Monday, August 02, 2010

A Towering Candidate in Oregon

Having seen Chris Dudley playing the NBA over the years, he always came off as a likable fan favorite, despite his limited skills, not to mention his historically bad free throw shooting. Of course being 6-11 allowed him to stick around far longer than your average NBA player.

Well, now Dudley is the GOP candidate for Governor of Oregon and actually now is in a dead heat in a state not won by a Republican since 1982.
Like most people who run for governor, Dudley is crisscrossing his state to shake hands, kiss babies and chitchat with voters. Unlike most people, he is doing so at the height of 6 feet 11 inches, his ticket to a 16-year N.B.A. career.

“It really is a great icebreaker,” Dudley said in a recent interview. “People are very comfortable coming up to me — a lot of them feel like they know me already from my time playing.”

Dudley, 45, is an unusual political candidate. He played basketball at Yale, a university far better known for producing politicians than N.B.A. players, and did so while living with diabetes. And in N.B.A. history, no player who scored as little as Dudley — he averaged 3.9 points a game and was famous for his inept free-throw shooting — has managed to linger longer than his 886 games, which included three and a half seasons with the Nets and three with the Knicks.

He faces an uphill battle in the political arena, too: President Obama won Oregon by 16 percentage points in 2008, and the last time a Republican was elected governor in the state was 1982. But polls have put Dudley in a virtual dead heat with his Democratic opponent, former Gov. John A. Kitzhaber. (The most recent poll, released last Wednesday by SurveyUSA, put Dudley ahead by 2 points, within the margin of error.)

Dudley’s advisers say they hope to replicate the kind of jobs-focused campaign that helped win governorships for Republicans last year in two other states that went for Obama, New Jersey and Virginia.

And his celebrity status — he played for the Portland Trail Blazers from 1993 to 1997 and 2001 to 2003, and has lived in Portland’s suburbs since — has not hurt.

“Playing in the N.B.A., you’re used to getting attention, and it’s normal to have people come up to you and talk to you about sports,” Dudley said. “Now, people are coming up to you and talking about their life, and what’s going on, and their frustrations with what’s happening in our state, and you really get to know people at a different level, and I’ve enjoyed that.”

But campaigning brings some unusual logistical challenges. At a visit to a nonprofit education group here, an office chair nearly collapsed underneath him as he tried to park his gangly frame. At a happy hour for young supporters, he tried to speak from a doorway — except he could not fit in the doorway.

Most people internalize as children that it is rude to point, but when a 6-11 man walks by, that bit of etiquette seems to be forgotten. On the campaign trail, onlookers tend to gawk, and many people introduce themselves by informing Dudley how tall he is.

Dudley does not seem to mind. “I’m a tall guy,” he said. “It’s something that happens.”

His advisers do not seem to mind, either.

“People want to shake his hand,” said Kerry Tymchuk, who was the state director for former Senator Gordon H. Smith, Republican of Oregon, and is an informal adviser to Dudley. “Some of it’s the Blazers factor, the celebrity factor, the fact he’s tall. But it’s certainly an asset when people want to meet you.”

A former treasurer for the National Basketball Players Association, Dudley said he was growing more comfortable as a politician. He has shown an ability to raise money, netting $2.73 million to Kitzhaber’s $1.76 million, according to the Oregon secretary of state’s office, which has allowed Dudley to run a steady diet of unchallenged television ads (the most recent features the head of the players association, Billy Hunter).

Among the contributors to Dudley’s campaign are N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern; the founder of Nike, Phil Knight; the coaches P. J. Carlesimo and Rick Carlisle; and his former Blazers teammates Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter.

“The voters of this state don’t get too excited about Republican governors, I can tell you that right now,” said Porter, who is a member of the campaign’s finance committee. “But he’s going to put in the tireless effort that he’s always been known for on the basketball court.”
Politics has been littered with former athletes over the years and Dudley's name recognition could certainly put him over the top in this usually very blue state. After the win by Christie--not to mention Scott Brown earlier this year--anything's possible this November.

Meanwhile, in a stunning development, Dudley's opponent just received the SEIU endorsement.

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