Key N.J. GOP leader shuns divisiveness

Some in the party urge playing to the right. The Senate's Leonard Lance is rooted in decorum.

Posted: July 02, 2007

TRENTON - Leonard Lance's first conscious memory is of the New Jersey Senate chamber, a balconied room as rich in state history as it is in his own family's story.

He was there - at 3½ - with his father, former state Sen. Wesley Lance, his mother, Anne, and his twin brother, James, at an annual reorganization meeting.

He stands there today, more than 50 years later, as his father did and as his great uncle H. Kiefer Lance did, representing Hunterdon County, where the family has lived for three centuries.

But these times are different.

While his father served in the majority party, Lance is the Senate minority leader. He presides over a GOP Senate caucus caught in a swirl of strong currents as a dominant Democratic Party pushes into new areas and a weak Republican Party looks for a comeback.

With the 120-member Legislature wrapping up the state budget last month, the political season is under way. And with every legislative seat up for grabs, Lance becomes one of the state's most important political figures as Republicans try to gain a share of power in Trenton.

"We are at a money disadvantage almost exclusively due to the fact that we are the party out of power. . . . Having said that, I think the issues are on our side. The principal issues in this state are fiscal responsibility and ethical integrity," he said.

As the Democrats' power has grown, so have the conservative voices in Lance's own party, which argue that the GOP must run hard to the right to give voters an alternative. That's a tough fit for Lance, who is a fiscal conservative but a moderate on social issues and a favorite of environmentalists.

With his leadership post comes the burden of winning a majority or at least keeping the 18 seats Republicans hold in the 40-member Senate. Democrats control the governor's mansion and the Assembly by a 50-to-30 margin. A shift of only three Senate seats could turn the minority leader into the Senate president.

Lance's critics say he is too gracious and polite to beat up the Democrats.

They point to state Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr. as a likely replacement because Kean harangued his way through last year's U.S. Senate race against Democratic winner Robert Menendez. Kean declined to comment on whether he wants to unseat Lance. Instead, he said Lance is "one of the most principled individuals in Trenton."

Lance's supporters, including former Republican state Sen. William Gormley, say his pointed, though respectful, criticism of the Democrats makes him a perfect foil.

"Given our resources, we're like rebels in a guerilla war. We have to use our wits," said Gormley, who supported Lance to be minority leader in 2004. "You can't preclude a Leonard Lance because he's a part of the puzzle. He's a resource. No one questions his decency or integrity."

Lance emits a natural dignity. Dressed in modern, fitted business suits, with a shock of wavy silver hair, he could just as easily be wearing a Colonial long coat, breeches, and a powdered wig. His sensibilities harken to a more civil, collegial era.

When he stood to address the Rutgers University women's basketball team gathered in the Senate chamber recently to accept an honorary resolution, he spoke in soft tones to the women who had withstood an unwanted hail of publicity after radio jock Don Imus derided them.

Lance said they embodied the definition of "courage as grace under pressure," and thanked them for their "achievements in defending the human condition. We are in your debt as are the nine million residents of New Jersey."

As one of those nine million, Lance grew up in Glen Gardner, which in his youth was a town of 800.

"My brother and I could go trick or treating and know almost every house," Lance's twin, James, recalled. Since then, the town's population has doubled. Hunterdon County, which Lance represents along with Warren County, is among the wealthiest in the state.

Lance has been a proponent of open-space preservation, in part to keep Hunterdon's rural-suburban landscape intact.

He lives in a Lebanon Township farmhouse built in 1780 with his wife, Heidi Rohrbach, an attorney who worked for J.P. Morgan for 25 years. His stepson, Peter, is a student at the University of Wisconsin.

"My wife is the best part of my life," he said, smiling. They met at Vanderbilt University law school. She married someone else, divorced, and then she and Lance found each other again, marrying in 1996.

They have a 100-pound yellow labrador retriever, Fritz, who was the inspiration for Lance's bill to allow courts to issue protective orders against people found guilty of abusing animals.

She is a birder; he, an American history buff.

Before seeking elected office, Lance, 55, was an assistant counsel for Gov. Thomas H. Kean.

His boss, Michael Cole, said Lance was the point person on local government legislation and worked diligently through the thorny politics of both parties and both legislative houses to pass aid packages for distressed cities such as Camden and Newark.

"Those were not easy times," Cole recalled. He said Lance's demeanor fit the mold set by Kean. Although "young and vigorous," Lance never "forgot that everyone's supposed to be a gentle person. Gov. Kean wouldn't have wanted it any other way. He didn't want his people acting like thugs."

That experience was an early step toward Lance's legislative career, which has been marked by an intense interest in clean government, finances, and a scholar's understanding of the rules of governance, a legacy from his father, who had helped craft the state constitution.

When Lance talks about the twin issues of clean government and low taxes he will hit in the election, his supporters say he speaks from solid ground.

He has worked hard on both.

Soon after being appointed to the Assembly in 1991, he quit his family's law practice because "I was personally uncomfortable with it," he said.

When former Gov. James E. McGreevey resigned under a swirl of criminal investigations into some of his closest associates, his successor, Democratic Senate President Richard Codey, chose Lance to swear him in to signal to voters that he would rehabilitate the image of the governor's office.

Codey recalled his thinking back in 2004. "We had the McGreevey scandal. I wanted to show I was going to be bipartisan, open to everyone, and he has such a great reputation for integrity that I thought he was a perfect choice."


Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.

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