Jim Dey: Ex-Big Ten player pushing for Congress, pressing the president

Jim Dey: Ex-Big Ten player pushing for Congress, pressing the president

When you're a political outsider, you have to rely on the outside shot. Or, to put it another way, when you're on your own, you have to bust the zone.

At least that's what former Purdue University men's basketball player Curt Clawson decided when he hit upon an unusual way to announce he's running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives in Florida.

On Super Bowl Sunday, with hundreds of thousands of South Florida TV viewers tuned in to the Seahawks/Broncos game, Clawson sponsored an ad that featured the sound of a basketball bouncing on an empty court and music with a heavy beat.

"I'm Curt Clawson. I'm challenging President Obama to a three-point contest. I want to take on Obama and Congress. So why not start on the court? In college, I hit game-winning shots and won a Big Ten championship."

The ad then shifts from film of 54-year-old Clawson swishing three-pointers from the top of the key to President Obama throwing up one brick after another — both from outside and inside.

"And Obama. He's been missing a lot of shots lately. And not just in basketball. I'm Curt Clawson, and I approve this message because Mr. President — I know you're going to see this — my house or yours?"

A retired business executive, Clawson's marketing instincts were confirmed when the ad (youtube.com/watch?v=vdEgaYf_1j0) went viral on the Internet. It also attracted wide news attention, elevating the profile of the relative unknown and drawing national interest.

"We've got literally every sports show in the country trying to get us on," said Matt Hurley, a spokesman for the Clawson campaign.

The attention is almost too much of a good thing. Clawson is running in an April 22 election in Florida's 19th district, so Hurley said "strategically" it's not in the campaign's interests to spend its candidate's time doing sports talk shows elsewhere.

Still, the ad has made Florida voters, in the words of the candidate, "Curt curious" and helped bring attention to his message that it's time to send a political outsider from the business world to the U.S. House of Representatives.

***

Most people probably are not familiar with Clawson or the 19th district of Florida. But many have heard the story of "cocaine congressman" Trey Radel, who represented the area until his recent resignation.

Radel, a first-term Republican, pleaded guilty in late December to a charge of cocaine possession after his arrest earlier that year. He tried to save his political career by going into rehabilitation. But, ultimately, Radel acquiesced to political pressure to step aside.

"It is my belief that professionally I cannot fully and effectively serve as a United States representative to the place I love and call home, Southwest Florida," Radel said in a Jan. 27 resignation statement.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott subsequently scheduled an April 22 primary special election and a June 24 special general election to replace Radel.

Florida's 19th congressional district is in southern Florida, including an area on the west coast from Fort Myers to Marco Island. GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney received 61 percent of the vote there in 2012, giving the district a reputation as relatively solid Republican territory.

Clawson is running against two better-known opponents for his party's nomination, and the winner of the GOP primary is expected to have a significant advantage against the Democratic challenger in the special general election.

The early favorite to win the GOP nomination is state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, who started running advertisements even before Radel stepped down. Former Florida state Rep. Paige Kreegel, a medical doctor, also has entered the race.

Clawson has no political background, a weakness he's trying to turn into a strength. He said he's "not in with career politicians, not in with the establishment."

"I like being the outsider," said Clawson, a Mormon who describes himself as a conservative "who can make tough decisions."

***

Long before Clawson started running for the halls of Congress, he was running on basketball courts all over the Big Ten. A native of Batesville, Ind., the 6-foot-5 Clawson played for Purdue from 1981-84. He earned bachelor's degrees in Spanish and management before getting a master's in business administration from Harvard in 1990.

He held a variety of business posts before becoming president of the American National Can Corporation in Chicago. From 2001-12, he was board chairman and president of Hayes Lemmerz International, which describes itself as the "world's largest maker of steel and aluminum wheels and trucks" and operates facilities in 20 countries.

Although he has yet to lay out his full campaign platform, it's clear Clawson and President Obama are not on the same wavelength. Clawson said he wants to repeal Obamacare "as soon as possible."

Illinois fans may not remember Clawson, but he surely remembers his skirmishes with two of former Illini coach Lou Henson's best teams in the early 1980s.

Clawson played in four games against Illinois, winning three of them.

In the 1982-83 season, Purdue beat Illinois twice — 63-62 and 56-54. In the 1983-84 season, Purdue split with the Ilini, losing 76-52 in Champaign and winning 59-55 at Purdue. Illinois and Purdue finished the conference season tied for first place with 15-3 records.

That's long ago and far away, but Clawson is trying to rekindle some of that old hoops magic in his election campaign. In addition to making a big splash with his campaign ad, Clawson made a second big splash by hosting a no-admission-charge Super Bowl Party at Doc's Beach House in Bonita Springs. The special guest speak was his Purdue coach — Gene Keady.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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