Stateline Story

Ex-Jocks Lead Diverse Field of Candidates

  • March 14, 2006
  • By Eric Kelderman

Pennsylvania Republican Lynn Swann is the only gubernatorial candidate with four Super Bowl Rings and a place in the National Football League's Hall of Fame. Other hopefuls in this year's 36 races for governor range from former college footballers and two ex-ministers to a cowboy minstrel in Texas and a self-proclaimed vampire in Minnesota.

The diverse candidates are part of what could be a historic election for governors. Swann is one of five men hoping to become only the second black governor elected since Reconstruction. A record number of women could be serving as governor after November, with five of the nation's eight incumbent females up for re-election and women running in nine other states.

U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb. ), another football legend as former coach of the University of Nebraska , continues a record-breaking trend of congressional members running for governor. And former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld , a Republican, is pressing a long-shot bid to become only the second man elected governor of two states.

With each election, women and African-Americans slowly are increasing their ranks in elected offices - a trend that is likely to continue and extend to other minority groups, said Jeffrey Stonecash, a political scientist at Syracuse University. Celebrity candidates such as Swann may be attracted to the governorship for the sheer challenge, he added.

Like Swann, some gubernatorial candidates such as Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver (D) played college football, as did several sitting governors, including Maryland's Robert Ehrlich (R), a team captain at Princeton. But it is celebrity status, not an athletic career, that attracts voters to Swann and politicians such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Ronald Reagan, both actors, said Frank DeFord, senior contributor for Sports Illustrated.

"I don't think anyone's voted for Robert Ehrlich because he'd been a football player," DeFord told . However, people might vote against a superstar like Swann because they only perceive him as an athlete, he said.

Early polls showed Swann running even with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), though the wide-receiver-turned-ABC-TV-sports-commentator took some early hits after revelations that he has voted in fewer than half of the state's elections since 1984. Their rivalry is heightened by the fact that Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor, is a regular guest on a cable television show dedicated to the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, while Swann was a star player for the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

More significantly, Swann is in the forefront of candidates seeking to become the nation's second black elected governor after Virginia's Douglas L. Wilder (D), who served from 1990 to 1994. Louisiana Gov. Pinckney Pinchback (R) , the nation's first black governor, succeeded an impeached governor in 1872.

Also seeking to break barriers is Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell (R) , who is locked in a bitter primary battle for his party's nomination with Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro . Both have tried to link the other to Republican Gov. Bob Taft's administration, which has been tainted by the scandal of improper investments into a rare-coin fund run by a political insider and the governor's guilty plea to a misdemeanor for failing to report golf outings and other gifts. The other three African-American gubernatorial candidates are: Massachusetts Democrat Deval Patrick , a former assistant U.S. attorney for civil rights; New York Secretary of State Randy Daniels (R ), and former Oregon Treasurer Jim Hill (D).

Women could shatter a record in November if the number of female governors increases to 10 - two more than are currently in office. There have been 27 women governors in the nation's history, but the most women governors to serve concurrently was nine in 2004.

Four of the incumbents running this year are expected to be swept into second terms: Arizona's Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), Connecticut's Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R), Gov. Linda Lingle (R) of Hawaii and Kathleen Sebelius (D) of Kansas. Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) of Michigan has faced some criticism over her state's sluggish economy, but her wealthy Republican opponent, Dick DeVos , trails her in recent polls.

Several other women are early bets to at least win their party's primary elections. They include Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley (D) in Alabama, State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka (R) in Illinois, and Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (R ). Women are also competing for governor in Alaska, Georgia, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Texas.

Despite their successes, the number of female candidates this year is actually fewer than in the 2002 election cycle, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. While a number of male candidates, such as Swann, have little or no political experience, women candidates traditionally must have a long career of public service to be taken seriously, she said.

"Women have to show they're knowledgeable, tough and smart. It's a bit of a double standard," Walsh said.

Nebraska's Osborne hopes to join eight current governors who traded Capitol Hill for their state capitols — the most at one time since the start of the 20th century. Nine members of Congress are running for governor this year, including Osborne and lawmakers from Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio), considered a front-runner in his state's gubernatorial race, also is one of two former clergymen running for governor. He served two years as an associate pastor at a United Methodist church but spent most of his ministry working at an orphanage in Kentucky before becoming a psychologist and professor.

Strickland's pastoral past will prevent Republicans from using faith as a political weapon, predicted Democratic Party spokesman Brian Rothsberg. "You can't attack an ordained minister over his religion," he said.

In Vermont, Democratic candidate Scudder Parker said his 21 years as the pastor of three rural Congregational churches was a good way to prepare for his political career. In fact, Parker was both a minister and state senator to his flock for eight of those years.

"I certainly come out of a religious tradition that sees its mission as a search for justice and equality. I think that is the way I bring my spiritual tradition into the political sphere," Parker said.

Two former governors are mounting long-shot attempts to win another turn in the governor's mansion. Former Massachusetts Gov. Weld has returned to his home state of New York in a bid to replace out-going Gov. George Pataki (R) . Only the legendary Sam Houston served as governor of two states: He was elected governor of Tennessee in 1827 and led the state of Texas from 1859 to 1861. Former Alabama Gov . Don Siegelman (D ), who narrowly lost to Gov. Bob Riley (R) in 2002, also is running for his old job, but he is plagued by a federal corruption indictment.

Two independent candidates boast especially colorful histories. One is Kinky Friedman , whose independent campaign for Texas governor is run by Dean Barkley, who engineered former pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura's gubernatorial victory in Minnesota in 1998. Friedman gained a cult following in the 1970s as leader of the country-and-western band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, performing tunes such as "They Don't Make Jews like Jesus Anymore." He also has authored 23 books, mostly crime novels featuring a detective named — what else? — Kinky Friedman.

Some politicians have been referred to as blood suckers and worse. But Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Sharkey sets a new standard in that vein: He is a self-proclaimed vampire who advocates impaling terrorists and other criminals. "Honesty is very seldom heard nowadays, especially from a politician. So, I am going to break from political tradition," he states on his Web site. "I am a Satanic Dark Priest, Sanguinarian Vampyre and a Hecate Witch."