Politicians who know how to play ball
By HILLEL KUTTLER
the new york times | November 07,2012
BALTIMORE — One very tall man in Maryland knows something about competing hard until the game ends, and Tom McMillen’s advice to candidates in Tuesday’s elections is this: Shake every hand.
His campaigning until the polls closed in 1986 might have made the difference in his successful race to represent Maryland’s 4th Congressional District in the House of Representatives, McMillen, a former NBA player, said over the weekend. Only after absentee ballots were counted over the next week was McMillen declared the winner by over 400 votes.
“I stayed until 8 at night working at the precinct to get the last vote,” he said. “That’s a very, very important lesson. You don’t stop until the game is over.”
A 6-foot-11 forward and center for the Knicks, the Buffalo Braves, the Atlanta Hawks and the Washington Bullets before entering politics, McMillen, a Democrat, served three terms in the House in an era that was more bipartisan than it is now.
His colleagues in the House included the Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who later served in the U.S. Senate; the NFL (and AFL) quarterback Jack Kemp, R-N.Y.; Mo Udall, D-Ariz., who played for the original Denver Nuggets in the National Basketball League, a precursor to the NBA; and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, a judoka who competed in the 1964 Olympics and, like Bunning, later served in the Senate, even switching party affiliations from Democrat to Republican along the way. Bill Bradley, the Princeton and Knicks star, was then serving in the Senate as a Democrat from New Jersey.
Bradley, Kemp and Udall unsuccessfully sought the presidency, and Kemp ran as the vice-presidential candidate when Bob Dole led the Republican ticket in 1996 and lost to President Bill Clinton.
“We had a jock caucus then,” McMillen joked. “It was a real proliferation.”
While the Capitol’s athletic ranks have since thinned, this Election Day may usher in a supply of reserves.
Only two professional athletes now hold seats in Congress: Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., who was an offensive lineman for 14 years in the NFL, mostly with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., the third overall pick in the 1994 draft whose forgettable career as a quarterback started with the Redskins.
Shuler is preparing to depart Washington for a second time. Elected to the House in 2006, he is not running for re-election after the realignment of his 11th District, in western North Carolina. Earlier this year, he declined, too, to enter the race for the state’s open seat for governor.
Runyan, a first-term member of the House who represents the 3rd District, is locked in a tight race with a Democrat, Shelley Adler, who is seeking to win the seat once held by her late husband. A former NFL player running for the House is Jimmy Farris, D-Idaho, who was a wide receiver for the Redskins and several other teams. And at least two first-time House candidates played collegiate basketball: Danny Tarkanian, R-Nev., who is the son of Jerry Tarkanian and played at UNLV; and Al Lawson, D-Fla., who played at Florida A&M.
None, of course, possess the star quality of recent House members like the Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent, R-Okla., and Tom Osborne, R-Neb., a former football coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., a quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners, overlapped part of the period during which Largent and Osborne served.
Two athletes who served in the House beginning in the late 1960s were the Olympic decathlon champion Bob Mathias, R-Calif., and Wilmer Mizell, R-N.C., a pitcher whose experiences on the 1960 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates and the hapless 1962 Mets doubtless provided a superb introduction to the ups and downs of political life.
But name recognition takes an athlete only so far in Washington, with reputation hardly assuring office holders of substance, accomplishment or even likability.
Bradley and Kemp are two who did particularly well, making their marks with a mastery of tax policy, said Norman Orenstein, an American Enterprise Institute analyst who specializes in Congress.
Among athletes who served in Congress, those two belong in Washington’s superstar category, Orenstein said. The rest? Sort of a mixed bag, in his opinion.
“Celebrity is an advantage. It gives you a leg up, but you have to be careful about it,” Orenstein said. If exploited to the detriment of veteran colleagues more steeped in policy but less blessed by name, “it could destroy your career before it begins,” he said.
Several athletes turned politicians said that key values straddle the two worlds, notably team play, perseverance, balancing confidence in one’s ability with respect for the opponent and coping under pressure.
Meanwhile, politics occasionally delivers its own onside kicks. Because of the impact from Hurricane Sandy, nearly all events relating to Runyan’s re-election bid were canceled so that he could tend to the pressing needs of constituents reeling from the storm, especially those living in communities near the Atlantic Ocean.
“Duty calls, and you have to make sure that everybody has what they need,” Runyan said Sunday. Predictions regarding Tuesday’s election outcome now are “an unknown,” he added.
As for how to spend Election Day while waiting for the results, Largent said he used to golf and Runyan plans to clean his home and eat a quiet dinner before addressing the matter at hand. Lawson said he would “be on the corner, waving signs” and urging people to vote until the polls close.
“Believe me, I’ve given everything,” said Lawson, who has served 28 years in the Florida legislature. “Coming in second is not an option. The aim is to win.”
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Tarkanian, for one, could use a victory after defeats in previous races. Heading into Election Day, he is prepared, either way.
“My dad always taught me: you win with class, and you lose with dignity,” Tarkanian said.
But even while elections, like games, seem to promise definitive outcomes, that is not always so — at least not immediately. That makes election nights unpredictable at times, as McMillen can attest.
When polling stations closed and the tallies were announced that November 1986 night, McMillen led by about 1,200 votes. He knew that the absentee ballots would most likely narrow his lead, and they nearly erased it completely.
Twelve years earlier, McMillen’s University of Maryland team lost by 3 points in a triple-overtime game to the eventual NCAA champion, North Carolina State. And at the 1972 Olympics, he was on the court when the Soviet Union ran off with a disputed 1-point win and the gold medal against the United States — a game “that’s still not over yet,” said McMillen, who now runs a real estate company.
“Forty years later,” he said, “it’s still being prosecuted in the court of public opinion.”