MARLTON, N.J. — For voters in New Jersey's 8th legislative district, there has been uncertainty since April over whether nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis would be on the ballot for state Senate in November.
The issue appears to have been resolved in the affirmative with a court ruling. Pending a longshot appeal to the entire U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals or U.S. Supreme Court, Lewis will be listed on the ballot as a Democrat challenging Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, a freshman GOP incumbent who moved up from the Assembly last year.
The flap over Lewis' candidacy began immediately when he announced his intention to run. Local Republicans claimed the New Jersey native did not meet the state's residency rule, which requires state Senate candidates to have lived here for four years prior to running for office.
Lewis, 50, grew up in Willingboro, a middle-class suburb between Philadelphia and Trenton. He went to college in Texas and has lived in California recently, voting there through 2009. He has homes in Medford and Mount Laurel in New Jersey, and in Pacific Palisades, Calif. He's been a volunteer high school track coach in native Willingboro since 2007.
Both Addiego and Lewis won uncontested party primaries in June, after a federal appeals panel ordered that his name remain on the ballot. He received 2,418 votes from Democrats; Addiego got 4,350 Republican votes.
Even though the appeals court ruled in his favor, Lewis faces an uphill battle to unseat Addiego, 48, a lifelong area resident who rose through the political ranks to become a state senator when a vacancy arose last year.
The district, a horseshoe-shaped configuration of 20 municipalities in Burlington County, is solidly Republican. Gov. Chris Christie carried the three most populous towns — Evesham, Medford and Pemberton townships — by nearly 4,000 votes in 2009. A Democrat hasn't won election to state government in the district in more than 20 years.
Though both candidates have been knocking on doors and raising money for the race, the uncertainty of the pending court decision had been a persistent distraction.
Lewis said the legal battle to keep him off the ballot was a carefully orchestrated attempt by Christie, the state's Republican Party leader, to keep him from running. But he softened his tone after being restored to the ballot, saying he had no animosity toward Christie and that the fight was in the spirit of competition.
Addiego said she tried to keep her focus on the campaign though her opponent's status was uncertain.
Asked to size up her competition before the 3rd Circuit had ruled, she deferred. "I don't know whether he's an opponent or not. It's going to take a lot more money to run against Carl Lewis."
Christie had already jumped in to help, appearing at a fundraiser for her at the swanky Bernardsville Inn.
Addiego was raised in an Italian Catholic household where she was instructed to "get a good education and put yourself in a position to help." She studied accounting at Villanova University and earned a law degree from Widener. Though at first she didn't see herself as candidate material, she was encouraged to run by the local Republican Party chief, and her "Tax Freeze" slate won her local office in Evesham Township in 1993.
"I win, I do well, because I do it from the heart," she said.
At a recent impromptu sit-down with retirees in Evesham, Addiego heard a lot of gripes over the state's top issue — property taxes — which are more than $8,800 for a medium-sized home at the Village Green over-55 community in Marlton.
Addiego expressed sympathy for the residents and frustration at being in the minority party and therefore unable to control the legislative agenda. She assured the retirees she had not voted for legislation that raised taxes or increased spending.
"Some of the cuts we've had to make, some of the votes I've had to take have not been easy," she said.
Lewis said he's tired of hearing politicians lie about lowering taxes.
"They need to stop being dishonest and saying, 'I'm going to cut taxes.' That's such a tag line. Saying 'I'm going to lower taxes' is just like saying 'kids are overweight.' Everyone says it, but who's actually doing something about it?"Comment on this story
Lewis comes from a politically active family, and says this feels like the right time for him to enter politics.
"We need to create new ideas, new jobs for a new economy," he says, infusing the conversation with sports metaphors and rich Olympic memories.
His parents, both teachers, knew Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and were involved in the civil rights movement. He says he owes his passion for education — and his desire to enter public service — to them.
"I'm not running for state Senate because I wanted to become a politician," Lewis said in his first public comments after the appeals panel ruled in his favor. "I'm running because I wanted to serve."