TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP)— One court on Wednesday refused to put nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis on the Democratic primary ballot in a New Jersey Senate race, just hours before his lawyer tried to make his case to one of the only remaining courts that could help the former Olympic track and field star.
It’s a case of high political intrigue, even by New Jersey standards, as one of the world’s most celebrated athletes tries to get to the starting blocks for a different kind of race.
Republicans, Democrats and election officials — who are supposed to be neutral — have been slugging it out in news conferences and in courtrooms over big constitutional and political questions. The issues at the heart of the case: Is Lewis a New Jersey resident? Are the state’s residency rules fair? And, if Lewis isn’t a resident, should he be allowed to run anyway?
Meanwhile, three county clerks are reminding the judges of a very practical issue: They need to get their ballots printed soon for the June 7 primary.
“It’s kind of amazing,” Lewis lamented outside a courtroom Wednesday, “You can go from New Jersey’s favorite son to a carpetbagger in three weeks.”
Lewis, now 49, grew up in Willingboro, a middle-class town between Philadelphia and Trenton. He went to Texas for college and in 1984 moved from track star to celebrity when he won four gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics. Over the next 12 years, he would collect five more golds in the Olympics.
He has been based largely in California, where he owns a business and where he has voted — at least until he registered to vote in New Jersey last month.
But he has owned a home in New Jersey since 2005 and has volunteered as a track coach at Willingboro High School since 2007. He also has a foundation in New Jersey. His has homes in Medford and Mount Laurel, N.J., and Pacific Palisades, Calif.
He announced last month that he would seek a state Senate seat, saying he wanted to do more to help the people he knows in the area near where he grew up.
He is, he says, a New Jerseyan who has lived in the state for 22 of his years and identifies with voters there. “They know who I am,” he said. “I’ve been around for years.”
Friends, he said, have often told him to run for office. While he hasn’t given many details of his platform, he’s in some ways a ready-made candidate. He’s still tall and lean, a gray-haired version of the magazine-cover star, and speaks with the polish of someone comfortable in front of the media.
No other Democrat is running for the seat. The district is dominated by Republicans and is currently represented in the state Senate by Dawn Marie Addiego. It’s a slice of New Jersey that has become an unlikely hotbed for athlete-politicians. Last year, former Philadelphia Eagles lineman Jon Runyan, a Republican, was elected to represent a congressional district that includes much of the same area. One of the main people who helped recruit him to run was Addiego.
Last week, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who also serves as secretary of state and was elected as Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s running mate, declared that Lewis didn’t meet the state requirement that a state senator has to be a resident for at least four years before running.
So far, courts have agreed with her ruling, despite protests from Democratic officials that it was nakedly partisan.
A state appeals court ruled that Lewis didn’t meet the residency requirement. The state Supreme Court has asked for briefs from attorneys but hasn’t said when it would rule.
A federal judge ruled that there’s nothing unconstitutional about the residency requirement itself. Lewis’s lawyer argued before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday that the requirement has an unconstitutional effect by keeping Lewis out of the race.
A lawyer for the state and one for two Republican interveners said that the state should decide its own election rules and that a federal court would have no place overruling a state election official.
“It’s not the role of this court to bail out Mr. Lewis,” Mark Sheridan, a lawyer for the Republicans, told the three-judge panel.
Sheridan also contended that Lewis hasn’t proved that he has a right to run for office in New Jersey that trumps the residency requirement.
Where the case heads next is unclear. The federal appeals indicated they’d like to decide quickly, but it’s unclear exactly when it would rule.
Lawyers have laid out a variety of possibilities — ranging from Lewis being left on the primary ballot but being disqualified in the general election to just the opposite.
Clerks in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties say they plan to print ballots starting Saturday. Unless a court says otherwise before then, Lewis’ name won’t be on them.
Do you think Carl Lewis is eligible to run for a State Senate seat in New Jersey? Let us know below…
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