New Jersey celebrity athlete candidates have mixed records

News of ex-Eagles tackle Jon Runyan's interest in running for Congress in the 3rd District brought about some excitement in

News of ex-Eagles tackle Jon Runyan's interest in running for Congress in the 3rd District brought about some excitement in Republican circles, but it was not universal.

One South Jersey Republican, skeptical about celebrity candidates, kept his response to two words: Brian Propp.

Propp, who played fifteen seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, was recruited by state Sen. Diane Allen (R-Edgewater Park) to run for State Assembly in her district as a Republican in 2007. Propp was a promising pick, but buzz about competing down-ticket in the heavily Democratic district fizzled out, and ultimately he and his running mate, Nancy Griffin, did not come close to unseating incumbents Herb Conaway (D-Delanco) and Jack Conners (D-Pennsauken).

But Propp is only the latest example of professional athletes from the Garden State who ran for office. While pro athletes who choose to run start out with name recognition that candidates from more traditional backgrounds typically have to spend years building up, their fame is by no means a ticket to a high office.

In 1977, the late tennis great Althea Gibson – the first black woman to win a Grand Slam tournament – lost a state senate bid in a three-way primary against Frank Dodd — who was running on a slate with then-Assemblyman and now Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) — and then-Assemblyman Eldridge Hawkins.

In 1990, former New York Giant Phil McConkey came in second in a three-way Republican primary for Congress, losing to Dick Zimmer but beating Rodney Frelinghuysen.

There have also been flirtations, like when Republicans attempted to recruit Ronald "Jaws" Jaworski – who played with the Eagles in the 1970's and 80's – to run against Rob Andrews in the early 1990s. And former Major League all-star pitcher Al Leiter's name repeatedly pop up as a potential candidate, even though the Toms River native currently lives in Florida.

But there is one obvious success story: Bill Bradley, the New York Knick and Rhodes Scholar who became a three-term Democratic senator.

Propp, for his part, believes that Runyan could be a viable candidate, and will not face several of the obstacles that his own candidacy faced.

For one, Republicans stand a better chance in the traditionally Republican 3rd Congressional District than they do in the heavily Democratic 7th Legislative District, where Allen – a moderate Republican who developed her own local celebrity status as a Philadelphia newscaster — is the only member of the GOP who has found a formula to win.

"He's not in the district that I was running in," said Propp. "It was 3-1 [Democratic], and I think it's going to be very difficult for anybody to overcome."

Moreover, Propp noted that Runyan just stopped playing with the Eagles last year, while he hadn't played with the Flyers for over a decade by the time he ran (although he did continue to as a radio color commentator for Flyers games).

And in New Jersey,football has a much bigger fan base than hockey

"He probably has a lot more notoriety than I did," said Propp, who thinks that athletes can make powerful political candidates with the right guidance.

"We've been coached all our lives. If we have a really good coach showing us what to do, we can exceed at it," he said.

Richard Zimmer, the former congressman and U.S. Senate candidate, thinks that McConkey, the former Giant, would have had a future in politics if he stuck to it.

"He was a very good, natural candidate, and if he had stayed in the game and perhaps run closer to Giants Stadium, I think he'd be in Congress," said Zimmer.

And Dick Codey said that Althea Gibson, the tennis star, never ran much of a campaign to begin with.

"She wasn't really serious. She was helping some friends out by filling out a ticket," he said. "Maybe it would have been different had she worked at it."

So far, next to nothing is known about Runyan's political views. In fact, he was an unaffiliated voter until a couple weeks ago, when he registered as a Republican. But Burlington County Republican sources put the likelihood that he will run as high. Runyan is even said to be consulting with his former teammate at the University of Michigan, Jay Riemersma, a retired NFL player and socially conservative activist who is running for the open seat of outgoing U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.).

"We really don't know anything about him as a politician. Would he be willing to go out there and raise the kind of money that's necessary to run a congressional race?" said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray.

"You need that fire in the belly to push your way through and understand that these things are not cakewalks when you run for office, no matter how popular you may be as an athlete," said Murray. "It's a big question mark. He's got one thing on the checklist marked off, which is name recognition, but there's a whole host of other things."

New Jersey celebrity athlete candidates have mixed records