million for stem cell research.
“What he’s particularly happy about is the opportunity to call attention to these ballot questions ,” said Shaftan.