There are all kinds of people who seek public office. Some are former government officials hoping to work their way up the political ladder. Others are businesspeople looking to transfer their skills from their world into the political world. A third class of candidates is the progressives who’ve never met a payroll and often don’t match the public’s perception of what a candidate should look and act like.
The fourth variety of office seeker is the celebrity candidate who would like to parlay his or her name recognition into elective office. There’s a long history of celebrity candidates who’ve looked to turn fame into a different kind of power. Some of them have been sports heroes. The earliest one I could find was Walter Johnson, who pitched for the Washington Senators for almost 25 years and then, after he retired, ran for county commissioner in Montgomery County, Maryland. He succeeded in winning a term and then ran unsuccessfully for Congress.
The list of more recent sports figures who took the plunge into politics is headed by former New York Knicks star Bill Bradley. Bradley was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served three terms. In 2000 he decided to run for president, and his loss in the Democratic primary ended his political career.
Ben Knighthorse Campbell went from competing in judo in the 1964 Olympic Games to representing Colorado in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Professional wrestler Jessie Ventura became governor of Minnesota, star pitcher Jim Bunning served in both the House and the Senate, and there were many more.
California is known for producing movie and television star candidates. The first one was George Murphy, a leading man of Hollywood musicals in the 1930s and ’40s who became a U.S. Senator. We all know the biggest success story of all, that of B movie actor Ronald Reagan, and then there was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who turned his bodybuilder persona into that of a successful actor as well, and then California’s governor.
The list of celebrities, some better known than others, who went into politics during or after film or television careers includes Shirley Temple Black, Cynthia Nixon, Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood, Sean Duffy, Clay Aiken, Fred Grandy, George Takei, Melissa Gilbert and John David Lodge. The current roster of former media stars is headed by Donald Trump, whose show “The Apprentice” gave him access to millions of viewers who became enthusiastic supporters.
The tendency of well-known personalities to become candidates continues with the upcoming November election. In Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz is seeking to become a U.S. Senator. Oz gained television fame thanks to Oprah Winfrey, who made him a guest expert on her show. Dr. Oz, as he’s called, had his own show for 10 years, which has given him widespread name recognition.
His Democratic opponent, John Fetterman, lacks a show business background, but has attracted attention for his blue-collar-style campaign.
Other well-known names are seeking key positions in several states. Former Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker is a Republican Senate candidate in Georgia, opposing Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, and television political commentator Tudor Dixon is the Republican candidate for governor in Michigan, challenging incumbent Gretchen Whitmer. Both Walker and Dixon have Trump’s endorsement, which may or not be a blessing.
Some prominent figures are not seeking elective office, but instead will be playing active roles in many contests over the next month. Don’t be surprised if some of the candidates trot out celebrities as their endorsers. But history has shown that endorsements by big names usually don’t produce votes, and big-name endorsers often loses public support for their next movie or television show.
The next 30 days will determine whether any of the latest crop of celebrities can translate their prominence into winning campaigns.
These days, voters have become more sophisticated when it comes to endorsements, and if a candidate has taken unpopular positions, no celebrity will make a difference.
This year, issues like abortion, inflation, crime, education and the fragility of democracy itself are more important than candidates with recognizable names.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.