With his announcement on Monday that he will run for state Senate in New Jersey’s 8th legislative district, nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis joins a long line of former athletes who have jumped into Garden State politics.
Lewis, a Democrat, will face a tough election in what is currently a heavily Republican district represented by two Republican assembly members and a Republican state senator. Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, who would be Lewis’s Republican opponent if he wins the Democratic nomination, was elected as one of the district’s assembly members in 2007 and appointed to fill its Senate seat when it was vacated last December.
The district as currently drawn yielded more votes for Republican assembly candidates by a nearly two-to-one margin in 2009. Lewis hopes, however, that the district’s new boundaries, as laid out in the state’s new legislative map approved last week, will be significantly friendlier to Democratic candidates.
The 8th district, which currently includes most of Burlington County as well as parts of Atlantic and Camden counties, is set to lose Moorestown and Mount Laurel and to pick up the more urban areas of Westampton Township and Mount Holly in Burlington County as well as the Atlantic County town of Hammonton and the Camden County towns of Pine Valley, Berlin Borough, and Waterford.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, says that Lewis’s name recognition offers him some advantages, but he will still face an uphill battle. “The 8th is still a pretty Republican district, even with the changes made in the redistricting process” says Dworkin. “Instant name recognition in New Jersey means a lot, but it doesn’t guarantee victory.”
Lewis is far from the only former athlete to run for office in New Jersey. Last year, former Eagles offensive lineman Jon Runyan was the only Republican in the state to win a congressional seat that had been in Democratic hands. However, several other former athletes who have run as Republicans have not fared as well as Runyan. In 2007, former Philadelphia Flyers left winger Brian Propp’s shot at state Assembly in the 7th district generated some early buzz, but was ultimately blocked by the district’s two incumbent Democratic assemblymen. In 1990, NFLer Phil McConkey, a former wide receiver for the New York Giants along with several other teams, ran for an open 12th congressional district seat, but didn’t make it past the primary.
Perhaps the state’s (and the nation’s) best-known athlete-turned-politician is Bill Bradley, the star New York Knicks forward who served three terms as a Democratic U.S. Senator from New Jersey and mounted a closely watched primary campaign against former Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.  Another Democrat, Althea Gibson, the first African-American woman to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament, did not perform as well, losing a 1977 state Senate primary.
Dworkin believes that New Jersey’s unique geography helps explain the preponderance of athletes who run for office in the state. “We have so many professional teams in New York and Philadelphia that we end up with a lot of pro athletes living here after they retire,” he says, adding that the high name recognition enjoyed by renowned athletes does not always translate into votes and that a district’s partisan lean remains the best predictor of electoral success. “It is a very mixed bag for famous athletes running for political office in New Jersey,” Dworkin says.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. E-mail him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com