The Fix's Grab Bag of Celebrity Politicians
Just when it appeared that the New York Republican Party had hit rock bottom, state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R) showed it could go a little lower when he floated real-estate-mogul-cum-television-star Donald Trump as a potential 2006 gubernatorial candidate.
The rumor was quickly dismissed on Dec. 31 by Trump political adviser Roger Stone, who told the New York Post that a gubernatorial bid was "not even in the realm of possibility." Trump's name is not new to the political rumor mill. In 2000, he considered a potential Reform Party candidacy for president.
The quick end to the latest Trump boomlet means that New York Republicans will likely wind up with former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld as their nominee -- although Weld has been battered of late in the media for his alleged mismanagement of a private Kentucky college. The situation for Republicans in the race to unseat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) is no better, with Pataki-anointed candidate Jeanine Pirro (R) dropping from the race last month to instead run for state attorney general.
Even if Trump had decided to run, the record of celebrity politicians is mixed at best. For every Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jesse Ventura there's a Richard Petty. Here's a list of celebrities-turned-politicians from off the top of The Fix's head. Not surprisingly, the biggest incubators of this semi-rare species of candidate are New York and California -- the two poles of celebrity culture. Who are we missing? Make additions to the list in the comments section and I'll update the post throughout the day.
* Actors/Directors Warren Beatty/Rob Reiner (D): The two Hollywood denizens regularly talk about themselves as potential statewide candidates in the Golden State, but so far neither Bullworth nor Meathead has pulled the trigger. Reiner has made a name for himself in politics, however, by backing several statewide ballot initiatives.
* Former California Rep. Sonny Bono (R): The one-time mayor of Palm Springs, Bono began his career in federal office with a loss -- a 1992 Senate primary defeat. Bono quickly pivoted to a run for lieutenant governor in 1994, but when the 44th District seat came open, he quickly jumped into that contest -- winning the primary and general election with ease. Bono was killed in a skiing accident in January 1998 and his widow, Mary, ran for and won the seat, which she still holds.
* Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley (D): A wunderkind since he was immortalized by John McPhee during his playing days at Princeton University, Bradley used the fame derived from his time as a star for the NBA's New York Knicks to get elected to the Senate from New Jersey in 1978. He held the seat until his retirement in 1996. Four years later he made an ill-fated challenge to Vice President Al Gore in the Democratic presidential primary.
* Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning (R): Bunning has enjoyed the longest political career of the recent celebrity politicians. A Hall of Fame pitcher, Bunning won Kentucky's 4th District House seat in 1986 and held it until 1998 when he challenged Rep. Scotty Baesler (himself a former University of Kentucky basketball star under legendary coach Adolph Rupp) for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford (D). Bunning narrowly won that race and a subsequent reelection contest in 2004.
* Former television anchor Nick Clooney (D): Clooney, a well known personality in northern Kentucky thanks to his years as a news anchor in the Cincinnati television market, failed in his 2004 race for the open 4th District seat. Clooney is the father of actor of George Clooney and brother of the late crooner Rosemary Clooney, earning him a heavy helping of celebrity donations that still weren't enough to overcome the strong Republican lean of the district.
* Singer Jimmie Davis (D): The "singing governor" led Louisiana's government during two terms, once in the 1940s and once in the 1960s. Davis is best known as the author of "You Are My Sunshine," a song that helped get him inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
* Comedian Al Franken (D): Franken has made millions touting his liberal views in book form ("Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot") and on the radio airwaves ("The Al Franken Show"). And he has made no secret of his desire to run for office, targeting Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman (R), who is up for reelection in 2008. Franken is moving back to his home state to consider the race. When asked last month about the contest he said: "I don't know. Thinkin' about it, though."
* Iowa Rep. Fred Grandy (R): Following his years as "Gopher" on the popular television show "Love Boat," Grandy moved back to western Iowa where he was elected to Congress from the then 5th District in 1986. After eight years in Congress, the moderate Republican retired from his seat for a primary challenge against Republican Gov. Terry Branstad (R). Branstad won that contest 52 percent to 48 percent.
* Former Georgia Rep. Ben Jones (D): "Cooter" from the "Dukes of Hazzard" television show won a suburban Atlanta House district in 1988 -- knocking off a Republican incumbent. Jones lost a 1992 primary for the seat, however, after redistricting moved the district's lines. Two years later Jones was the Democratic nominee against Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). He lost that contest 64 percent to 36 percent. Still not done with politics, Jones challenged Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor (R) in 2002 -- coming up 39 points short.
* Former Rep. Jack Kemp (R): Kemp, a star quarterback with the Buffalo Bills, served for nearly two decades in Congress before becoming Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President George H.W. Bush. In 1996, Kemp was picked by former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole (R) as his vice presidential running mate; the ticket lost to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
* Actress Nancy Kulp (D): She played Jane Hathaway on the 1960s sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies" and then ran for a Pennsylvania House seat in 1984. She was endorsed by fellow actor Ed Asner but was opposed by Buddy Ebsen, who played Jed Clampett on the show. She lost to Rep. Bud Shuster (R).
* Former Oklahoma Rep. Steve Largent (R): Largent followed up his Hall of Fame football career with the Seattle Seahawks by winning an open seat contest in the 1st District in 1994. After four terms as one of Congress's staunchest conservative voices, Largent resigned his seat in 2002 for a seemingly sure-thing gubernatorial bid. Largent's campaign was listless though. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Largent was hunting in Idaho and did not hear about the terrorist attacks for several days. Largent lost the race to Gov. Brad Henry (D) by less than 7,000 votes.
* Author Norman Mailer/Columnist Jimmy Breslin: The two men ran as a ticket in 1969, Mailer for mayor of New York City, Breslin for City Council President. The ticket lost -- badly -- though it did no harm to either man's "other" career.
* Former California Sen. George Murphy (R): Murphy, an actor who once served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, was involved in a celebrity vs. celebrity matchup when he faced off with appointed Sen. Pierre Salinger (D) in 1964. (Salinger defeated soon-to-be-Sen. Alan Cranston in that year's Democratic primary.) Murphy beat Salinger to claim the seat but lost to another quasi-celebrity in 1970 when Rep. John Tunney (D)-- the son of former heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney -- defeated him. Cranston, by the way, was elected to the Senate in 1968.
* NASCAR Legend Richard Petty (R): When "the King" ran for North Carolina secretary of state in 1996, he was seen as a shoe-in. Petty, himself, seemed to share that view, campaigning only sporadically. On election day, he was defeated by Elaine Marshall (D). "If I had known I wasn't going to win, I wouldn't have run," Petty said at the time.
* Ronald Reagan (R): The most famous and successful celebrity-politician, Reagan won his first elected office in 1966 when he became governor of California following nearly three decades in Hollywood. Two years later he ran unsuccessfully for president and ran a near-miss primary challenge to President Gerald Ford (R) in 1976. In 1980, Reagan was elected president and served two terms.
* Yankee 2nd Baseman Bobby Richardson (R): A perennial all-star for the powerhouse Pinstripers, Richardson made a bid for Congress in 1976 from South Carolina. He brought in a number of Yankee greats, including Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, but lost narrowly to Democratic Rep. Kenneth Holland.
* Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun (R):The first high-schooler to run a sub-four minute mile and a three-time Olympian, Ryun entered the 1996 open seat race to replace then Rep. Sam Brownback (R). After winning the three-way primary with 62 percent, Ryun won a more narrow 52 percent to 45 percent victory in the general election. Ryun has won reelection easily ever since.
* California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R): After Reagan, he's the best-known of the celebrity politicians. The Governator enjoyed a honeymoon period following his successful recall election victory in Oct. 2003. But of late, Schwarzenegger has struggled to find a successful second act. A handful of ballot initiatives he backed in a 2005 special election were defeated, leaving his chances for reelection this November up in the air.
* Novelist Upton Sinclair (Socialist/D): The famed author of "The Jungle" made a number of runs for office -- primarily in California where he moved in 1915. He ran for Congress twice -- once from New Jersey and once from California; he went on to campaign for Senate (1922) and governor (1926) as a Socialist. In 1934 he was the Democratic party's nominee for governor. Greg Mitchell wrote a great book on the '34 race -- "The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics." Earl Warren, who went on to become Supreme Court Chief Justice (and much derided by modern conservatives), masterminded the defeat of Sinclair for the Republicans.
* Jerry Springer (D): The man who gave us some of the best afternoon television brawls ever was once a popular mayor of Cincinnati. Ohio Democrats have flirted with the idea of bringing Springer back for a run for Senate or governor, but so far they have (mercifully) held off.
* Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson (R): Thompson was seen as a rising star in the Republican Party when he jumped from the silver screen to the Senate with an open seat win in 1994. After winning a full six-year term two years later, Thompson was regularly mentioned as a presidential candidate for the 2000 cycle but took his name out of contention in the spring of 1999. Thompson appeared bored with politics and retired rather than run for reelection in 2002. He's been back in Washington, most recently as a handler for Chief Justice John Roberts's Supreme Court nomination.
* Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I): The most shocking celebrity-politician on the list, Ventura's campaign went from a gimmick to a winner in 1998 when voters expressed their disdain with the two major parties in Minnesota by electing the former professional wrestler with 37 percent of the vote. Ventura, still popular with the state's voters, was expected to run for a second term but backed out in June 2002 saying his "heart and soul" wasn't in the job.
* Novelist Gore Vidal (D): Vidal made two unsuccessful bids for federal office -- one on each coast. In 1960, he lost a race for U.S. House in New York despite the strong backing of such party luminaries as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and actor Paul Newman. Twenty two years later he was defeated in a bid for the Senate from California by then Gov. Jerry Brown (D) (who went on to lose to Republican Pete Wilson in the general election). Vidal had politics in his blood; his grandfather -- Thomas Gore -- served in the Senate as a Democrat from Oklahoma, and he's distantly related to former Veep Al Gore.
* Former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts (R): What is it about Oklahoma and football? Watts, a former star quarterback in the University of Oklahoma's wishbone offense, was elected to Congress in 1994 and quickly rose up the leadership ranks, eventually becoming Chairman of the House Republican Conference. Watts abruptly retired from Congress in 2002 but seemed likely to make a return. He has been recruited by state Republicans for every statewide position that has come open since his retirement.
UPDATED, 6:00 p.m. ET: As I predicted earlier today, there were dozens of celebrities-turned-politicians that The Fix's original list missed. Thanks to all the readers who contributed in the comments section. Here's a quick update on some of the biggest names that didn't appear the first time around.
* Roy Acuff (R): Acuff, one of the pillars of the country-music scene in Nashville, ran for Tennessee governor twice (in 1944 and 1948) -- both times unsuccessfully. Acuff's political ambitions were reportedly the result of then Gov. Prentice Cooper's (D) refusal to attend a ceremony honoring him.
* Maryland Rep. Tom McMillen (D): McMillen starred on the hardwood at the University of Maryland and then played in the pros. He left the NBA to run for Congress from Maryland in 1986. Redistricting in 1991 forced McMillen into a 1992 race against Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R), which he lost by just over 7,000 votes. McMillen has another interesting political tie. He is credited with encouraging Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) to get involved in the cell phone industry in the early 1980s; Warner went on to make tens of millions as a pioneer in the field.
* Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell (R): The southpaw spent more than a decade pitching in the big leagues for the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets. After leaving baseball he held the Winston-Salem-based 5th District from 1968 until 1974. He was defeated in the post-Watergate election by Rep. Steve Neal (D), who held the seat until 1994 -- another watershed election. Following his defeat, Mizell served in the Ford and Reagan administrations. He also regularly returned to pitch batting practice to Republican lawmakers in preparation for the annual congressional baseball game. As for the nickname? Mizell was from Vinegar Bend, Alabama.
* Pappy O'Daniel (D): O'Daniel was ubiquitous on the radio airwaves before entering political office, gaining the nickname "Pass the Biscuits Pappy." Thanks largely to that stardom, he was elected governor of the Lonestar State in 1938. Three years later he defeated youthful Rep. Lyndon Johnson in a special election for the Senate but retired from the chamber in 1948 (setting up the infamous Democratic Senate primary detailed in Robert Caro's "Means of Ascent"). In 1956 and 1958 O'Daniel ran for governor and lost.
* Nebraska Rep. Tom Osborne (R): How could we forget the legendary Nebraska Cornhuskers football coach during college bowl season? Osborne coached the team for 35 years starting in 1962. After retiring from football, he joined the political game in 2000 when he ran and won the 3rd District open seat. He won reelection in 2002 with 93 percent and in 2004 with 87 percent. Osborne was heavily courted to challenge Sen. Ben Nelson (D) in 2006 but decided instead to run for governor. He is opposed in the Republican primary by Gov. Dave Heineman, who ascended to the seat when Mike Johanns (R) was named Secretary of Agriculture.
* Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page (D): Page was a legendary figure during his days on the gridiron at Notre Dame and went on to stardom in the NFL as a member of the Minnesota Vikings's famed "Purple People Eaters" defense during the 1970s. Page was elected to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1992, the first African American to hold that post. Page is regularly courted by national Democrats to run statewide in Minnesota but has not taken the leap to date.
Still more that I missed? Use the comments section below to say so.
January 3, 2006; 8:30 AM ET
Categories: Fix Notes
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