Carl Lewis says Christie tried to dissuade him

Carl Lewis hopes to run for a Burlington County seat.
Carl Lewis hopes to run for a Burlington County seat.
Posted: April 26, 2011

Gov. Christie tried to talk Olympic medalist Carl Lewis out of running for the New Jersey Senate hours before he announced his candidacy, Lewis said Monday.

The conversation April 10 with the governor came after several days of talks in which Christie's staff threatened that if Lewis decided to run, an athletic program he wanted to start would be scuttled, according to Lewis and his foundation's director, Chris Walker.

Christie's administration dismissed Lewis' interpretation of the conversations as "silly" and a misunderstanding on Lewis' part, but acknowledged that the athletic program is all but dead.

Lewis said the governor "was really trying to make it clear he did not want me to run in this race. He said, 'If you're going to do this race, we probably don't have time to do this program.' "

The governor and the track star began discussing a youth fitness program in May 2010 when they met as Lewis was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. In December, they fleshed out the details in the governor's office. Lewis would be the "physical fitness ambassador for New Jersey" and run "Carl Lewis Fitness Academies" at schools and municipal recreation centers.

But when word circulated April 7 that Lewis might run as a Democrat for a Burlington County state Senate seat, Walker said, he received the first of increasingly tense phone calls from Frank Luna, a veteran political operative who performs constituent services for the governor.

Luna asked Walker, executive director of the Carl Lewis Foundation, whether Lewis was running for the Eighth District Senate seat. According to Walker, Luna told him: "The governor is concerned."

The two spoke daily the next two days, and on April 9, Walker said, Luna told him "the governor is very upset and disappointed, and Carl would be embarrassing himself by running."

Walker said that in that April 9 conversation, Luna told him, "How can you expect the governor to work hand-in-hand with Carl when Carl is working against him? You can forget about this program."

Christie and Lewis spoke April 10.

According to Lewis, the governor told him he would be supporting Republican freshman State Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, a longtime friend. That did not come as a surprise, Lewis said, adding that he believed they could have a civilized campaign.

Christie's press secretary, Michael Drewniak, confirmed the basic facts but disputed Lewis' interpretation.

"If that's somehow being interpreted as he was talking him out of something, that's just silly," Drewniak said.

Lewis' candidacy "changed the whole plan for Carl Lewis representing the administration. That's a no-brainer. Jeez," Drewniak said.

Lewis said that he was pretty sure he would take the long shot at winning a Senate seat in the heavily Republican district by the time he spoke with Christie but that he could still have been talked out of it. Talking with Christie, though, "really helped seal it, because that's politics as usual."

He said he felt during the conversation that Christie was subtly threatening him.

"You know how someone is telling you what someone else is going to do to you, and they're really talking about what they're going to do to you?" he said.

Although Lewis is running in a strongly Republican district, his candidacy has worried the GOP enough to challenge his residency. Candidates for state Senate must have lived in the state for four years, according to the state constitution.

Administrative Law Judge John Schuster last week ruled that even though Lewis had admitted voting in California in 2009, he did not think the Republicans had proved that Lewis was not a New Jersey resident. Lewis registered to vote in New Jersey on April 11, the day he announced his candidacy.

Lewis testified at the residency hearing that he intended to make New Jersey his home when he purchased a condo in Mount Laurel in 2005. He bought a home in Medford in 2007. He has had a New Jersey driver's license since 2006 and has been a volunteer track coach since 2007 at his alma mater, Willingboro High School.

But the nine-time gold medalist owned a home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., voted there, and housed a business there.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who also serves as secretary of state, must wade through these apparent contradictions and come up with a ruling, possibly as early as Tuesday.


Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.

 

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