If there are still doubts that NFL star Jon Runyan is committed to running for Congress, he sought to dispell them today.
"Once this season is over, and hopefully it's not over until February, I'm going to retire and 100% commit to this campaign," said Runyan in a 7AM (West Coast time) phone interview from San Diego, where he's finishing his football career with the San Diego Chargers.
The 36-year-old Mount Laurel resident – well known in South Jersey during his decade with the Philadelphia Eagles — said as much in a month old statement kicking off his candidacy. But some important players in the 3rd Congressional District remained skeptical – especially because the announcement by Runyan, no longer with the Eagles after suffering a knee injury, coincided with news that he signed on with the Chargers for the rest of the season. Some wondered whether his commitment would remain solid if he was offered another contract to play a full season.
"I'm putting in the retirement papers, and therefore that would circumvent anyone offering me a contract," said the 6'7, 330 lb. Runyan. "I kind of came [to San Diego] to just kind of prove my point to people telling me that I could not recover from this knee injury and play football again."
Runyan has already secured the support of Burlington County Republicans, which have assigned their chief strategist, Chris Russell, to lay down the early campaign infrastructure. But his biggest obstacle so far is the formidable Republican organization of Ocean County, which has never had a congressman of its own, and its leader, George Gilmore.
Last year, the Republican parties of Burlington and Ocean Counties went head to head in an especially nasty and expensive primary, which many blame for sapping the eventual winner, Christopher Myers, of the funds needed to beat Democrat John Adler (D-Cherry Hill) in the general election. Although leaders of both parties have acknowledged the importance of avoiding a primary this year, Gilmore is not sold on Runyan, and Toms River Councilman Maurice "Mo" Hill – a dentist and retired Navy rear admiral – appears to be laying the groundwork for his own campaign. Former Tabernacle Township Committeeman Justin Murphy, who did surprisingly well in last year's primary, has already announced that he plans to run.
The prospect of a primary won't stop Runyan, however.
"There are also a lot of local leaders out there that I have to meet. It is a process and everyone has to go through it. It's something I have to deal with and it's not going to change my mind in running in this, whether there is a primary or not," said Runyan, who met with Gilmore last month.
When asked if he's ready for the rigors of a primary like last year's, followed by a contentious general election, Runyan said football had prepared him well for it.
"It's unfortunate that this business I'm currently in is very negative in itself," he said. "Even from a coaching aspect – it's never what you did right. It's always what you did wrong… "I think there are a lot more similarities between football and politics than people realize."
Runyan grew up in Flint, Mich. – the blight of which has come to symbolize the decline of the American auto industry. He did not pay much attention to Michigan politics, he said, and instead of trying to model himself on his native state's elected officials, he said he looks to his parents. His father, a member of the UAW, worked at an auto plant for three decades. And Runyan counts his biggest unrelated role model as Bo Jackson, who concurrently played Major League Baseball and in the National Football League.
Runyan did not even flirt with running for office until October, he said, when Assemblywoman Dawn Marie Addiego (R-Evesham) – who knows Runyan because their children attend school together – dropped the question to his wife in a phone call.
"My wife kind of threw it at me in passing," said Runyan. "She said Dawn called and was wondering if you had any interest in running for congress. It thought about it for probably about an hour and said, well, let me call her, figure out what they have to say and what the whole process is."
By the end of November, Runyan had issued a statement declaring his candidacy.
Runyan is aware that the race will be expensive, but said he has not worked out how much of his own money he plans to put into it and how much he anticipates raising.
When asked for a specific vote he would cast differently than Adler has in his one-year tenure, Runyan demurred, preferring to talk about Adler's transformation from a liberal state senator to a moderate congressman.
"I think it's more of the voting history. Traditionally he's really, really liberal. And as of late he's become more moderate. Is it that he's running in a traditionally Republican district and trying to save his political career?" he said.
On abortion, Runyan said that he is pro-choice "with restrictions," and indicated that he sides with those who want to put abortion restrictions in the health care bill. Otherwise, he considers himself a conservative.
"I'm conservative on most things except what we just talked about," he said.