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Lonegan known as tightly focused

"I'm a results-driven individual. I want to set forth what the goal will be and reach that boal," the GOP candidate says.

Last of two candidate profiles.

At a council meeting in Bogota, Steve Lonegan stood up to ask the mayor a question: What can the borough do about the noisy, low-flying planes over town?

"They were so close, you could see the pilots in the windows," Lonegan said recently. "The mayor said, 'There's nothing you can do. If you want to do something, run for mayor.' "

Lonegan, who owned a cabinetmaking business, went home that night in 1994, thought about the mayor's suggestion, and decided to take him up on it.

"I'm not the kind of guy you challenge like that," he said.

Lonegan worked to reenergize the Bergen County borough's weak Republican Party and managed the campaigns of two Borough Council candidates. He then successfully ran for mayor in 1995 in the heavily Democratic town, was reelected twice, and won his fight to reduce aircraft noise by changing flight patterns at nearby Teterboro Airport.

In or out of office, the 53-year-old Republican - now running in Tuesday's gubernatorial primary - speaks his mind and ruffles feathers, even those of leaders in his own party. Friends and foes describe him as fiercely competitive, mercurial, driven, energetic, brusque, acerbic, and confident.

"What's unique about Steve Lonegan is how specific he is," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University and an adjunct political-science professor at Rider. "Most of the time, if you're not the incumbent you stay vague. You don't promise anything too specific.

"You talk about what you want to do, not how you're going to do it," Dworkin added. "The conventional wisdom says if you get too specific you upset a lot of people, but 2009 may be a different year because people are looking for someone to be specific."

Lonegan, a staunch conservative, said he would impose a flat tax of 2.9 percent on state residents - a rate, he said, that would eventually fall.

He would abolish property-tax rebates and equalize state aid to schools, resulting, he said, in declining property taxes. He also would cut business taxes, slash the state budget by 20 percent, and lay off thousands of workers, who he said would land jobs in the private sector.

"I'm a results-driven individual," he said. "I want to set forth what the goal will be and reach that goal."

Lonegan has been setting goals, even in the face of severe challenges, since he grew up in Ridgefield Park, Bergen County. When 14, he learned he has retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that slowly causes blindness. When Lonegan was 16, his father, Arthur, died of an aortic aneurysm, and the family moved in with his mother's parents.

But the personal setbacks, far from discouraging Lonegan, seemed to instill in him a sense of self-reliance.

He said they helped mold his character, along with "my upbringing by Italian grandparents, who were immigrants off the boat. I was raised in an environment where hard work and commitment were part of everything."

In high school, Lonegan became a football player and record-setting hurdler. He went on to earn his bachelor of science degree in business administration from William Paterson College and a master of business administration degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

After school, he started and sold his cabinetmaking business. He also was a homebuilder.

"When I became mayor, I had never served in government before," he said. "I brought my business savvy into government, and it sometimes got me into controversial positions, raising the ire of union bosses and employee groups."

Among those coming into office with Lonegan was Nick Zampetti, who served on the council for nine years. A Lonegan neighbor, he described the mayor as driven and passionate about public service.

"Steve is the only one with the moxie, backbone, and fortitude to fight the uphill battle in this primary and against the obstacles he would face as governor," said Zampetti, who has two Lonegan campaign signs on his lawn and "Dump Corzine" bumper stickers on his car.

In Bogota, Lonegan cut spending, merged departments, privatized some services, and reduced the budget, adjusted for inflation. He took on the aircraft noise and once ordered officers to ticket a CSX train that idled for hours in the borough.

"I got a call in 1998 from a constituent complaining about the train," Lonegan said. "It was huffing and puffing all night. We gave the train a $75 ticket for disturbing the peace and were told, 'You can't do that. We're protected by federal law.'

"I was ridiculed until it was time for the ticket to be paid," he said. "But I said, 'You're not exempt under our law.' CSX showed up with six attorneys. We met with them, and they signed an agreement that they'd idle their trains further up or down the line."

That year, Lonegan ran unsuccessfully for New Jersey's Ninth Congressional District seat against freshman Rep. Steve Rothman. "I met lots of people, and it was a great experience that prepared me for where I am now - but 1998 was a bad year for Republicans," he said.

In his first statewide run, for the Republican nomination for governor in 2005, he finished fourth behind businessman Doug Forrester, former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, and Morris County Freeholder John Murphy.

"Historically, lots of people who eventually become governor have lost once before and then win, the idea being that you put your hat in the ring and create a statewide network," said Dworkin, the political analyst. "That's tough for a lot of people to do. A second run makes a lot of sense."

The 2005 race for governor "really crystalized for me how the Republican Party leadership has no vision, no clear handle on what needs to be done," Lonegan said. "They don't understand what it's like running a business, being up at night with your stomach in knots, trying to figure out how to meet payroll. . . . I will lay out my agenda and seek a mandate for change."

Lonegan's wife, Lorraine, a parochial-school teacher, said the voters will "know where he stands. He will make decisions on behalf of the whole, not for the special interests."

The Lonegans have two daughters, 21-year-old Brooke and 24-year-old Katharine.

Lonegan "knows what he wants to do when in charge of government and implemented those things as mayor," Dworkin said. "As governor, he will do the same thing. He knows what he thinks government should and shouldn't do."

Lonegan's strong views have sometimes led to controversy. In 2006, he demanded the removal of a Spanish-language billboard and sought a public referendum in Bogota to make English the official language. The county clerk's office rejected the question.

The next year, Lonegan hired two undocumented workers to put together political signs. When the two were arrested by police, he said the men had told him they had legal documentation.

He also was blasted by critics who said that, as mayor, he artificially kept taxes lower by postponing expenses, such as paving roads and finalizing a new police contract.

Lonegan has never been distracted long from his main focus: taxes and government spending.

He drew statewide attention when he and the "Stop the Debt" campaign sued the state for failing to obtain voter approval before taking on more debt. In 2003, the state Supreme Court ruled, 4-3, that the state could create quasi-public agencies to issue debt without a referendum.

Lonegan's efforts were more successful against the proposed 15-cents-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax in 2003. He developed a Web site and gathered tens of thousands of signatures that helped sink the proposal.

In 2007, Lonegan helped defeat two statewide ballot measures, one for $450 million for stem-cell research and another to dedicate sale-tax revenue to property-tax relief. And last year, he sued Gov. Corzine and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority in Superior Court to challenge the sale of $3.9 billion in state debt without voter approval. The action was dismissed.

Though not always successful, Lonegan said, he has shown his "effectiveness and produced measurable, not vague, results" on a variety of issues.

Taxes and spending "were definitely the thrust of my efforts as mayor for many years and definitely the main thrust of this campaign, the number-one issues," he said.

Lonegan served as state director of Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit public-policy organization, from 2007 until this year. He held dozens of seminars across the state, advocating free markets and limited government.

Now, running in a GOP primary that includes former U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, Lonegan said he was crisscrossing the state again, "spending a lot of time in the car and seeing a lot of the New Jersey Turnpike."

"People are demoralized and giving up. They think this is a hopeless environment, and they're leaving New Jersey," Lonegan said.

"Back in the 1950s and '60s, they told others to move to New Jersey. This was the state to come to. We cannot continue on the path we're on without undermining the economy for years to come. I think I can make a difference."

Steve Lonegan

Personal: Age 53. Lives in Bogota with his wife and two daughters.

Career: Former New Jersey director of Americans for Prosperity. Bogota mayor from 1995 to 2007. Also worked as a custom home builder and as finance vice chair for the National Federation of Independent Business.

Education: Bachelor's degree from William Paterson College, 1981; master of business administration degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1982.

Of interest: Unsuccessfully sought the 2005 Republican gubernatorial nomination. Author of Putting Taxpayers First: A Blueprint for Victory in the Garden State.

SOURCE: Associated Press