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Against Long Odds, Ex-Redskin Is Ready to Challenge Glendening

Ray Schoenke.
Ray Schoenke, ex-Redskin and likely candidate for Maryland governor.
By Juana Arias/TWP
By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 1998; Page B01

Even Ray Schoenke himself recognizes how the public likely will greet the news of his long-shot candidacy for governor of Maryland.

"Who is this guy?" he says, imitating a skeptic's growl as he gazes from the window of his sleek new office onto a rustic patch of Germantown. "He's got no experience! Who does he think he is? . . . He's a Redskin?!?"

In 1976, the veteran offensive lineman retired from professional football to rest his aging knees and cultivate his insurance business. On Tuesday, the 56-year-old Schoenke will emerge from 22 years of prosperous obscurity to announce formally that he is challenging Gov. Parris N. Glendening for the Democratic nomination -- his first-ever run for public office.

Last week, Schoenke took his first steps into the fray, firing off media releases blasting Glendening for his political ties to Larry Young (D-Baltimore), who was expelled last week from the state Senate. Like other contenders in the 1998 race, Schoenke is hoping to capitalize on past negative publicity surrounding the governor.

Ray Schoenke.
In 10 years with the Redskins, Schoenke volunteered with inner-city teams and the Special Olympics. He's shown here, left, in 1969.
File photo/TWP
Unlike the others, the longtime Laytonsville resident has a personal fortune to underwrite his attempt. With $2 million of his own money for starters, Schoenke could buy enough media exposure to vault past fellow unknown Terry McGuire, a Davidsonville physician, and pull abreast of the more established Democratic challenger, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, observers say. Such a crowded and vigorous primary battle could create more trouble for Glendening, as he prepares for a possible rematch with Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, his 1994 opponent.

Still, Glendening has steadied himself after a disastrous beginning, and most give Schoenke little chance of an upset. Such long odds prompt the question of whether Schoenke simply hopes to position himself for a future race in which he might reclaim the political dreams he passed up years ago in favor of his business.

Schoenke denies it. "I'm not interested in entering just to show," he said. "I'm entering this race to win."

In a recent interview, Schoenke still sounded like a candidate-in-the-works -- vague on some of his platform points and about how much money he intends to raise. (He later said he hopes to raise at least another $2 million to match his own contribution.)

Schoenke he said his decision to run came after six months of analysis and strategizing, with help from longtime political consultant Matt Reese and pollster William Hamilton. Reese said that voters polled by the campaign reacted favorably to the hypothetical description of a tough-minded businessman with Democratic roots but no electoral experience.

"The fact he's fresh and new and a nonpolitician might be the kind of thing the people might want right now," Reese said.

Six feet four with a granite jawline, Schoenke still dominates a room like a celebrity. But although his name may resonate locally for "guys who were 10 to 55 when I was playing," he said, he is rarely recognized on the street these days.

Now a millionaire contributor to Democratic causes who golfs with President Clinton and even attended one of the famous White House coffees, Schoenke emphasized his humble origins in a campaign letter he sent this month to 7,700 Maryland voters. His mother was a native Hawaiian who worked as a maid and spoke no English until she was in her teens; his father was an Army sergeant from a Minnesota farm when the two met and married.

Schoenke was born in Hawaii and spent most of his childhood in Texas, though the family moved around as his father advanced to the rank of major. After graduating from Southern Methodist University as a history major, Schoenke was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys in the 11th round of the 1963 draft.

It was a less extravagant era in professional sports. In 12 years of football, Schoenke said he never made more than $50,000 a year. Like many other players, he looked for outside income; on the advice of a friend, Schoenke started working for an insurance agency after practice.

In 1966, legendary coach Tom Landry cut Schoenke -- "the best thing that ever happened to me," he said.

"You understand what the NFL's about, that you're just a commodity," he said. "It made me realize that that was such a short-term part of life, that you need to prepare yourself for when that's over."

After bouncing around the NFL, Schoenke ended up in Washington, where over the course of a 10-year career with the Redskins, he burnished a reputation as an admired citizen-athlete through volunteer work with inner-city youth football teams and the Special Olympics.

He also pursued his interest in Democratic politics. When he first joined the Redskins, Schoenke said, he tried to get a job on Capitol Hill. But then-Sen. Ralph W. Yarborough (D-Texas) urged him to stick with insurance and keep a hand in politics as a volunteer and contributor.

As national chairman of Athletes for McGovern in 1972, Schoenke said that he almost was cut after a run-in with coach George Allen, a friend of then-President Nixon.

When he retired, Schoenke's political involvements prompted speculation that he would run for Montgomery County's open seat in the House of Representatives. But he passed up the 1976 race to stick with his growing insurance business, which was earning him more than football had by the time he left the game.

"The timing wasn't right," he said of his decision not to run for office earlier. "People told me that you got to run now while people still know you. But I wanted to experience living. I wanted to be more than a football player-politician. And I wanted to build an economic base.

"How many politicians can say they coached all their kids' teams, they attended all their recitals, built their own business, dealt with major corporations?"

Asked why he has decided to enter electoral politics at the highest state level, Schoenke said he believes Glendening is a weak leader, and he offers himself to Maryland voters as a tough, "can-do" pol in the style of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D).

Glendening, he says, hasn't done enough to bring Maryland's economy up to speed with the nationwide boom. And he blasts the governor's decision to finance a $200 million stadium to lure the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore.

Schoenke offers few specifics on the issues he said are the cornerstones of his campaign -- education, family and children and the economy. While Sauerbrey and Rehrmann call for tax cuts, Schoenke said he simply favors speeding up the phase-in of last year's 10 percent income tax cut. On the sticky issue of gambling, he favors giving track owners the slot machines they say they need to subsidize Maryland horse racing, but he says the state should own the machines and take the bulk of the profits.

Schoenke's last venture into the public policy arena was as a member of Glendening's advisory commission on gun violence, where he rankled chairman Vincent DeMarco by voting against a recommendation to license gun owners. The measure failed in the legislature. Schoenke, an avid duck hunter, says now that he will support licensure when technology improves enough to make the process less expensive and less time-consuming.

During a commission meeting, Schoenke also suggested that the state should consider legalizing drugs as a way to reduce violence.

"Legalization of drugs in Maryland can't happen," he says now, flatly. "But I never want to think that we cannot have a discussion about something that is controversial. Anything that can help us solve that problem, I'm prepared to talk about."

Tim Phillips, Glendening's campaign manager, declined to discuss Schoenke's candidacy until it is official. But other Maryland Democrats say that Schoenke may have a real chance, thanks to his willingness to spend millions.

"I wouldn't sell this man short," said Stewart Bainum Jr., a businessman and former state senator who tried to recruit a Democrat to challenge Glendening. "He's a focused man, and he's not a political neophyte."

Others say that Schoenke simply isn't plugged in enough to the state political hierarchy to gain much support in the long run.

"He's an attractive candidate, but he's not well known," said Joan Stern, vice chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party. "Money and time can take care of that. . . . But we just haven't seen that much of Ray lately."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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