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A Running Start

by Peter Proko; Photo by Jeff Anderson

When Carl Lewis decided to run for state Senate, he expected a fight. What he got was a five-month (and counting) legal battle and a firsthand introduction to the world of local politics. Will he have what it takes to make it to the finish line?

On a particularly warm July morning in the Kings Grant section of Marlton, Carl Lewis is cooling off in the shade. Sitting at a picnic table in a gazebo overlooking the lake, the still tremendously fit 50-year-old is dressed from head to toe in Nike golf gear, look­ing, save for a head of gray hair, far younger than his years would dictate. As cars buzz down the road and dog-walking neighbors exchange pleasantries on the sidewalk, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist is seemingly hiding in plain sight.

Of course, these days Lewis, the former track and field star, is very much in the public eye once again. In April, backed by Burlington County Democrats, Lewis held a press conference in Mount Holly to announce that he would be entering a new kind of race—a campaign for election to the New Jersey Senate. The news made instant headlines across the country: Carl Lewis was running again.

Lewis certainly carries name recognition, but his lack of experience in politics makes him an unusual choice for the local Democrats, who are looking to shift the balance of power in the county (and were perhaps inspired by Jon Runyan’s successful transition last year from Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman to congressman).

While Lewis is not naïve to his lack of political experience, he argues that the same passion and determination that helped him become a world-class athlete will be what allow him to succeed in office. And, in addition to being the only candidate in the field to have graced the front of a Wheaties box, Lewis has rubbed elbows with Ronald Reagan and numerous Capitol Hill heavyweights. In short, he’s not the political novice some might imagine.

But sharing space with politicians doesn’t mean you are qualified to be one, of course. Lewis credits his strong desire to be a positive role model and influence in the local community with spurring his decision to run for election in the Eighth District, which includes much of Burlington County.

“I felt it was time to take my community activism to another level with a title in Trenton,” Lewis says. “People want a complete change; they’re tired of what’s going on in politics now. It’s a complete joke … on the state level and the national level. Everyone’s posturing, and the public wants something fresh … someone who has character.”

Following the announcement of his candidacy, Lewis remained headline fodder for weeks as local Republicans, including incumbent New Jersey Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, challenged his eligibility to run for office in the state. They argued that Lewis, who has also lived in Houston and just outside of Los Angeles, is more of a visitor than a native son.

Lewis, who was raised in Willingboro, maintains that he has lived in Medford for the past several years and therefore meets New Jersey’s four-year residency requirement for officeholders. But he readily admits that he just registered to vote in the state the day he launched his campaign. Furthermore, the Republicans’ research showed that Lewis voted in a California election as recently as two years ago, and has never paid income taxes in New Jersey.

“Challenging his candidacy was a no-brainer,” says Chris Russell, a spokes­man for Addiego’s campaign.

After a judge initially ruled that the Republicans had insufficient evidence to back up their charges, an appeal was filed with the state. Shortly thereafter, Lewis’ name was removed from the primary ballot by Secretary of State Kim Guadagno, (who also serves as Lieutenant Governor). Her ruling stated that Lewis “owned three homes in California, filed his taxes in California, was registered to vote in California, voted in at least four elections in California, certified under penalty of law that he was a resident and domiciliary of California each time he voted, and had his business and his business offices in California.”

It appeared as if the famed sprinter would never get out of the starting blocks. Determined to be reinstated on the ballot, Lewis continued along the campaign trail while his legal team worked up their own round of appeals. He went as far as to suggest that Gov. Chris Christie had conspired against him, alleging that the governor phoned him days before he announced his candidacy in an effort to dissuade him from running—and even claiming that Christie had threatened to shelve a youth fitness program the two had been working on together. The governor’s office has denied that allegation, though the program has, in fact, been mothballed.

In early May, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia ruled that Lewis should be allowed to remain on the primary ballot, temporarily overturning the state’s decision. He ran uncontested for the Democratic nomination in early June and remains confident that he will be on the general election ballot come November.

“I won the primary. I am on the ballot, and the governor is still trying to get me off [of it],” says Lewis. “But, it’s adjudicated, and I don’t think it’s going to be an issue.”

On the surface, Lewis appears annoyed, yet undeterred, by the concentrated efforts to derail his campaign.

“At the end of the day, and I’ll say this straight, point blank: the Secretary of State illegally took me off [the ballot], so that’s why I am back on,” he says. “I grew up here, I am from here. To me, honestly, it’s kind of silly and shows how childish [local politics] really is. It’s no different than sports honestly; I’ve seen this game played before. Same script, different cast.”

Lewis was born in Birmingham, Ala., but his family moved to Willingboro in 1961, to be closer to his mother’s sister, who was stationed at a military base nearby. Lewis’ parents both became involved in local sports and started the Willingboro Track Club, where he began his love affair with the sport. He went on to star at the University of Houston, famously telling his coaches that he wanted to become a millionaire based on his athletic talents in lieu of a real job.

He rose to prominence as a long jumper and sprinter in the early ’80s, and in his first Olympic games in 1984, he captured four gold medals, equaling Jesse Owens’ performance from nearly four decades earlier. Lew­is would go on to compete in three more Olympic games, winning the gold five more times along the way, before leaving the sport behind in 1997.

Now, Lewis has come full circle, working as a volunteer track coach at his alma mater, Willingboro High School. Since he has joined the coaching staff, the once-struggling team has improved drastically, and now regularly competes for state championships. The athletic transformation of the kids he coaches has impressed Lewis, but he is proudest of the positive results away from the track. “Seven of those kids have scholarships … their ineligibility disappeared,” he says. “They pull their pants up … they respect their elders. We motivated those kids, and they grew into fine young men.”

It will take that same level of time, energy and motivation if Lewis is to fulfill his political aspirations.

While Lewis talks a great deal about education reform and the need for Trenton to break away from career politicians to lessen the burden on taxpayers, Republicans have criticized his platform for its lack of clear definition. While Addiego advocates policies that lower taxes, reduce spending and shrink government as a means to create jobs and improve the state’s economy, her camp accuses Lewis of throwing his lot in with “Trenton Democrats who want bigger government, more spend­ing and higher taxes.”

Lewis does, however, regularly update his Twitter page, where he offers viewpoints on issues ranging from school spending to gun laws. He is not afraid to fire back at his opponent. In July, he tweeted: “As an Olympian NJ was proud to call me their own. Now we have partisans saying I’m a carpetbager [sic]. Been livin hear [sic] paying taxes, nice try …”

So far, Lewis’ social media soapbox has made little impression on Addiego and her camp. “We don’t view Mr. Lewis as a legitimate candidate for Senate, but, more importantly, neither do the state courts,” says Russell. “His attempts to stay on the ballot in federal court are simply about Mr. Lewis arguing the rules that everyone else has to play by.”

Addiego doesn’t expect Lewis to be allowed to run in November, Russell says, but she’s preparing for any eventuality.

“If he somehow makes it onto the ballot this fall, we will be ready,” Russell says. “Let’s just say that voters will find it was a lot easier to root for Carl Lewis in the Olympics than it will be to vote for him once they learn where he stands on the important issues facing the state.”

While Addiego may see Lewis as more of a nuisance than a real opponent, the feeling is practically mutual. “When people ask me who I’m running against, I say, ‘No one,’” he says. “My issue is not about the opponent, it’s not about attacking or negativity. It’s about what I think my vision is and what I think is the right thing for the future.”

Just a month after his 50th birthday, Lewis freely admits that he looks at things differently than when he was setting world records. He feels fortunate that, after retiring from sports, he was able to forge a new chapter in his life.

Yet, Lewis draws countless parallels between his athletic past and his fledgling political career. He preaches hard work and discipline. He talks about going full speed ahead and not looking back. He says competing against the world’s best athletes has given him a level of preparation and achievement that will serve him well in this new career path.

“When I ran as an athlete, I knew everything my competitors did, but that was never my competition,” he says. “My competition was to be the best I could be. I became No. 1 in the world in 1981, and I was No.1 in 1996. You don’t do that by wanting to be No.1; you do that by wanting to be the best.”

While Lewis shows confidence and excitement when talking about his candidacy, he insists that he doesn’t see the state Senate seat as a political steppingstone. He has no interest in ascending the political ladder. He simply wishes to serve in a manner that will allow him to make a difference by influencing legislation and helping the community, but still afford him the opportunity to enjoy things like coaching at Willingboro and making appearances at the Olympics next year in London. If elected, he plans on donating his salary to charity, presumably his own foundation, which promotes physical fitness.

“[Running for the Senate] does not define me. The political career is not about defining who I am. I see what’s happening in politics and it’s disgusting, and people are tired of the insanity,” he says.

Despite the challenges he’s already faced, many more lie ahead. “The only way I win the race is if I am who I am at the end. Win or lose, if I am that person, I win. If I get caught up in the political thing, if my character and what I believe in is compromised, it doesn’t matter if I win or lose.”

As for giving in to Republican pressures, this former sprinter insists he is committed to the race for the long haul.

“I had an 18-year career,” he says—showing endurance, not just speed. “I was No. 1 eight or nine times in a row, so I get that.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 5 (August, 2011).
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