The history of athletes who run for office, and what it tells us about Chris Dudley

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

There is zero evidence that Chris Dudley demonstrated any interest in public policy and politics before suddenly waking up one morning last year and deciding to run for Governor.

Over at Portland Monthly's August issue, Bart Blasengame takes a look at the history of professional athletes who run for public office. After all, Chris Dudley's just the latest in a long line.

As someone who blogs about sports (specifically, the Heisman Trophy race), they asked me what I thought. Here's what I told 'em:

Jumping between the two big leagues - sports and politics - isn’t new. But according to Kari Chisholm, who blogs about sports at and progressive politics at, the most successful jock-to-pol transitions often begin on political farm teams.

Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp, for instance, served as an off-season [aide] to California governor Ronald Reagan before becoming a congressman and running for president. NBA all-star Bill Bradley stumped for candidates for years before becoming a senator and presidential hopeful. Even wrestler Jesse Ventura was a small-town mayor before he became the governor of Minnesota.

To that list, I'd add Oklahama tailback JC Watts - who was on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission before going to Congress, where he served in the leadership. I'd add NBA player Kevin Johnson, who built a network of charter schools before serving as Mayor of Sacramento.

But here's what Portland Monthly left out: The politicians who have been unsuccessful at politics and public policy are the ones who just suddenly run for office - without any prior public involvement.

Former USC and Steelers great Lynn Swann, for example, ran for Governor of Pennsylvania in 2006 - despite a lack of political or policy experience. He flamed out, losing 60-40.

Famed former Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne easily won a race for Congress in 2000. In three terms, he was utterly undistinguished. In 2006, he ran for Governor - and was considered a strong favorite with 100% name ID and huge popularity. In the end, Nebraska voters realized he wasn't cut out for public office, and he lost the GOP primary 49-45.

Steve Largent, the former Oklahoma and Seahawks star, was elected to Congress in a 1994 special election and was re-elected three more times. He was generally undistinguished, failing several times in attempts to join the leadership, and eventually resigned in 2002 to run for Governor. Despite his 100% name ID and huge popularity, he lost to Brad Henry. That's right, Oklahoma voters elected a Democrat over Steve Largent.

So, what does this tell us about Chris Dudley? Is Dudley more like Largent, Osborne, and Swann? Or is he more like Kemp, Bradley, Ventura, Johnson, and Watts?

There is zero evidence that Chris Dudley demonstrated any interest in public policy and politics before suddenly waking up one morning last year and deciding to run for Governor. He wasn't a heavy donor; he didn't stump for candidates; he didn't serve on any boards or commissions.

I think it means that he's got an uphill battle to convince voters he can provide thoughtful leadership. But more importantly, I think that if Dudley wins the 2010 election, he's more likely to flame out than to be a successful policy leader and state executive.

There's simply very little evidence to suggest otherwise.

  • (Show?)

    You're really reaching on this one, Kari. Largent and Osborne were "undistinguished" in their three terms in Congress? Have you ever looked at the first three terms of Oregon's congressional delegation? Or for that matter, almost any house member's first three terms?

    Bill Bradley "stumped for candidates for years" before running successfully for the United States Senate without ever holding elective office?

    Jack Kemp was a off-season "aide" to Governor Ronald Reagan before running for Congress--in a district all the way across the country?

    J.C. Watts was on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission?

    This is a pretty transparent effort to pick the conclusion you want to demonstrate and then cherrypicking the examples you can characterize as supporting your thesis.

    I know, I know, that's the business you're in. But I wanted you to know that at least some of us are paying attention.

    • (Show?)

      Largent and Osborne were undistinguished, period. Length of service has little to do with it.

      As for Bradley, Kemp, and Watts, you're right: I set the bar low. That's the whole point! Duds has done NOTHING to even demonstrate an interest in politics and policy, much less produce a record of achievement of any sort.


      • (Show?)

        ...(That's why Carla's earlier post about Dudley's testimony before the Lake Oswego School Board, in support of the swim coach who was given a lifetime ban from USA Swimming for inappropriate contact with underage swimmers, is so very interesting. It's just about the only time that Dudley got involved in a public issue. Why that one? That's the mystery.)

        • (Show?)

          It's a mystery to you that Dudley would agree to appear as a character witness for a friend? Maybe, just maybe, he didn't regard that as getting "involved in a public issue." He may have thought of it as standing up for a friend, even at some risk to himself.

          • (Show?)

            Maybe, just maybe, he didn't regard that as getting "involved in a public issue."

            Fair enough. That shifts the count on prior-political-activity back to zero.

  • (Show?)

    This never ending attack of Dudley is beginning to smell a lot like the GOP's standard tactic of using social issues to drive voters to the polls.

    Are you concerned that Dudley could win. That the Dems are not all that enthusiastic about someone who finds the state ungovernable?

    BTW, to call pols who had 3-4 terms a failure is one gigantic reach to say the least.

      • (Show?)

        Kari, acting the professor here I guess, but the same could be said about Obama. Surely he was among the least qualified candidates for the Presidency. McCain had far more "qualificaations."

        It all depends on what voters are looking for.

        Policy wonks are a dime a dozen. You can hire them.

        It is an open question, I think, whether deep policy knowledge is a necessary prerequisite to being a good executive, and how you weigh these against such characteristics as wise judgment, the ability to broker agreements (both among your advisors and in the legislature), abilities on the "bully pulpit", etc.

        • (Show?)

          Oh come on, now, Paul. Barack Obama had been a community organizer, a law professor, a state legislator, and a U.S. Senator.

          Chris Dudley hasn't done any of those things, even for a day.

          I agree that "deep policy knowledge" may not be a prerequisite -- but "a little policy knowledge" ought to be.

          I also agree with you that wise judgment, ability to broker agreements, and ability on the bully pulpit also matter -- none of which Chris Dudley has demonstrated outside of the context of his gubernatorial campaign.

  • (Show?)

    Regardless of comparison relevance, the fact remains that Dudley has no public policy experience, and has heretofore shown little interest in the betterment of Oregon as a whole.

    He relies upon a highly funded media campaign to sell us on him via emotional appeal while offering zilch in terms of real solutions. He has treated Oregon voters contemptuously by his refusal to interact in debate formats that would show us what he DOES offer us.

    Instead, his time is spent hob-nobbing w/ Nat'l GOP high-dollar mucky-mucks in Colorado rather than facing the tough questions about moving Oregon forward. The occasional Dudley commentary is lobbed from behind a battalion of handlers, and offer us less than little about how the man would approach Oregon issues.

    I could care less about Lynn Swann's failed political aspirations, but I do hope that his flop is a sign that voters want and expect more from a candidate than a resume that's simply a career stat sheet.

  • (Show?)

    Full disclosure: my firm built John Kitzhaber's website. I speak only for myself.

  • (Show?)

    I am a good democrat who has never liked Kitzhaber, not just because he did little other than some nice work on health care, but because he treated me arrogantly and rudely when I tried to pin him down on a question at an event at one point. So I am the perfect guy for a swing vote to Dudley. But his obviously truth hiding concerning his "family vacation" and his refusal to just come out and say, sure I will debate all the dates, has me back in the "I guess I am voting for the Democrat" camp.

    • (Show?)

      __but because he treated me arrogantly and rudely when I tried to pin him down on a question at an event at one point. ---

      Same story here. If a really smart guy that knows the issues but refuses to take input from his inferiors is opposed by a know nothing guy who doesn't know what kind of input he might even need...I'm not going to gamble the state's future on tghe latter.

  • (Show?)

    The classic book on this subject, in case anyone cares, is David Canon's "Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts".

    There is a long history in the U.S. of "amateurs" running for high office. It's a particularly unique characteristic of American politics. We vote the candidate, not the party, and have shown a long time desire for some sort of "non political" politician.

    The field is not all littered with failures, by the way. John Glenn, for instance, had little to no political experience before he first ran for office.

    • (Show?)

      Does Canon have any examples of athletes successfully making the transition to public official - without having first demonstrated some prior interest?

      (Astronauts, of course, are scientists and military officers - a far cry from running around in short pants with a ball.)

      • (Show?)

        I'd nominate Dave Bing - former NBA player and current mayor of Detroit. He had no political experience, but a lot of business experience, before running.

        Judges don't exactly count, since they're usually lawyers before being nominated, but Alan Page went directly from being an Assistant Attorney General to election to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

  • (Show?)

    Kari, let me pull it off my shelf and look. The book is getting pretty moldy at this point.

  • (Show?)

    I agree with a lot of the statements about Governor Kitzhaber. I was at a meet and greet in Union county a few months back and asked him how he plans to get rid of the board of higher education without diminishing smaller schools abilities to lobby for lower tuition hikes in one big group like the Oregon Student Association...(because small schools like EOU alone have very little ability to lobby). His answer was highly political and made little sense to many in the room. But, when faced with a decision of him, or Dudley, who wants to privatize higher education (see OHSU), the choice is clear.

    If Oregon Democrats were smart, they would have voted for Bradbury instead of a former governor who said Oregon was ungovernable, then we wouldn't be two points down in the polls...But what is done is done I guess, time to rally the base.

connect with blueoregon