GERMANTOWN – After legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry cut him, telling him he didn’t have what it took to compete in the NFL, Ray Schoenke went on to play 10 years for the Washington Redskins.
Armed only with a bachelors degree in history, the offensive lineman eventually left football and founded what is now a multimillion-dollar insurance brokerage firm.
Now, with no political experience and little support from the Democratic Party, Schoenke is running for governor. Like all his previous challenges, he expects to prevail.
“I’m not in this for my health, I’m not in this for a show. I’m doing it to win,” he said.
Schoenke, a one-time supporter of Gov. Parris Glendening, said he decided to get into the race because of what he saw as a lack of leadership on the governor’s part.
Although he has never run for office before, he has a long history of involvement in Democratic politics, as a fund-raiser on both the state and national levels. And he has deep pockets — Schoenke is putting up $2 million of his own and hopes to raise another $3 million, figures that would make him among the better- funded candidates.
But political observers say that still may not be enough.
“I don’t give him much of a chance,” said James Gimpel, associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.
An early April poll by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research of Columbia said Schoenke would win 5 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, which already includes five candidates. Gimpel said Schoenke will be lucky to get 20 percent.
“There isn’t much of a tradition in Maryland of amateur candidates taking off,” said Gimpel, because voters in the state tend to be well-educated and value political experience.
He also said Schoenke is overestimating his name recognition from his Redskins days.
“We’re not talking Art Monk here. If we’re talking Art Monk, it’s a horse of a different color,” Gimpel said of the former Redskins receiver.
One thing that Schoenke has going for him is money, Gimpel said. It shows in everything from the $1,000-a-day commercial shoots at a bar where “Homicide” is filmed, to the campaign’s Chevrolet Suburban, the campaign driver and the cellular phones carried by staffers.
Schoenke’s money will set him apart from other challengers, said Gimpel, but may not be enough to pose a serious threat to the front-runners.
“Ray’s got some bucks but I don’t know if he’s got the kind of bucks needed,” said Gimpel.
But Schoenke is not backing down, despite the odds.
“Right now, I’m not even on the radar screen, but I will be and that will change things,” he said.
Since formally announcing his candidacy Jan. 20, Schoenke has been travelling the state, speaking to political and civic organizations and anyone else who will listen.
“Hi, I’m Ray Schoenke. I’m running for governor,” he said as he went table to table at an April meeting of the Hagerstown Rotary Club. He estimates he has spoken to about 3,000 people so far.
Schoenke also put up television ads April 20, before any other candidate in the crowded field, in an attempt to get his name out.
One ad is a harsh attack on “politicians who squander our money on bad stadium deals, who wink at ethics, who sell out for contributions.” It does not name Glendening, but goes on to say the “governor’s office is no place for political chameleons.”
Schoenke said it was that disgust with the leadership of Glendening — who he supported in 1994 — that made him run.
“He’s willing to put his own gain ahead of voters,” Schoenke said.
He criticized Glendening for trying to increase his pension as Prince George’s County executive when he left to become governor. He also said the $300 million used for the Baltimore Ravens’ stadium could have been better spent on education.
Schoenke blasts the governor for not building the Inter- County Connector between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. And he criticized the governor’s dealings with Merit Behavioral, an insurance firm that was bidding on a state contract when it held a 1996 fund-raiser for Glendening.
“You don’t go to a fund-raiser when someone has a contract on the table with you to do business,” Schoenke said.
Glendening said he did not know the company was bidding on the contract at the time.
Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, who served with Schoenke on the Governor’s Commission on Gun Violence in 1995, said he was “shocked” by Schoenke’s challenge. Not only had Schoenke supported the governor in the 1994 election, but the two saw eye- to-eye on gun control, Jimeno said.
But Schoenke said he is running because of a “huge void out there in this state that’s looking for leadership,” a void he thinks he can fill.
So does his college football coach, Hayden Fry.
“He was a tremendous football player, a tremendous leader and a great person,” said Fry, who came to Southern Methodist University as head coach during Schoenke’s senior season.
Fry, now head coach at University of Iowa, said Schoenke’s leadership was a great asset to him as he tried to rebuild the SMU program.
“I just wish that I had him more years,” Fry said of Schoenke, who was one of the team’s captains.
Schoenke was born in 1941 to a military father and a Hawaiian mother and spent most of his childhood moving between Hawaii and Texas with his military family. He graduated from SMU as an Academic All-American in 1963.
Besides Landry, he played in the pros under legendary coaches Vince Lombardi and George Allen, who he said taught him about leadership and how to be a winner.
Schoenke jumped into politics in 1972, when he organized Athletes for McGovern to support Democrat George McGovern’s presidential bid. It put him on a collision course with Allen, who was a friend of President Nixon’s.
Former Virginia Gov. George Allen Jr. said Schoenke and his father did not share the same views on politics, but it had no effect on the field. He described Schoenke as a thoughtful and loyal player who was very coachable and would often play injured.
“He was a good player, he’s a good friend, but our politics are different,” said the younger Allen, a Republican.
Schoenke retired after the 1975 season and founded Schoenke & Associates. He said he was urged to run for Congress then, but took the advice of a senator who told him to develop his business and be there for his family first.
Schoenke has three grown children, the youngest of whom, Holly, is his deputy campaign manager.
“I knew that I would return someday to run,” he said.
In the meantime, he was national chairman of Artists and Athletes for President Carter in 1980 and has been a regular donor to Democratic causes. On the local level, he helped establish Maryland’s Special Olympics and fought the Oaks Landfill in Laytonsville.
“Ray was an inspirational leader and a very forceful leader,” said Dana Rawlings, a Montgomery County activist who worked with him when Schoenke was the president of the Greater Laytonsville Civic Association.
Schoenke’s campaign for governor includes promises to reduce class size to 20 students from kindergarten to third grade and to make schools to stay open until 7 p.m., to keep children safe and reduce crime and teen pregnancy.
He would implement a standard disciplinary code to remove disruptive students from the classroom. To finance his school initiatives, he would allow state-owned slot machines at horseracing tracks.
Citing recent ethics investigations in Annapolis, Schoenke said he would put three citizens with “outstanding reputations” on the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.
He also pledged to bring in business people as advisers and to improve partnerships between businesses and the state. And he supports a reduction in the state income tax, possibly to as low as 3 percent.
“You need to reduce income tax, period,” said Schoenke, citing Glendening’s failure to cut the tax further as another of his shortcomings.
During his Rotary Club speech, Schoenke acknowledged that he is not yet a pro at the political game, but said that will not stop him.
“I’ve always felt that my calling has been political service,” he said. “I recognize that I’m going to stumble, but I also recognize that I’m going to win.”