Paterno's run: Win or waste?

ASSOCIATED PRESS Jay Paterno has high name recognition - which could be good or bad.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Jay Paterno has high name recognition - which could be good or bad.
Posted: February 27, 2014

IN AUGUST 1988, Jay Paterno was a 19-year old reserve quarterback on his father's Penn State football team.

Jay stood near his dad in the New Orleans Superdome during the Republican National Convention as Joe Paterno delivered a spirited seconding speech for the presidential nomination of George H.W. Bush.

I was there, too.

I remember a Pennsylvania lawmaker spent $150 on buttons touting JoePa for governor. When I asked the coach about it, he said, "He sure wasted $150."

Fast-forward 26 years and the question facing 45-year-old Jay Paterno is whether his Democratic campaign for lieutenant governor is a waste or a winner.

This is not the Paterno who unsuccessfully ran for Congress from central Pennsylvania as a Republican in 2004. That was Jay's brother, Scott.

This is the Paterno who spent 17 seasons as a PSU assistant coach and served as a surrogate for President Obama's campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

So you'd think in a field of five to seven lieutenant-governor candidates in what's traditionally a low-interest contest, a nationally known name, perhaps the state's best-known surname, starts with a huge advantage.

And you'd be right.

You'd also think many of 326,354 PSU alumni living in Pennsylvania provide a positive push to any Paterno on any ballot.

And you'd likely be right about that.

But this is a candidacy accompanied by lots of unknowns and questions.

There'll be carping about a son riding his father's name, a common complaint in life and nothing new to state politics; just think Casey, Rizzo, Scranton, Green, Goode, Williams, to name a few.

There'll be complaints that not enough political dues were paid, that politics isn't football, that Jay was not a good quarterbacks coach and that we've had enough stuff related to the Paterno family, whether it's the Sandusky scandal, the statue or the legacy.

But sons of success always carry a heavier burden of proof than others. Names often trump experience in politics. And there remain legions of voters who bleed blue and white, worship Mount Nittany and never will be swayed from allegiance to the family that made Penn State famous.

There are 14,072 PSU alumni license plates in use in Pennsylvania.

The real question is: Can he win nomination since most Democratic voters reside in Philly/Pittsburgh areas where PSU isn't sacred?

And if he wins, can he further the Democratic case for unseating Gov. Corbett? Or does he become a distraction?

A long-awaited report from state Attorney General Kathleen Kane on Corbett's handling of the Sandusky case is coming, likely in spring or summer.

The Paterno family is suing the NCAA and Penn State in part with claims that Jay couldn't, post-scandal, find work in football.

(He runs a State College nonprofit to fight malaria in Africa.)

There are upcoming trials for former PSU president Graham Spanier and two other former university officials.

And Jay has a book coming out on his father's legacy published by Chicago-based Triumph Books, which specializes in sports.

All this keeps Penn State and the Paterno name in the news this year.

Polling shows that Corbett has trouble with many Penn State faithful. But it's likely that such voters aren't voting for Corbett no matter who's on the ticket.

When I ask Paterno how he thinks his candidacy cuts, he says: "That's for other people to decide. I just want people to keep an open mind."

He plans to participate in a Progressive Summit debate Saturday in Harrisburg.

Party leaders aren't talking about him publicly.

State Democratic chief Jim Burn was unavailable. A spokesman said the party does not comment when candidates enter or exit a race.

I only comment because this candidacy is (so far) the surprise of the season.

Be fun to see how it plays out.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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