El brusco alcalde arrepentido

Back in 2005, I worked day and night for Bret Schundler's gubernatorial campaign (aka the 7 ring GOP circus). The circus was facilitated by 2 circumstances:
  1. Public matching funds, which allowed anyone capable of raising a modest amount of money (about $250K) to have taxpayers kick in double the amount raised (thus $333K becomes a cool million). This enables individuals with no chance at winning the governorship, but merely with other political aspirations, to give a big boost to their name recognition at the expense of taxpayers. For some reason, the name Todd Caliguire rings a bell here.
  2. The complete lack of faith in the NJGOP on the part of national Republicans. I blame one person: George W. Bush. The President of the United States, an elected Republican who came within 7 points of his rival in NJ the previous year, should have played Godfather and tapped his preferred candidate. Even if 2 or 3 others stayed in the game based on some combination of ego and principles, the primary would not have been the free-for-all it became.
Anyway, I supported Bret Schundler. Not only was I a big fan of Bret personally, but his "reform" theme fit nicely with the Passaic County Reform Republican Committee (PCRRC), one of the players in the intra-party squabble happening in the Passaic County GOP at the time. (continued...)

The PCRRC formed when a group of concerned Republicans, in the aftermath of losing the last vestiges of Republican presence in Passaic County government in 2004, decided to run a primary to wrest de facto control of the Party from the hands of Mike Mecca and his puppeteer Peter Murphy (who in addition to having a record of incompetence too lengthy to delineate here, had openly supported Democrats Bill Pascrell and Jerry Speziale, thus blatantly cuckolding myself and my running mate, Mark Michalski).

The PCRRC included:
  • myself and those who worked closely with me during my 2004 congressional campaign (Jesse Starrick and Norma Watson in particular)
  • Clifton Municipal leader, 2003 Freeholder nominee, and longtime State Committeeman John Traier
  • a Hawthorne contingent featuring Mayor Pat Botbyl, Bob and Jen Scully, and the rest of the Michalski team
  • longtime local strategist Jimmy Marotta of Totowa
  • former Paterson Mayor Pat Kramer, accompanied by Paterson Board of Education member Chauncey Brown, III
  • former District 35 Assemblyman Frank Catania
  • Pompton Lakes GOP municipal leader Mered Frankel
  • the West Milford "Real Republican" club, including Councilman Phil Weisbecker
Others joined as time went on, including former Haledon Mayor Ken Pengitore (who was set up to screen for Freeholder along with the eventual PCRRO candidates Victor Rabbat and Frank Gaccione, only to be rejected).
El brusco alcalde arrepentidoWe put together a slate of candidates, including 2 Freeholder candidates (Jonathan Soto and Robert Piersanti), 2 State Committee candidates (Traier and former Herald News columnist/minister Teresa Nance, as well as Assembly candidates in District 35. (Not seeking to divide the party, we did not field candidates against the incumbents in Districts 40 and 26 - Kevin O'Toole, David Russo, Joe Pennacchio, Alex DeCroce). District 34 was uncontested across the board, I'm sad to say.

To make a long story short, our candidates earned roughly 35% in the primary. The "line" candidates earned about 50%, and the other 15% went to a slate organized by Ken del Vecchio (including himself as well as Paterson municipal leader Bill Connolly) and aligned with Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan.

At the time, I had a negative attitude towards Lonegan for several reasons:
  1. adding a third slate to an already confusing primary, which dulled the impact of our genuine Reform effort to change the leadership of the Passaic County GOP
  2. seeking out controversial coverage to earn a reputation as a spokesman for angry right-wingers (protesting the "War on Christmas" and opposing Affirmative Action in Newark on Martin Luther King Day)
  3. bringing personal attacks on Schundler supporters into the campaign (including my dear friend Sherine el-Abd, a longtime NJ Republican insider and highly respected activist, who happens to be Muslim) - I have since been satisfied with the explanation given by Lonegan's strategist, the inimitable Rick Shaftan, though I still consider the mailer to have been in poor taste
These frustrations were compounded during the me encanta uprising of 2006, in which Lonegan railed against McDonald's advertising strategy. I thought this was silly and illogical because it came across as anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic, and seemed to conflict with a free-market laissez-faire approach favored by small government conservatives.

Yet in recent months, Lonegan seems to have been changing his tune. I was not the only Republican to be pleasantly surprised when he came out forcefully defending the arch-nemesis of his right-wing cohorts, former Governor Christie Whitman. Lonegan's editorial in The Record on June 28 raised the eyebrows of many GOP insiders with its less-than-subtle key change:

"I have been a vocal critic of former Gov. Christie Whitman's policies in New Jersey, but I have a new found respect for her courage and integrity in standing her ground in defense of her actions as EPA director.

The hearings held by Reps. Jerry Nadler and Bill Pascrell Jr. are nothing short of partisan witch hunts...

Republican leaders, especially those who benefited under the Whitman administration in Trenton, should have the guts to stand up and defend our former governor."

Have a look at the comments on Lonegan's piece that appeared on his PoliticsNJ blog. Responding to doubts expressed by Bergen County's #1 Republican grouch, Joe Tomanelli (We still love ya, Joe), Shaftan rebutted:
"So you're siding with Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Nadler, Bill Pascrell and Hillary Clinton here. Now who's the RINO? When she's right, she's right."
It started becoming clear that Lonegan sought to reposition himself not as a campaign-for-giggles right-wing curio, but rather as a viable candidate who could unite Republicans under his banner. In this year's contentious Republican Primary in Bergen County, Lonegan came down squarely on the side of the "establishment" Republicans led by Kevin O'Toole. Much chatter has been heard in the ensuring months, and much more will be heard in the aftermath of Lonegan's most recent editorial about gays in the Republican Party:

"My beliefs in limited government can be shared across the chasms that liberals and conservatives perceive to separate us – ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation...

Historically, gay Americans have struggled for the freedom to live their lives the way they choose in order to pursue happiness. This is the American Dream, the cornerstone of conservative thinking, and it is these principles that make the increasingly influential gay community the conservative movement's natural ally.

It may surprise some to learn that the very same conservative who refused to be coerced into performing civil union ceremonies by government believes gay voters should be conservative, yet this very instance points to our common ground – a commitment to the rights of the individual and opposition to the power of a collectivist state."

Yes, you read that correctly. Lonegan appropriated the infamous moniker of Jim McGreevey: gay American. He then gets into the nuts and bolts of his argument:

"Many gay adults are also in upper income brackets, making the issue of low taxes, which conservatives have staked their reputation on, an important one.

The principles of limited government that keep Big Brother out of our personal lives must also keep him out of our pocketbooks. Liberal Democrats may not care what individuals do in their bedrooms, but they are already rattling their tax-hiking sabers to let us know they do care what individuals do with their money."

And he gets practical, even preemptively addressing his socially conservative base:
"Obstacles to achieving our real goal of reducing the size of government and limiting its ability to interfere in our lives must be torn down. Gays shouldn't expect government to foist acceptance of their lifestyle on others; religious conservatives shouldn't expect gays to abandon an integral part of their being."
Perhaps the most compelling part of Lonegan's essay, though was the apparent shedding of his old skin:
"The media like to portray conservatives as wild-eyed ideologues, which is
unfair. Of the philosophies that have directed civilization, conservatism has
resulted in the most liberty for people around the world. It is at the hands of
the liberal welfare state that individualism is destroyed; thus the failure of
communism, fascism and socialism in promoting a signature American entitlement - 'the pursuit of happiness.'"
This is not your father's Steve Lonegan (I mean that quite literally, as my father actually wrote a check to Lonegan in 2005, having been compelled by one of Lonegan's "red meat" fundraising mailers). The man is clearly redefining himself and positioning himself for another crack at the Governorship in 2009. As Shaftan recently commented on PoliticsNJ, in the context of a poll putting Corzine head-to-head with Lonegan in 2 years:
"If you go back to 1976-1980 you will see exactly the same comments about Ronald Reagan. Go pick any newspaper from early 1980 and read how Democrats couldn't wait to get in the ring with the Gipper."
But aside from this series of cultural overtures and insider signaling, there is one strong attribute Lonegan possesses that puts him miles above just about any potential competitor: his commitment to limited government and fiscal conservatism. Even those for whom Lonegan's name evokes a Pavlovian bitterness cannot but admire the man's skill at managing a budget. His record in Bogota is exemplary, and though it is a very small microcosm of New Jersey, a scaled-up Bogota would be a pleasure to inhabit.

Perhaps more important is Lonegan's project in the past couple of years. He leads the New Jersey chapter of a non-partisan group called Americans for Prosperity:

"AFP is an organization of grassroots leaders who engage citizens in the name of limited government and free markets on the local, state and federal levels. The grassroots members of AFP advocate for public policies that champion the principles of entrepreneurship and fiscal and regulatory restraint.

AFP Foundation is committed to educating citizens about economic policy and a return of the federal government to its Constitutional limits."

This is not just any organization; it has some powerful backers, including David Koch (the Koch family of Kansas owns what is generally considered to be the world's largest privately-owned company). By associating himself with this group, and working hard on its behalf, he has shown a true and undying commitment to fiscal conservatism. He has cultivated relationships with big-time national donors. And he has shown more ongoing concern for the taxpayers of New Jersey than any of his fellow ringmasters from 2005. I happen to like all of those guys (though I've lost tremendous respect for Todd Caliguire), has anyone heard from John Murphy, Bob Schroeder, Doug Forrester, or Paul DiGaetano recently? Lonegan has been at the forefront of the battle, continuing to file complaints against the likes of Wayne Bryant (who was later indicted).

All in all, Steve Lonegan has demonstrated much more political skill and strategy than I attributed to him back in 2005 and 2006. I do not think it wise to continue to write him off as a right-wing wackjob. Yes, he went too far in the past and had alienated Republicans like me, but Lonegan is definitely in the game and if he continues to build bridges within the party to unite Republicans under a compelling platform of limited government, he will be a force to be reckoned with - not only in the Primary, but in the 2009 General Election.