Former sports stars score in politics
With a blessing from basketball royalty and backing from hometown voters, Kevin Johnson swept into office as mayor of Sacramento, Calif., while more than a dozen other sports figures played politics by running in elections across the country.
Johnson, a former All-Star point guard for the Phoenix Suns, became the city’s first black mayor and during his victory speech echoed Barack Obama’s landmark presidential triumph.
“Sacramento also made history today in electing its first black mayor,” Johnson said Tuesday night. “Both Obama and myself, we ran on a promise and the theme of change. No more business as usual.”
Ex-quarterback Heath Shuler and former NFL coach Sam Wyche scored victories that had little to do with football, while heavyweight boxer Joe Mesi had a rough time in the political ring, losing a bid for a legislative seat in New York.
Craig Robinson wasn’t on any ballot, but the Oregon State basketball coach could soon be a frequent White House visitor.
Robinson watched election results in Chicago with his family, which includes his brother-in-law, the president-elect.
Johnson, a 42-year-old Democrat with conservative social views, defeated two-term incumbent Heather Fargo in a run-off election. He put some pizazz into his campaign with support from basketball icons Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley.
Johnson wants to raise the profile of his hometown and bemoans his city’s image beside that of Los Angeles and San Francisco. He pledged to end a “tired, bureaucratic, uninspired, unresponsive” City Hall.
Shuler, a Heisman Trophy runner-up at Tennessee who played quarterback for the Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints, won his first bid for re-election to Congress.
Shuler is a North Carolina Democrat whose district is in the state’s western mountains. He defeated Carl Mumpower, who had irritated local Republican officials by saying he would support efforts to impeach President Bush.
“I did what I said I would do and I think the people saw that,” Shuler said.
Wyche coached in the NFL with Cincinnati and Tampa Bay and made it to the Super Bowl with the Bengals after the 1988 season. He ran as a Republican and commandingly won a seat on the Pickens County Council in South Carolina, an area that includes Clemson University. A former quarterback at nearby Furman, Wyche is an assistant football coach at Pickens High School and a broadcaster.
Mesi had a 36-0 record as a fighter and once had to stop fighting for two years because of bleeding in his brain. The Democrat had the support of Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano in his attempt to win a state Senate seat but lost to Republican Michael Ranzenhofer.
Joining Shuler in re-election to the House was Rep. Baron Hill of Indiana, a former Furman basketball player. He defeated former Rep. Mike Sodrel, a Republican and trucking company owner. The two have faced off in four consecutive elections.
Norm Dicks, an ex-linebacker at the University of Washington, succeeded in his House re-election bid. Jason Chaffetz, a former BYU kicker who once had 10 extra points in a game, claimed a congressional seat in Utah after beating the incumbent in the Republican primary.
Sports was on the sidelines for the U.S. Senate races. The only senators with jock connections ” Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, a Hall of Fame pitcher, and Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, owner of the Milwaukee Bucks ” were not up for election.
Joey Browner, a former Pro Bowl safety with the Minnesota Vikings, lost as a write-in for the City Council in the Minneapolis suburb of Eagan.
In state legislative races, Peter Boulware, a former star linebacker at Florida State who went on to the Baltimore Ravens, was vying for a seat in Florida and trailing by 403 votes.
Boulware, a Republican, appeared headed for a recount.
Bob Heaton, who played with Larry Bird on the Indiana State team that went to the 1979 Final Four, lost a close race in Indiana.
Two ex-college football players were re-elected in the Oklahoma Legislature ” Todd Thomsen, a former punter and kicker for Oklahoma, and Tad Jones, a former backup quarterback at Tulsa.
Anton Gunn, once an offensive lineman at South Carolina, won a seat in the South Carolina Legislature.
Greg Hopkins, a former Arena Football League player with the Los Angeles Avengers, was beaten by Bill DeWeese, the Democratic caucus leader in the Pennsylvania House.
In Hawaii, Mufi Hannemann, a 6-foot-7 former Harvard basketball player, gained a second term as Honolulu mayor.
Robinson, in his first year as Oregon State’s coach, has refrained from turning his coaching job into a campaign office and he’s been adamant about not imposing his views on his players.
“I never lobby these guys, never,” he said leading to the election. “I just tell them how important it is to vote.”
Robinson is not the only one in his family with a basketball pedigree. Obama, who played two hours of basketball with friends and staff while awaiting the returns, was on the Hawaii state championship team his senior year in high school at Punahou School.
For now, Robinson takes over a team that went 6-25 last season, including 0-18 in the Pacific-10. He may, however, get to the nation’s capital before Obama. The Beavers open their regular season Nov. 14 against Howard in Washington, D.C.
Sports and family were not limited to the Obamas. Connie Mack, the great grandson of the legendary manager, won re-election as a Florida congressman. George Unseld, the brother of NBA great Wes Unseld, easily captured a spot on the Louisville (Ky.) Metro Council.
And Michael Victorino, the father of Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino, was unopposed in Hawaii for the Maui County Council.
In ballot measures tied to sports, Massachusetts voted to ban greyhound racing, and Maryland authorized slot-machine gambling, which could be key in bolstering thoroughbred racing in the state.