Schoenke's politics stem from his Hawaiian roots

March 22, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Ray Schoenke's conversation is peppered with names out of history -- not only Vince Lombardi and George Allen, whom you'd expect, but George McGovern and Richard Nixon, too. He's got a pretty good riff. But nobody knows if he can connect his life in pro football and on the political fringes to his bid to be governor of Maryland.

Among the Democrats, the line to unseat Parris Glendening begins with Schoenke and Harford County's Eileen Rehrmann. But the line's still forming. The newspaper articles say the feds keep asking for more of Glendening's financial records. Schoenke nods his head gravely. Every headline gives courage to the governor's challengers.

"Glendening's the reason I'm running," Schoenke says. "I backed him the last time around. I thought, here's this professor, he stands for good things, he's clean, he's erudite. And then you have this string of troubles. You don't do this as a leader."

Schoenke talks a lot about leadership. It's a holdover from his playing days: 12 years as an offensive lineman, the last nine with the Washington Redskins, where he learned from the contrasting coaching styles of the legendary Lombardi and Allen.

But the story goes back even further, when he was growing up in Hawaii and Texas, the son of a German-American soldier and a native Hawaiian mother.

"I was a fat little kid," he was saying last week. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, he still looks strong enough to level a linebacker with a forearm shiver. "You get hammered, you start growing, and suddenly those kids who were bullying me are paying the price. I grew, and I lifted weights. I made dumbbells by filling empty cans with rocks. I got big, and people started gravitating to me. I sensed that respect."

Varsity athletes have a choice: Take the respect as a blank HTC check to coast through life or use it for more important business. By the time Schoenke reached Southern Methodist University, his political consciousness had been awakened.

"Part of it was the Hawaiian thing," he says. "As a Hawaiian, you realize that you're categorized as an entertainer, an athlete, a beachboy or a lover. And meanwhile, your culture's being exploited by whites. My mother suppressed her whole background. My friends would say, 'You gotta play to the white culture, Ray.' What I had to figure out was, don't leave your own culture behind. Bring it with you."

Drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, he did some volunteer civil rights work there and protested the war in Vietnam. Neither was universally appreciated by football people. Later, bounced to Washington, he backed George McGovern's presidential bid though his coach, George Allen, was a big Nixon man. When he discovered Schoenke's politics, a confrontation ensued.

"He grabbed me walking off the practice field one day," Schoenke remembers, "and he said, 'You don't criticize your commander in chief.' He questioned my loyalty. I said, 'Loyalty? I'm a citizen.' So he said I wasn't being loyal to the team. We had it out. I wound up getting 400 athletes to endorse McGovern, and I got Allen to have lunch with McGovern."

McGovern, of course, was crushed at the polls. But Schoenke tells the story to illustrate political risk and leadership. He played a year under the legendary Vince Lombardi, whose leadership involved large doses of fear.

"We'd look at game films," Schoenke says, "and if you missed a block, Lombardi would turn off the film, turn on the lights and find you. He'd scream at you in front of the whole team."

This is not leadership transferable to being governor, Schoenke says. But, from each man, he learned about organization, about building trust. Before Schoenke's playing days ended, he started selling insurance. He's made millions, enough to finance his own campaign. Money automatically makes him a political player.

"But I wouldn't finance my whole campaign," he says. "I don't think voters would like the idea of some rich guy walking in and buying an election. They need to know I'm out there hustling, just like they are."

His immediate concern: hustling for roughly $2 million a serious campaign would need and discovering parts of Maryland still pretty foreign to him. He's spent the last three decades in Montgomery County. He's done some early polling, and his name recognition is small in much of the state.

"It's part of the game," he says. "I know that I'm not gonna be on people's radar screens for a while. But everywhere I go, the message I keep hearing is the same: dissatisfaction with this governor. The state's in pretty good shape, but they don't feel comfortable with him."

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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