Lewis, who won 10 Olympic medals in all, said he was interested in working on educational issues and helping the state become more affordable. He declined to discuss specifics, saying he had pulled his campaign together quickly and would announce his platform as soon as possible.
He did take care of one important detail: Monday morning, he registered to vote in Burlington County. Lewis, 50, lives in Medford. He said he had been registered to vote in California.
Lewis is one of scores of candidates who filed by Monday's deadline to run for the Legislature, as all 40 Senate and 80 Assembly seats are up this year. Elsewhere in the state, tough races seem to be shaping up in Atlantic and Bergen Counties.
Lewis' candidacy raised the spirits of Burlington County Democrats, who have been on a losing streak. Earlier this year, the county surrogate and clerk, who had won their posts as Democrats, switched to the Republican Party.
Wearing the smile of a man who had just let a very big cat out of a bag, Burlington County's Democratic Chairman Joe Andl said, "This will engage our troops. It will bring a breath of fresh air to the party."
But the race is likely to be difficult, even for a celebrity candidate who knows the area.
Lewis is running on the Republican-dominated eastern side of Burlington County against well-known incumbent Dawn Marie Addiego of Evesham. Without a presidential or gubernatorial race to draw out voters, legislative races are typically low-turnout elections that tend to attract primarily the party faithful. Historically, faithful Republicans have outvoted Democrats in legislative races in the Eighth District, where Lewis is running.
"This is a race Republicans are walking into with a 20-point advantage," said Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray. "I start out somewhat skeptical, since we've not heard about Carl Lewis being politically active before."
Republicans, however, are taking Lewis seriously.
Soon after Lewis' news conference, Addiego's campaign shot out a news release criticizing Lewis for failing to announce a platform.
Addiego "looks forward to a spirited campaign against Mr. Lewis once he acclimates himself to the issues facing our state," wrote her consultant Chris Russell, who last managed the successful campaign of Republican Jon Runyan against then-U.S. Rep. John Adler. Runyan, a former Eagle, was criticized on the campaign trail for failing to have detailed stands on issues.
Like Runyan, Lewis is hoping to parlay his athletic reputation into a political career. But that doesn't always work. Brian Propp, a former Flyer, failed to win an Assembly seat in 2007 in Burlington County.
Addressing his lack of political experience, Lewis said, "I'm jumping into waters that I'm not used to. But you know, I'm a fast learner. I may not run as fast as I used to, but I think I still learn as fast."
Lewis, though, will enter a world nothing like athletics. In New Jersey politics, there seem to be no rules of fair play.
Lewis said that he was up to it, noting that sometimes during the height of his athletic career in the 1980s, he would make controversial statements. And then his phone would ring. He said he would say to himself, "God, I hope that's not Mother." After laughing, he said, "If I can deal with my mother's wrath, there's nothing they can do [to me] in Trenton."
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) noted at the news conference that Adler, who died this month, won the 2010 House race on the Burlington County side of the congressional district, which includes much of Burlington and Ocean Counties.
Analysts said Lewis' campaign could force Republicans to spend money and resources in a district that many had considered an easy win for them.
Right now, the Democrats hold both houses of the Legislature, and think that under the new legislative district map they can hold onto their majorities. The map was approved April 3.
There are 24 Democrats in the Senate and 16 Republicans. In the Assembly, there are 47 Democrats and 33 Republicans. Neither house has a veto-proof majority, so Democrats will be working to increase their ranks to hold back Gov. Christie's agenda. At the same time, Republicans will fight for majorities with districts they say are more favorably composed than the old districts.
One of the region's marquee races could happen in the Second District, which includes much of Atlantic County. There, veteran Democratic State Sen. James Whelan, the former Atlantic City mayor, plans to seek reelection against Republican Assemblyman Vince Polistina of Egg Harbor Township in what remains a competitive area.
Because of the new map, analysts said, State Sen. Fred Madden, the Gloucester County Democratic chairman, appears safe. His potential Senate opponent, Republican freshman Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco, was drawn out of Madden's competitive district and into Sweeney's more Democratic district.
Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or firstname.lastname@example.org.