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Monday, November 6, 2006
Where politics and sports mix

By George Tanber
Special to ESPN.com

Lynn Swann owns four Super Bowl rings. He's not accustomed to losing. But, according to the polls, it's going to take an immaculate intervention for the former Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver and TV sports reporter to win the governor's race Tuesday in Pennsylvania.

Swann, a 54-year-old Republican, is lagging almost 20 percentage points behind Gov. Ed Rendell. Despite the deficit, Swann still demonstrates the feistiness that made him a feared and accomplished receiver and a Super Bowl MVP.

Lynn Swann
Former NFL star Lynn Swann is chasing incumbent Ed Rendell in the Pennsylvania governor's race.
"I always run to win. It's the only attitude I've ever had," he said Friday afternoon during a campaign stop at Slippery Rock University.

In these elections, the Swann-Rendell race is the highest-profile campaign involving a former athlete. Swann initially was thought to have a good chance because of his name, but he fell behind in May, and Rendell was up by 20 percentage points for much of the summer. The governor, who reportedly raised three times as much money as Swann, still had a 17-point lead last week, according to Rasmussen Reports, a polling service.

"It's a tough climate for Republicans, nationally," said Lindsay Sweetin, spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association. "[And Swann] is up against a fairly popular incumbent [who] had more money to spend."

Ed Rendell, left, and former Vice President Al Gore.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, left, and former Vice President Al Gore campaigned on behalf of Democratic candidates Saturday. Rendell held a double-digit lead in the polls last week.
Rendell spokesman Dan Fee pointed to Swann's lack of political experience.

"Lynn Swann's job has been a sideline reporter," Fee said. "He has been a personality. [He] relied too heavily on what fame would bring him."

Swann rejects that idea.

"People have come into politics from a variety of walks of life -- from business, from the medical field, from the media," he said. "People in sports have done this in the past [as well]."

There are also several former athletes competing in congressional races Tuesday, each close contests considered critical in terms of which party will control the House. They include:

Heath Shuler
Heath Shuler acknowledges that his failure as a quarterback in the NFL motivated him in his race for a seat in the U.S. House.
• Heath Shuler, a former University of Tennessee and NFL quarterback. Shuler is running for Congress against Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Asheville, an eight-term incumbent in the western North Carolina district where Shuler starred as a prep player. Pollsters are calling this race a toss-up. Even though they can't vote, Washington, D.C.-area residents have joined the fray. A satirical Web site has emerged with the intent of keeping him from returning to Washington, where he played for the Redskins from 1994-96. The site notes that as the third overall pick in the 1994 draft, Shuler held out for $19.5 million and went 4-13 in games played before being released in 1994 -- one of the darkest periods in Redskins history. Shuler laughs at the mention of the site. Still, he concedes his failure in the NFL has motivated him in this race. "I think deep down you have that drive; you want to be successful," he said.

• Baron Hill, a high school hoops legend in basketball-crazed Indiana. A former congressman, Hill hopes to regain the seat he lost two years ago. He faces incumbent Mike Sodrel. Hill once held the state's 100-yard dash record, but his prowess as a point guard at Seymour High is what he's best remembered for in southern Indiana. Hill, 53, was elected to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, the same year as Larry Bird. As Hill campaigned, some voters wanted to talk basketball, recalling games played nearly four decades ago. For instance, on Saturday, in the Floyd Central High School district, a voter mentioned a game between Seymour and Floyd in which Seymour blew an 18-point lead with six minutes to go after a bomb threat delayed the game for 30 minutes. "I get reminded of that game a half a dozen times a week," Hill said. "[Still], it loosens things up for me in terms of having a conversation with people." Hill is running even with Sodrel in the polls.

President Bush, left, and Rep. Jim Ryun.
President Bush, left, and Rep. Jim Ryun, R-Kan., wave during a Kansas Victory Rally at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka, Kan., on Sunday.
• Former track star Jim Ryun, who once held the world mile record, is a five-term Republican congressman from Kansas involved in a tight race against Nancy Boyda, whom he defeated two years ago. Ryun, 59, rated as one of the most conservative members of Congress, was leading comfortably a month ago. But anti-GOP sentiment related to the war in Iraq appears to be a concern. As a result, President Bush hosted a Republican rally Sunday in Topeka, closing his 40-minute speech with a pitch for Ryun. As a junior in 1964, Ryun became the world's first high school runner to break a four-minute mile. His world-record time in the mile -- 3 minutes, 51.1 seconds -- set in 1967, lasted nine years.

• Angela Paccione, a former Stanford University basketball standout and now a member of the Colorado House of Representatives, is in her first race for Congress. Paccione, 46, is in a tight race with incumbent Marilyn Musgrave for the 4th District seat, which Musgrave has held since 2002. Paccione starred at Stanford in the early 1980s, before the women's game gained national exposure, and she played in the Women's Basketball Association.

There also are several races involving sports figures or issues. They include:

• Austin attorney Mina Brees, the estranged mother of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, seeks a Texas appeals court seat. Last week, Drew Brees asked her to stop using his image in her TV commercials. Mina Brees declined to comment on the spat. Mina Brees, a former volleyball and track star and daughter of legendary high school football coach Ray Akins, conceded the Brees name could be an asset in her campaign.

Drew Brees #9
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees asked his estranged mother, Mina Brees, to stop using his image in her campaign for a Texas appeals court seat.
"If you're legally related, that certainly might help you," she told ESPN.com Friday. "[But] I don't know how much it helped."

On the status of her relationship with her son, Mina Brees would only say: "I'm a huge fan of both of my sons. I love them, and I want all the best for them."

• Mike Nifong, the Durham, N.C.-area district attorney, faces write-in candidates Steve Monks, chairman of the Durham County Republican Party, and county commissioner Lewis Cheek, a Democrat.

Nifong's critics say he was overzealous in his pursuit of three Duke lacrosse players, who have been indicted on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual assault stemming from a team party in March. Supporters of Nifong, a prosecutor for nearly 30 years, say he should not be judged on one case.

•  World Series MVP David Eckstein of the St. Louis Cardinals, Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan, Kansas City Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney and former Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner are among a group of professional athletes speaking out against a proposed constitutional amendment in Missouri that would allow the use of any federally approved stem cell research, including work on human embryonic stem cells.

The athletes say they do not oppose stem cell research but are concerned about the use of embryonic stem cells and potential human cloning. Since their recent involvement, the proposed stem cell measure, once comfortably winning, has tightened, according to Missourians Against Human Cloning spokeswoman Cathy Ruse. "Here in Missouri these guys are heroes. [We're] just thrilled to have them speak out," she said. The Missouri Opposition for Lifesaving Cures, which favors the amendment, has advertisements featuring Michael J. Fox.

• Initiatives related to new sports facilities are on ballots in Sacramento and Seattle.

Supporters of a new arena for the NBA's Sacramento Kings face opposition. Measure R would authorize a 0.25 percent Sacramento county sales tax increase that would generate $58 million a year for 15 years. A related issue, Measure Q, stipulates that no more than half the money be used for a publicly owned sports and entertainment facility.

Supporters of Measure R, including team owners Maloof Sports and Entertainment, say the issue isn't just about a new arena but about revitalizing downtown Sacramento. Opponents, who formed Stop the Arena Tax, approach the issue similarly to other campaigns elsewhere in which voters have demanded that new sports complexes be built with private funding.

Said Robert Riesenman, a Kings season-ticket holder: "People would love to have an [arena] downtown. That's not the issue. The thing is we want [the Maloofs] to pay for it. They're going to make the money."

In Seattle, Initiative 91, sponsored by Citizens for More Important Things, calls for the city to receive a fair-value return -- currently 4.9 percent -- on any property, goods and services it provides to any for-profit professional sports organizations. At issue is the plight of the Seattle SuperSonics and the WNBA's Seattle Storm, whose new owner, Clay Bennett, has given the city one year to agree to either refurbish or replace KeyArena. An Oklahoma City businessman, Bennett likely will move the teams if the city fails to comply. The teams' previous owner, a company directed by Starbucks Corp. chairman Howard Schultz, could not reach such an agreement with the city, causing Schultz to sell the team, he said.

Chris Van Dyke is a veteran of such issues. He was on the losing end of taxpayer battles that led to the construction of Safeco Field, home of the Mariners, and Qwest Field, home of the Seahawks. But he said he learned something valuable from the experience: "How powerful the anti-stadium tax subsidy sentiment really is."

So Van Dyke came up with Initiative 91 and recruited influential allies, such as the Service Employees International Union, to join the effort.

"We went on offense rather than defense. This time we set the rules," he said. Although Van Dyke said polls show his side leading, and there's no organized opposition, he remains nervous about the outcome because, for once, he wants voters to say yes in order to say no to a sports subsidy.

"We think voters get it," he said.

George Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.com.