Sunday, August 3, 2003

TV fame means edge in D.C. bid

Wacky precedent set for Springer

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

Jerry Springer
WASHINGTON - Sonny Bono did it. So did Cooter from The Dukes of Hazzard. And Gopher from The Love Boat.

If Jerry Springer announces Wednesday that he is indeed running for the U.S. Senate from Ohio, he will be only the latest celebrity to try to jump from TV to D.C.

Television celebrity translates into name recognition, "which is the coin of the realm in politics - even when it's negative," said former four-term Iowa GOP Rep. Fred Grandy, who played Gopher on the 1970s comedy and now is a radio host here.

Without the fame from TV, Grandy said, "I don't think I would have even gotten the nomination. I don't think I would have raised the money. I wouldn't have attracted the talent to my campaign that I did. Other than that, I was a shoo-in."

Former two-term Georgia Rep. Ben Jones said his fame as Cooter the mechanic on Dukes of Hazzard opened doors, helping him with voters and fund-raisers.

"It was a curiosity factor. People were interested in what I had to say," he said. "When people go down and look at the ballot, if they know one name and they don't know another, they'll vote for the one they know."

Every election brings out some celebrity, eccentrics or oddities who sound like they might have appeared on Springer's TV show. Former prostitute and motorcycle stuntwoman Jessi Winchester got 20 percent of the Democratic vote when she ran for a House seat in Nevada in 1996. That same year, phone sex dominatrix Mistress Madison campaigned for a House seat in San Diego.

TV launched the political careers of more than a dozen members of Congress in recent years, mostly TV broadcasters.

They include former local newscasters Henry Bonilla of Texas, Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, and Arizona Republican J.D. Hayworth, who was a sportscaster on Cincinnati's WLWT-TV (Channel 5) in the mid-1980s before moving to Phoenix and winning a seat there.

Springer, however, began as a politician, serving on Cincinnati City Council and as mayor before jumping to TV and now, possibly, back into politics.

Celebrity also has helped sports heroes win seats in Congress. Former NBA star Bill Bradley of New Jersey served 18 years in the U.S. Senate and then ran for president. Football coach Tom Osborne of the University of Nebraska retired, ran for Congress in 2000, and received 82 percent of the vote. And, of course, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning is now a U.S. senator from Kentucky.

Not all celebrities are successful. The Beverly Hillbillies' Miss Hathaway, Nancy Kulp, lost a race for a Pennsylvania congressional seat in 1984. Pa from The Waltons, Ralph Waite, lost a race for a California seat in 1998 to Mary Bono, whose late husband, Sonny, was one of Congress' best-known celebrities. Even Jones - Cooter - lost a race last year for a congressional seat in Virginia, where he now runs Cooter's Place and will host DukesFest 03 next weekend. ("I'm hangin' in like Gunga Din," he says.)

Grandy actually interviewed Springer recently on his radio show. He found Springer smart but probably too liberal for Ohio, he said.

Jones, a fellow Democrat, said Springer's show made him impossible to support. "I couldn't possibly vote for someone who was involved in that kind of crap. It's sickening."

A University of Cincinnati poll in March found Springer had nearly universal name recognition among Ohioans - but seven of 10 had an unfavorable opinion of him.

As Springer's exploratory campaign has shown so far, fame brings national TV coverage. That in itself can bring in more money and bring more "free media" chances to get out a political message.

From stardom to C-SPAN

People who have parlayed celebrity as entertainers and broadcasters into a congressional seat:

Rep. Sonny Bono, R-Calif. Half of the singing duo Sonny and Cher, Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., before winning a congressional seat in 1994. He died in a skiing accident in 1998.

Rep. Fred Grandy, R-Iowa. Gopher from The Love Boat, Grandy served four terms as an Iowa congressman before an unsuccessful run for governor. He later became chief executive of Goodwill Industries and now co-hosts a Washington morning radio show.

Rep. Ben Jones, D-Ga. Jones played Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard, then served two terms from Georgia before redistricting put him in the same district as former Rep. Newt Gingrich. He lost, and now runs Cooter's Place in Sperryville, Va., and Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. He was a movie actor who played a variety of Washington figures, including some villains, and won a special election to replace Al Gore - winning re-election in 1996. Considered a rising political star, he nonetheless retired earlier this year and returned to acting on TV's Law & Order.

Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas. Bonilla was a TV reporter in San Antonio before winning his congressional seat in 1992. He is still in office.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. A radio and TV broadcaster, Burns won his Senate seat in 1988 and still is serving.

Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn. An anchor for a Minneapolis TV station, Grams won a House seat in 1992 and a Senate seat two years later. But he lost his re-election bid in 2000.

Rep. J. D. Hayworth, R-Ariz. His local fame as a sportscaster helped him win a five-way primary in 1994 and win a seat in Congress, where he still works.


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