Carl Lewis could be forgiven for believing that he’s a favorite son of the state of New Jersey. After leaping to fame at Willingboro High School, Lewis gain celebrity status as the top long distance jumper in New Jersey, graduating in 1979 ranked not only the top high school track athlete in the country but one of the top long jump athletes in the world. Lewis then went on to win 10 Olympic medals, nine of them gold and eight golds out of his 10 World Championship medals.
Lauded as one of the greatest track and field athletes of all times, Lewis was unquestionably an international celebrity. But he never forgot his home town or his alma mater.
In May, 2010, the Garden State paid tribute to Lewis’ world-class achievements, inducting him into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. It was a celebratory event where Republican Governor Chris Christie proclaimed that Lewis and the other inductees “represent everything that’s great about this state.” But all that was before the Olympian decided to enter politics.
In April, Lewis announced he was running as a democrat for the state senate in the solidly Republican and predominately white 8th Legislative District. He won the uncontested Democratic primary to oppose Republican incumbent and also good friend of the governor, Dawn Marie Addiego. That was when he went from being a “great New Jerseyian” to a “carpetbagger”
“Mr. Lewis is the very definition of a carpetbagger who, despite his celebrity status, should have to play by the same rules as everybody else,” GOP spokesman Chris Russell said. Like other Republicans, including Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State Kim Guadagno, Russell claims Lewis doesn’t qualify as a New Jersey resident.
They went to court to stop his race in its tracks. The U.S. District Court agreed: No he’s not a resident. Lewis and his legal team appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit overturned the lower court ruling but also sent it back to the U.S. District Court.
These legal arguments might remind Lewis of the controversy at the height of his athletic career when he was on a quest to match Jessie Owens by taking four golds at the 1984 Olympics. He stayed focus and strategic and matched Owens’ record. But then he wasn’t accused of being a “carpetbagger” nor had he received an “offensive and racist” message from the wife of a New Jersey Assemblyman.
“Imagine having dark skin and name recognition and the nerve to think that equalled [sic] knowing something about politics,” Jennifer Delany wrote in her email to Lewis’ campaign headquarters.
Condemnation was quick. Assemblyman Pat Delany immediately fell on the sword not only for his wife but the Republicans Party resigning even before he issued a statement of regret.
“I am deeply disappointed in my wife’s decision to send that email to Mr. Lewis’s campaign; it does not reflect my personal beliefs whatsoever. In an attempt to repair the serious damage this has caused to our marriage, and to protect our kids from public humiliation, I decided to leave public life. On behalf of my family, we sincerely apologize to Mr. Lewis for any pain this caused him.”
Chris Walker, Lewis’ campaign manager, said the email was never on their radar. “The night the story broke, we were still out knocking on doors. Things like that are not going to stop us,” he said. Referring to the Republicans’ reaction he added, “That’s something for them to deal with. Our focus is campaigning. Our focus is getting Carl elected.”
Walker says Lewis’ mindset was the same even after calls from Gov. Christie’s office leading up to the announcement. Before then, the Olympian and the governor were in talks about appointing Lewis the physical fitness ambassador for the state.
“We were working on a program with the governor to implement a fitness program. We actually had four districts we were going to target.”
But after the announcement, Walker said he received a called from Gov. Christie’s staff. “They called to ask me if it was true. I got another call to say, ‘the governor will pull the program.’ ”
According to Walker the next call was from Gov. Christie to Carl Lewis.
“He said the opponent was a friend of his. ‘You don’t need to do this. Why are you doing this? If you put your name out to run, I will pull the plug on the program.’ ”
Walker said Lewis’ conversation with the governor didn’t deter him. “That didn’t stop Carl because he’s about service. You don’t let someone stop you because they are trying to push their agenda.”
Lewis continues to campaign, knocking on doors and introducing himself to residents, according to Burlington County Times reporter, David Levinsky, who follows local politics. He’s tagged along with Lewis noting that while residents are in awe of him, they are happy to listen.
“It’s been a Republican district for a while but he’s definitely got name recognition. His message is he wants to improve schools and try to motivate students to try to achieve more. He’s big on education and he’s supportive of coming up with teacher evaluation programs and controlling property taxes, which in New Jersey is among the highest in the nation.”
In researching a piece on the former athlete, Levinsky discovered that Lewis has been a long-time contributor to the Burlington County community.
“A few years back, Willingboro High School’s track was in disrepair and he donated money to help fix it. He also sponsors junior achievement awards for the Willingboro district and he recognizes high achieving students. They are numerous examples of his charitable and volunteer work. He clearly has ties.”
William Tambussi, Lewis’ attorney, has lived in New Jersey all of his life and has twenty-five years of experience practicing in the state. In a legal brief now before the U.S. District Court due to be heard on Thursday, Tambussi argues against the claim that Lewis is a “carpetbagger.”
“Carl Lewis doesn’t fit the literal or figurative description of a carpetbagger. Otherwise, why would he be running in a Republican district and not a Democratic district?”
Tambussi’s opinion as to the continued legal battles against Lewis is that he just might take a Republican district.
“Carl is an extremely serious threat to the Republicans in this race. I think the Republicans statewide think that Carl Lewis poses a real threat in a district that they thought was safe.”
Tambussi says he won’t be surprised if the U.S. District ruling is not in their favor and if not, they’ll appeal again.
“We’re confident, he’ll be on the ballot and if the district court rules against us, we’ll go back to the appeals court.” Why the extraordinary legal effort? “Carl Lewis is one of the finest political candidates I’ve ever represented.”
Tambussi’s confidence in court syncs with Walker’s assessment of Lewis’ door-to door attitude and determination “He very optimistic and encouraged and motivated. It not just optimism. He’s energized. He’s all of the above.”
As for Gov. Christie’s remarks to the audience at the Hall of Fame ceremony, Lewis is that and more. “If you came here to pursue a job, or you came here to go to college or you came here just to build your dreams, you’re New Jerseyians too.”