The deadline for candidates to file for the special election to fill the Senate seat formerly occupied by the late Frank Lautenberg passed at 4 p.m. Monday. As the deadline approached, Steve Lonegan remained the only well-known Republican who has declared his intention to enter the race. Lonegan is a former mayor with a colorful history who, most recently, has been leading a local activist group funded by the Koch Brothers.Gov. Chris Christie appointed his longtime friend Jeffrey Chiesa to serve as an interim replacement for Lautenberg last Thursday. Chiesa described himself as a Republican, but said he is not interested in running for the seat on a permanent basis. Several Democrats are vying for the seat including; Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Rep. Rush Holt, and Rep. Frank Pallone. A new Quinnipiac poll of the race released Monday showed Booker beating Lonegan by a margin of 54 percent to 27 percent among likely voters. Lonegan fared better against his other potential opponents. The poll showed him ten points behind Pallone and just five points behind Holt. It also showed 62 percent of New Jersey voters don’t know enough about him to have formed an impression.
As a teenager, Lonegan was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable disease that gradually damages parts of the retina. As a result, Lonegan is now legally blind.
Prior to entering politics, Lonegan, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment from TPM, played college football and worked for a store that sold discount kitchen cabinets. He later became the store’s manager and eventually opened his own cabinetry business, which he later sold. Lonegan also dabbled in commercial real estate and custom home-building.
He made a name for himself in the political realm as the mayor of the small town of Bogota, N.J., a position he held for three terms from 1995 until 2007. His final re-election bid in 2003 was filmed as part of a documentary about the race entitled “Anytown, USA.” That last campaign included a major controversy over Lonegan’s plan to close the local public high school. One of Lonegan’s strategies involved printing his own newspaper in the town and using it to aggressively attack his rivals.
In 2006, Lonegan received national attention when he called for a boycott after a local McDonald’s put up a billboard with a Spanish-language advertisement for iced coffee. Lonegan described the billboard as “divisive” and argued it sent the message that immigrants should not learn English.
“English is the language that binds us as a community and as a country,” Lonegan said. “This billboard says, ‘You Hispanics can’t learn English.’ … It’s really sending the wrong message.”
He subsequently attempted to hold a referendum making English the official language in Bogota. That bid was rejected after an attorney for the county clerk deemed it “outside of the scope of a local government question.” Lonegan also attempted to use the local police force to crack down on illegal immigrants.
Lonegan established term limits in Bogota that prevented him from running for a third term in 2007.
Lonegan’s campaigns outside of Bogota haven’t met with similar success. In 1998, ran for the House seat in what was then New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District. He was defeated by incumbent Rep. Steve Rothman, after getting about 34 percent of the vote. Seven years later, in 2005, Lonegan ran for the Republican nomination for governor. He came in fourth place. During that campaign, his younger brother joined the Democratic Party, which led them to stop speaking to each other for several years. Lonegan also ran for governor in 2009 and was defeated by Chris Christie in the Republican primary.
After finishing his three terms in Bogota, Lonegan became the New Jersey state director of Americans For Prosperity, an activist group dedicated to promoting “limited government and free markets on the local, state, and federal levels” that was founded by the billionaire Koch Brothers. In 2007, he made headlines when police discovered he hired two illegal immigrants to assemble Americans For Prosperity lawn signs in his garage. He defended himself by insisting the men told him they had proper documentation. In 2008, Lonegan and another activist were arrested for trespassing while protesting a toll hike outside of a courthouse in Cape May County. The charges were later dropped and the town apologized to Lonegan.
Last year, Lonegan spent the presidential election participating in Americans For Prosperity’s “Obama’s Failing Agenda” bus tour. At a Manhattan rally for the tour, he compared President Barack Obama to Fidel Castro.
“We’ve seen an agenda similar to this in the world. … It started in Cuba in 1953 under a man named Fidel Castro,” Lonegan said of Obama. “Now, Fidel Castro didn’t believe the wealthy paid their fair share. He wanted them to pay more. Fidel Castro said, you know, you guys didn’t do that yourselves, you need to share that with the rest of us. … And now the people in Cuba live under a pall of darkness, under a dumbed down economy and only wish they could live like Americans.”