On a recent Saturday morning, Steve Lonegan walked into the belly of the beast.
A pro-life, anti-gay marriage, staunch fiscal conservative Senate candidate from New Jersey, he was making an appearance on MSNBC’s “Up With Steve Kornacki.” As he strolled into the studio, Lonegan noted his somewhat antagonistic relationship with the channel’s progressive pundits.
“I’d like to get on Maddow,” Lonegan said as he was introduced to a producer who previously worked on Rachel Maddow’s show. “I actually watch her a lot. She called me crazy.”
After being led to a green room where he waited to go on air, Lonegan turned to his press aide and noted they were behind enemy lines.
“I’m not exactly walking into friendly territory here on this panel,” Lonegan said matter-of-factly. “There are people from Salon and the Huffington Post.”
When he got in front of the cameras, Lonegan spent over 15 minutes being grilled by the panelists about his thoughts on partisan gridlock and several hot-button issues that could come before the Senate sometime soon. One of the final questions came from Salon’s Blake Zeff, who asked Lonegan about his “policy prescription” for a “single mother in New Jersey.” Lonegan responded by referencing his own mother who, when he was 16 years old, had to go it alone after his father died.
“You go to work, you roll up your sleeves, and you do the best you can,” Lonegan said, his voice beginning to raise. “To tell you the truth, I’m tired of single mothers being used as the poster child for the welfare state.”
It was vintage Steve Lonegan. Over the years, the self-made businessman has built a reputation for an unapologetic, uncompromising, uniquely Jersey brand of tea party conservatism. First, starting in 1995 as the three-term mayor of the small town of Bogota, N.J., then during unsuccessful gubernatorial and congressional bids, and more recently, working with the Koch brothers’ Americans For Prosperity.
After he left MSNBC, an aide drove Lonegan back to New Jersey. Lonegan sat in the front seat, going over his television appearance with someone on the phone.
“The guy hit that funny bone of mine with his single mom shit. I hate that shit. I’ve said it over and over again,” said Lonegan, his Garden State roots evident in a slight squawk that crept around the edges of his vowels.
Lonegan is not one to shy away from taking potentially unpopular positions. He first received national attention in 2006 when, as mayor of Bogota, he criticized a Spanish-language billboard advertising iced coffee and subsequently pushed to make English the town’s official language. Talking with TPM as he made the trip back into Jersey, Lonegan dismissed the controversy over the billboard as something that would not even raise an eyebrow today.
“Remember when the illegal immigration issue was hitting its peak? … It was really a big issue. There were the huge crowds in Los Angeles of angry looking Mexican guys shaking their fists,” Lonegan said. “I think that if the billboard went up today, nobody would say a word.”
In his current campaign, Lonegan is facing an uphill battle. His Democratic opponent in the Oct. 16 special election to fill the seat left behind by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) is Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker, a man who is currently enjoying a 16-point lead in the polls and has nationwide name recognition thanks to his strong Twitter presence, high-powered allies including Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, and President Obama, and an almost mythological reputation for single-handedly saving constituents from fires, blizzards, and hurricanes.
Lonegan, who said he and his rival don’t “agree on much of anything,” is decidedly unimpressed with the Booker brand. He describes it as “Hollywood made.”
“Here’s the thing that irks me about Booker; kid grows up in a rich household, parents are IBM executives, not workers — executives. He’s up in Harrington Park. It’s a wealthy community right? He’s basically got a great life right?” Lonegan explained. “Goes off to Northern Valley Regional (High School), terrific school, goes off to Stanford (University), and then he moves down to Newark, moves into some low-income housing project … says, ‘Look at me, I came up over here.’ And he gets away with it.”
Lonegan’s most recent wave of national headlines came this week from another comment he made about Booker. In an interview with Newsmax, Lonegan said it was “kind of weird” that Booker is unconcerned with speculation about his sexuality.
“As a guy, I personally like being a guy. … I don’t know if you saw the stories last year. They’ve been out for quite a bit about how he likes to go out at 3 o’clock in the morning for a manicure and a pedicure,” said Lonegan. “Maybe that helps to get him the gay vote by acting ambiguous. … I don’t like going out in the middle of the night, or any time of the day, for a manicure and pedicure. It was described as his peculiar fetish is how it was described. I have a more peculiar fetish. I like a good Scotch and a cigar. That’s my fetish but we’ll just compare the two.”
On Saturday, when TPM talked with Lonegan, he described himself as mystified by Booker’s personal and family life.
“It’s mysterious. That’s all I can say. It’s mysterious,” Lonegan said.
Booker did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Unlike Booker, Lonegan sees his personal brand as genuine.
“I created my own image over time. … I had like nobody to coach me you know,” said Lonegan. “I have no filter, that’s what my wife says.”
To battle Booker’s star power, Lonegan plans to focus on the ground game. He describes himself as a “retail politician” whose first victory in Bogota was an upset fueled by “door-to-door” campaigning. Lonegan built strong connections to New Jersey’s tea party troops during his seven year tenure as the state director for Americans For Prosperity, the influential conservative group founded by the billionaires Charles and David Koch.
After leaving MSNBC, Lonegan headed to a pair of events to mobilize what he hopes will be an army of “thousands” of volunteers. First up was the Peterpank Diner, a classic greasy spoon in South Amboy where Lonegan rallied his “troops.” In front of an enthusiastic group of about 30 mostly white-haired campaign volunteers, Lonegan cast himself as a conquering hero returning from the cable news wars.
“I just am coming back from MSNBC this morning where I was on television with a group of liberal reporters. … They seemed to be shocked when I said I was not going to compromise on my principles, on our principles,” Lonegan bellowed. “You don’t compromise on issues of principle and on issues of the things you believe in. If you compromise, that means you believe in nothing. That means compromise is the abdication of your principles. Consensus is the violation of your beliefs and it’s about time in this country that we stood up on our principles like the founding fathers did!”
These conservative principles are the ace Lonegan believes he has up his sleeve as he faces off against Booker. That strategy is certainly a longshot, but Lonegan’s conservative bonafides are unquestionable. He described himself to TPM as “pretty libertarian on most issues.”
“I’m a Patrick Henry guy. I believe government is a necessary evil,” Lonegan said.
In terms of his distaste for foreign military intervention and the Federal Reserve, Lonegan is reminiscent of the two stars of the GOP’s libertarian wing, former Rep. Ron Paul and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). In fact, Lonegan said the younger Paul, who is widely expected to enter the 2016 presidential race, will be speaking at a fundraiser for him on Sept. 13 in New York City.
While Lonegan clearly has some things in common with the Pauls, his views on social issues, including gay marriage and abortion, don’t fit the traditional libertarian profile. Ideally, Lonegan said, the government would not “be in the business of marriage” at all. However, as things are, he said he supports the right of gay people “to be together, and share their property, and their lives,” but as a Catholic, Lonegan does not think they should be able to get married.
“The institution of marriage, as a Catholic, is a sacrament. It’s a religious issue for me and I don’t think it’s necessary to take the institution of marriage as we recognize it in the Catholic church and twist it into something else to suit a political agenda. People can have the same benefits, rights, relationships without, you know, deciding to, you know, force me as a Catholic to corrupt the doctrine of marriage as I know it,” Lonegan argued.
However, Lonegan said his opposition to abortion is informed by science rather than religion.
“Until somebody can prove to me scientifically otherwise, I believe [life] begins at conception,” Lonegan said.
Because of this, Lonegan is also opposed to the so-called “morning after pill,” which he described as “proven to be physically dangerous to people taking it.”
“I find it creepy actually, because the process of the ‘morning after pill’ is not as easy as you think,” said Lonegan. “It’s kind of gruesome actually.”
Armed with these conservative convictions, Lonegan hopes to dominate Booker in the Garden State’s suburban and rural areas. After stopping at the diner, Lonegan and his team drove out to the annual picnic of a Republican organization in Berkeley Township, or as his senior staffer Rick Shaftan described it, the heart of suburban “Lonegan country.” As flags snapped in the breeze and burgers sizzled on the grill, Lonegan stood before the crowd and put his race against Booker into stark terms.
“What you are going to see in the next seven weeks, because that’s how much time we have, is the clearest line in the sand election between a Republican and Democrat, between a conservative and liberal, between the big government, inner city, corrupt Democrat (sic) machine versus suburban taxpayers, this state has ever seen,” said Lonegan.
As he travels around the state attempting to build himself a conservative base, Lonegan has a team composed of largely young staffers, five of whom are living in the attic and basement of the home Lonegan shares with his wife in Bogota.
“It’s like we have a frat house … kind of fun actually,” Lonegan told TPM. “We’re liking it, although I got to be careful I don’t go to the bathroom in my underwear.”
Those staffers have become adept at helping Lonegan navigate what otherwise might be another obstacle to his campaign — he is legally blind. Lonegan doesn’t walk with a cane. Instead, his aides sometimes give him a slight nudge in the right direction. In the car, he knows the highways and byways of New Jersey well enough that, without seeing the road, he gives directions to his staffers, most of whom were imported from out of state.
The whole operation works so seamlessly that you could spend hours with Lonegan and never notice his blindness, which is exactly how he likes it. Lonegan isn’t interested in calling attention to his condition, even though it could provide a compelling narrative for his campaign. When the topic comes up, he turns the conversation back to his core message — small government.
“It’s what I’ve dealt with in my life so, you know, people talk about welfare and assistance I’m like, ‘Shut up, I’ve been down that road before,” said Lonegan. “I was a social security disability recipient for five years, six years before I had to start my own business to get off of disability. And I came very, very close, a hair close, to becoming a permanent, lifetime part of the welfare state. … I don’t make an issue of it because I don’t want to. I mean if I have to talk about it, I will, but I only talk about it from my perspective as having been a part of the welfare state.”
If everything goes right for Lonegan on Oct. 16, he’ll be headed to Washington to take that welfare state down from the inside.
Photo by AP, composite by TPM’s Nick Martin