Why Steve Lonegan is bashing Cory Booker on school vouchers

 Republican U.S. Senate candidate Steve Lonegan appears in this campaign video blasting Cory Booker. (Image from Lonegan video campaign ad)

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Steve Lonegan appears in this campaign video blasting Cory Booker. (Image from Lonegan video campaign ad)

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Steve Lonegan, N.J. Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, is suddenly preoccupied with school vouchers. On Saturday in Camden he attacked his likely Democratic opponent, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, for failing “the children, the parents, and the taxpayers of Newark in never providing school choice and never solving the deep problems confronting Newark.”

And Lonegan’s website sharpens the needle: “It is time for Cory Booker to man up and say once and for all whether he will support school vouchers if he is elected to the U.S. Senate or will he join President Obama in shutting down school voucher programs…Cory had seven years to give low-income students in Newark a chance at receiving a quality education. Instead, he has offered platitudes and vague statements.”

How did New Jersey’s election for the late Frank Lautenberg’s seat morph into a referendum on the use of corporate tax credits to fund vouchers to private and parochial schools?

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Lonegan gave the answer away in Camden: in order to have any shot in on Oct. 16 (he’s a lock against anemic Alieta Eck in the GOP primary on Aug. 13), he plans to depict Booker as an empty if well-tailored suit more interested in appearing with Oprah than sticking to his guns on a controversial version of school choice.

After all, Booker has a long history of supporting vouchers, which traditionally play poorly with a Democratic base long troubled by the conflation of public and private education and the taint of corporate funding. Lately, however, Booker’s been more circumspect, answering questions about vouchers with dainty nods to the importance of school choice.

Thus, Lonegan’s new voucher emphasis cleverly reminds N.J. Democrats of Booker’s (unpopular) stance while calling his opponent a wimp, which may depress voter turnout.

Concurrently, undermining Booker’s allegiance to school vouchers shores up Lonegan’s archly-conservative base, which favors vouchers. It’s a win-win.

Vouchers aside, some pundits see Lonegan’s hope of victory in October as a pipedream; Real Clear Politics shows Booker easily besting Lonegan 52% – 33%.

However, those long odds aren’t stopping other national and local pundits from holding out hope of an October surprise. Peter Roff in U.S. News and World Report hails Lonegan as “the GOP’s best chance to win a Senate race since Jeff Bell ousted incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Clifford Case in the 1978 primary.” The Daily Caller calls Lonegan “the Conservative who might win New Jersey’s Senate seat.”

And Paul Mulshine, conservative N.J. commentator for Gannett, argues that “turnout will be so low on Oct. 16 that a fired-up base might cause problems for likely Democratic nominee Cory Booker. If Lonegan can fire up the Republican base, then Booker might be in trouble, especially if Lonegan can caricature him as an Obama clone, which is his stated goal.”

Now, there are clear problems with Lonegan’s use of vouchers to depict Booker as “an Obama clone” and to “fire up” his base. Mayors don’t have the authority to mandate voucher systems, so the lack of school vouchers in Newark is no reflection on Booker’s commitment or effectiveness. In addition, Lonegan speciously creates a scenario where the U.S. Senate would actually address vouchers: he says, “I call on Cory Booker to say once and for all whether he will support school vouchers in the U.S. Senate or whether he will allow President Obama to deny children the hope of a better future. New Jersey children and parents deserve an answer.”

But the U.S. Senate is as likely to pass national voucher legislation as they are likely to, well, do anything. (Anyway, Lonegan’s Tea Party conservatism rigidly restricts him to upholding states’ rights and opposing top-down mandates.)Finally, it’s not clear to me why Lonegan wants to draw attention to his education agenda. In 2001, as mayor of the tiny N.J. town of Bogota, he tried to close down Bogota High School because of poor performance. Lonegan wants to overturn the Supreme Court’s Abbott school funding decisions and implement a flat school tax, an ambition at odds with the state constitution. He’s against the Common Core State Standards, which are generally popular with New Jerseyans.

At heart, this is not about education. Lonegan’s attack on Booker’s commitment to vouchers is really an attack on his integrity. Will that lower Democratic turnout in October and enliven Lonegan’s base? Lonegan appears drawn to those long odds.


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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