State - Politics Sporty candidates Public office hopefuls happy to mix sports, politics

By Mike Householder

Associated Press Writer

BIRMINGHAM (AP) -- Mike Bouchard has a joke he likes to tell at campaign stops.

"Everybody claims to have a plan. The Detroit Lions go out on the field every Sunday with a plan, but if you don't have the team and coaches around you to implement that plan, it is worthless," the Oakland County sheriff and Republican gubernatorial hopeful says. "Michigan needs a leader that has experience and the team around him to succeed."

The chestnut gets a laugh every time.

That's partly because Michigan voters love their sports (and appreciate just how bad the Lions have been in recent seasons).

Bouchard, of Birmingham, uses the Lions crack not only as a way to lighten the mood, but to connect with potential voters on a common level.

The strategy is being used throughout the state this election cycle by candidates for governor, Congress and other posts eager to promote their ties to athletics, or simply their interest in them.

"I think this is a way for candidates to try and, one, connect with the public on a level that is outside of the typical political conversation and, two, cut through the clutter during the summer," said Oakland University political science professor David Dulio.

Take, for example, the candidate reaction to two of the biggest Michigan sports stories of the past month: Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga's near-perfect game and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's flirtation with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

On the former, Twitter was the medium of choice for office-seekers to express their collective outrage at umpire Jim Joyce's blown call that cost Galarraga a shot at baseball immortality.

"Galarraga No-No...?. What is up with that ump," GOP governor's aspirant Mike Cox tweeted that night, June 2.

Republican Paul Welday, an Oakland County businessman who is running for Congress in the 9th District, was similarly outraged, initially asking on Twitter: "Why no sanction against an umpire who so clearly made a unfathomable error? What would happen if you screwed up your job that badly," before later concluding that baseball commissioner Bud Selig "is a dope."

The imperfect game even served as common ground for the two competitors in the 11th District congressional race.

Incumbent Thaddeus McCotter, R-Livonia, shot off a letter to Selig asking the commissioner to formally declare it a perfect game.

The move prompted Democratic challenger Natalie Mosher of Wayne County's Canton Township to tweet: "We may not agree on much, but I agree on (at)ThadMcCotter on this one."

The Izzo episode also led to a consensus of thought among candidates.

Republican U.S. Reps. Pete Hoekstra of Holland, Candice Miller of Macomb County's Harrison Township, Mike Rogers of Howell and Fred Upton of St. Joseph and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer of Battle Creek all signed a letter to the wavering coach, asking him to return.

He did, of course, sending 140-character bursts of euphoria through the Twitterverse.

"Izzo stays. That's good news for all of Michigan! Yes!" wrote Hoekstra, who is running for governor.

For Hoekstra, though, the sporting life involves more than just watching from afar.

A longtime bicycle enthusiast, he has spent countless hours biking the roads and trails along the Lake Michigan shoreline of the 2nd District meeting constituents and voters. And now that he's a gubernatorial candidate, Hoekstra's been two-wheeling to campaign events throughout the state.

Other outdoor sporting activities, including hunting and fishing, also are popular among vote-seekers.

Former U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, who's running for his old 7th District seat, held a recent picnic fundraiser at a gun club in Calhoun County where he and others did some skeet shooting.

"He is one happy candidate when sporting activities can be combined with campaigning," said Walberg spokesman Joe Wicks.

Bouchard also is an avid outdoorsman who predicted he would "be the most active sportsman ever if I'm elected governor."

When outside, "I can feel God's hand, all in one spot. It sounds corny, but it's true," said Bouchard, who recently handed out "Sportsmen for Bouchard" literature highlighting his endorsement by hunter and musician Ted Nugent.

Brian Rooney, who's competing with Walberg for the 7th District GOP congressional nomination, is a hunter, marksman and Iraq war veteran whose grandfather founded the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rooney sits on the Steelers' board and said he's "the kind of guy who clings to his Bible and his gun."

Jay Riemersma, who's running for Hoekstra's congressional seat, frequently points to his experiences as a tight end at the University of Michigan and then Buffalo and Pittsburgh in the NFL.

He said his sporting past has been a positive factor in his campaign.

"My background in football has absolutely helped me connect with voters because people understand I'm trading one contact sport for another," Riemersma said. "I've gotten a lot of support from Wolverines and people who were fans during my playing days in the NFL."

Dulio, the political science professor, cautions candidates from taking the sports theme too far.

He brings up the Ohio hunting trip taken six years ago by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. The trip was designed to court the sportsmen's vote, but was derided by his critics and provided fodder for talk-show jokes because it was clear hunting was something he hadn't done often.

"I think candidates that try to force things end up looking silly -- see John Kerry going hunting in 2004," Dulio said. "Candidates who engage in activities that are normal for them stand a much better chance."

Published: Wed, Jul 7, 2010