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Athletes turning to politics for second career

| Tuesday, May 11, 2010, 12:00 p.m.

LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. — Gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley ducked through the coffeehouse door, and the barista shouted a greeting. Several people waiting in line looked up — way up — and smiled in recognition.

The first thing everybody notices about Dudley is his height.

At 6-foot-11, with a broad body that battled the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson for 16 years in the NBA, Dudley fills a lot of space.

That towering presence and six years with the Portland Trail Blazers have given Dudley name recognition — an invaluable asset in his run against two more mainstream GOP candidates in Oregon's May 18 primary.

Dudley, 45, is among a handful of former pro athletes across the country who are running for public office.

In New Jersey, Jon Runyan is going after a congressional seat with the same determination that made him an All Pro and fan favorite with the Philadelphia Eagles. Clint Didier, a former NFL tight end turned alfalfa farmer, is campaigning for the U.S. Senate in Washington state. Another former NBA center, Shawn Bradley, is running for the Utah Legislature.

Many of the athlete-candidates are Republicans, like many other pro athletes or coaches who have pursued office in recent years. Their platforms mostly follow the mainstream Republican ethos of free enterprise, lower taxes and limited government.

They run in a tradition of professional athletes turned pols, such as the late congressman and Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp (football), former Rep. Steve Largent (football), Senator Jim Bunning (baseball), Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., (football) and former Senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley (basketball). More recently, Democrat Dave Bing was elected mayor of Detroit, a city that loved him during his Hall of Fame career with the Pistons.

Running as an outsider, Dudley has been faulted for his performance in debates and other formal campaign events. Party regulars say he doesn't have a command of the issues and sometimes comes off as unprepared, responding too often to questions with a noncommittal "I'm open to that."

But as he goes one-on-one with the coffee drinkers at Chuck's Place, Dudley seems at ease.

"People feel comfortable with Chris," said Eddie Brown, owner of a marketing business.

Plenty of Oregonians tease Dudley about his famously lousy free-throw shooting during his years as a Trail Blazer. But these days, they're just as likely to tell him about being laid off, or trying to hold on to the family ranch, or how state taxes are hurting their business.

Didier is one of 10 candidates in Washington state's August primary who are seeking to run against Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in November. While he has raised the most money among Republicans — about $352,000 — Didier is campaigning in the shadow of Dino Rossi, a powerful Republican who is flirting with a last-minute run. Didier is not considered a real threat to Murray.

In New Jersey, Runyan has raised about $137,000, has the support of Republican organizations in his district and is considered a favorite to win the primary election.

Dudley has collected more cash than any candidate in the Oregon governor's race — $1.3 million. His main rival, Allen Alley, has raised $425,300. The two Democratic candidates in Oregon's primary are John Kitzhaber, who has previously served two terms as governor, and Bill Bradbury, a former Oregon secretary of state.

The sports world has provided much of Dudley's financial support. Former Trail Blazer Terry Porter is on his finance committee. Contributions from NBA Commissioner David Stern, Nike founder Phil Knight and former agent Daniel Fegan helped prime the candidate's campaign.

Dudley's platform calls for tax reductions — especially for businesses — and curbs on government spending. He advocates thinning timber to provide jobs and boost the economies of struggling timber-dependent towns. Oregon faces a $2.5 billion state budget shortfall, and its unemployment rate is stubbornly stuck at more than 10 percent.

Name recognition alone could get Dudley through the primary election.

"The instant awareness an athlete brings to the political process is what most candidates spend most of their money on," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

Winning in the fall in Democratic-leaning Oregon will be difficult for any Republican.

Dudley retired from the NBA in 2003. He acknowledges that his basketball career has helped him as a political newcomer but says it also taught him lessons useful on the campaign trail.

"If you win three games in a row, you're a hero," Dudley says. "If you lose three games in a row, you're a bum. The one who succeeds is the one who realizes he's neither, who works hard and does the best he can and doesn't let himself get too high or too low."

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