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Star-Ledger - "He Gets Respect from Both Sides of the Aisle"

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Star-Ledger - "He Gets Respect from Both Sides of the Aisle"

If, on first meeting, Leonard Lance seems hopelessly formal and patrician, stick around long enough to meet his best friend, Fritz.

The 104-pound yellow lab, with a head the size of a cinder block and a proclivity for mischief, brings out a side of the Republican state legislator that one suspects very few ever see.

Fritz skids into the formal living room of Lance's pristine 1780 farmhouse, a shoe clenched in his jowls, and Senator Prim and Proper turns downright mushy.

"Fritzy, what have you got there?" Lance cries, suddenly seeming lighthearted. The discussion turns from Lance's favorite subject ("I have a wrenching feeling in my stomach that unless we get our fiscal house in order we will lose our pre-eminence in the world") to Lance's other favorite subject (The dog.)

"How do I feel about him?" Lance asks, as Fritz's mighty tail swats his gray wool trousers. "Oh ... well ... I love the dog and ... uh ... uh ... my twin brother, Jim, and I did not have a dog as children. This is really my first dog and he is my dog. He's my dog and I love him. And to the extent that a dog loves a human, I think Fritz loves me."

"I think that's right, honey," says Lance's wife of 12 years, a delicate woman with impeccable manners named Heidi Rohrbach. The two met at Vanderbilt University, where both were pursuing law degrees. Two decades later, they reconnected at an alumni event and were married in August 1996.

"And I'm amused by his antics," Lance says, recovering from his momentary lapse in decorum. (Fritz has been known to climb into the trucks of contractors who are working on the property and swiping their tools.)

"Now, where were we?" he asks, sipping the coffee his wife has just delivered to his side. "Oh, yes, the federal debt. Do you know there is a clock with our federal debt and there's only enough space on the clock to reach 9 trillion? When it reaches 10 trillion they have to reconfigure the clock."

Lance says if voters send him to Washington in November, his first act of business will be proposing ways to turn the debt clock back.

First, though, the 55-year-old state senator must secure his party's endorsement to run for the U.S. congressional seat being vacated by four-term GOP incumbent Mike Ferguson.

Ferguson represents the 7th Congressional District, which covers sections of Hunterdon, Somerset, Middlesex and Union counties. Lance and eight other Republican candidates want his job, including Kate Whitman, the former governor's daughter.

The winner of the June primary will likely face Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Stender -- who came close to beating Ferguson in 2006 -- in the November general election.

Lance is the most experienced of the bunch. Political movers and shakers in his home county of Hunterdon have lined up solidly behind him, and he has picked up the endorsements of big political names from neighboring counties.

State Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman, of Somerset County, counts himself among Lance's supporters. "I think he is by far the best candidate to go to Washington because of his experience in Trenton," Bateman said. "He knows the issues. He's honest. He's hardworking. He's what we need there. A no-nonsense official who's in it for all the right reasons."

Former Gov. Tom Kean, perhaps the most respected Republican in the state, believes Lance's reputation for honesty and integrity, coupled with his extensive legislative experience, will make him tough to beat in both the primary and general elections.

Kean and Lance go way back. From 1983 to 1990, Lance worked as assistant counsel for county and municipal matters in the Kean administration.

"He's terrific," Kean said. "He's obviously qualified for the position. Even as a young lawyer he was bright, very hardworking, with unquestioned integrity. You could always rely on Leonard to do the right thing."

'NO ENEMIES'
Lance was elected to the state Senate in 2001 and re-elected two years later. From January 2004 until two months ago, he was minority leader. Before entering the Senate, he was in the General Assembly for 10 years.

He's been called strait-laced, prudish, your classic nerd, a bit of a prig -- the kind of a guy who fantasizes in the shower about paying off state debt.

But, at his core, Lance is, simply put, a gentleman and an intellectual who votes his conscience and, by doing so, has earned the respect of legislative peers on both sides of the political aisle.

Senate President Richard Codey, a Democrat and the former acting governor, is an admirer.

"Leonard never has a hidden agenda," Codey said. "It's never about trying to move his own career ahead. He just does the right thing. He's an absolute gentleman, and I wish we could all be more like him. We'd be better off as a state and as a society.

Said Kean: "He's got no enemies, to the best of my knowledge. People like him and, more than that, I know of nobody in either party who doesn't respect Leonard Lance."

The hallmark of Lance's political career has been his unadulterated commitment to what he sees as sound fiscal policy. That commitment has not always served him well personally, however.

A leading opponent of government borrowing without voter approval, Lance -- who is nothing if not fiscally conservative -- found himself at odds with his own party in 1998 when he spoke out against Gov. Christie Whitman's plan to shore up the state's pension plan by borrowing millions of dollars. His disloyalty cost him the chairmanship of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Three years ago, he was so disturbed by plans to balance the budget by selling $2 billion in bonds, that he filed suit, Lance v. McGreevey, alleging the scheme was unconstitutional. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed, but essentially said: Go ahead this time, but don't ever do it again.

Lance is co-sponsor of pending legislation that would require voter approval for all state borrowing.

"My record provides a significant analysis as to how I would vote in Washington," he said.

Lance is pro-choice, although he opposes partial-birth abortion. He does not believe the United States can withdraw "precipitously" from Iraq, he says, but he would "demand greater political accountability by the civilian leadership." He is a fierce proponent of open space.

He calls himself "an Eisenhower Republican -- even though I was a toddler when he was president -- because he was the last president who had a real interest in trying to balance the federal budget."

Lances's fixation with budgets begins at home.

He likes to espouse what he calls his middle-class roots, although his family is considered a political dynasty in Hunterdon County. His father, the late Wesley L. Lance, spent 16 years in the state Legislature and served as Senate president. His great-uncle was Assemblyman H. Kiefer Lance.

Lance grew up on Main Street in the working-class hamlet of Glen Gardner in Hunterdon County. He and his twin, James, a Clinton Township attorney, attended public school there.

Lance excelled at his studies. He was Phi Beta Kappa at Lehigh University and earned a master's degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, and a law degree from Vanderbilt.

"The values of my parents were education and responsibility," he says. "I learned as much at Glen Gardner School as any other aspect of my education."

Those early days in Glen Gardner grounded him, Lance says. "We lived then and now within the confines of a budget. We live within our means."

Lance's restored farmhouse on a winding country road in Lebanon Township is 2,700 square feet and "modest by legislators' standards," he says. He drives a stick shift -- a four-cylinder Honda Accord with 110,000 miles on the odometer.

If that all seems predictable for a straight-laced conservative, what may catch people off-guard is Lance's offbeat sense of humor.

"He's a dear man with a great sense of humility, and he's very witty," Rohrbach said.

That humorous side reveals itself when Lance gives a visitor directions to his home.

"We'll be waiting for you," he says.

"The good-looking one is the dog."


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