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Schoenke’s Current Fields of Battle: Politics and Policy

Washington, D.C., really has just two major pastimes — football and politics. [IMGCAP(1)]

Few things can rile D.C. up as much as a close Redskins game or a close political campaign. And with this past weekend’s kickoff of the NFL season and Election Day now just six weeks away, it’s suddenly a great time to live in and around the District.

But while Washingtonians take both their football and their politics very seriously, it’s rare for them to be directly involved in both activities.

One exception over the years has been Ray Schoenke.

During a 12-year NFL career that included a decade of playing offensive line for the Washington Redskins, Schoenke became known as a citizen-athlete who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind about

politics. In recent years, the former Redskins star and native Hawaiian has used his football fame and the wealth he earned from a successful insurance business to help Democratic candidates throughout the country, support causes like native Hawaiian self determination, and even, briefly, to run for governor of Maryland.

“Ray Schoenke has always been someone whose career people in Hawaii have followed — a local boy done good,” said Paul Cardus, press secretary for Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii). “He’s been a role model for kids in Hawaii both on and off the football field.”

Schoenke was a gifted offensive lineman who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1963 after graduating as an All-Southwest Conference guard from Southern Methodist University. After two years in Dallas, Schoenke came to Washington in 1966 under then-head coach Otto Graham.

Though he was an active volunteer with inner-city youth football teams and the Special Olympics, Schoenke really didn’t make headlines outside the sports page until 1972. That year, Schoenke decided to organize and chair Athletes for McGovern, which sought to get fellow professional athletes campaigning for then-Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), who was challenging President Richard Nixon. It was a move that led to a run-in with then-Redskins coach George Allen, a friend of Nixon’s, and almost cost Schoenke his spot on the team, even though he helped the club to its first Super Bowl appearance that year.

“I had a very strong commitment during that time. I was very much against the [Vietnam] war,” Schoenke said in an interview last week. “McGovern was the only person I saw speaking up against it.”

It’s a situation, Schoenke said, that bears a tragic resemblance to what is going on today in Iraq.

“The similarities are that everyone is trying to justify their positions and in the meantime kids are getting blown up,” he said. “It’s a quagmire that’s going to be hard for us to get out of.”

Those feelings have made Schoenke an active supporter of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in this year’s election. Schoenke said he would certainly encourage more athletes to get involved in politics as he did some 30 years ago. But he said that today’s athletes, whose contracts are much larger and more lucrative, don’t want to be seen as rocking the boat.

“When you’re in the limelight if you step out you’ve got to be careful, because they’ll come after you,” he said.

By 1976 Schoenke’s aging knees and his budding career in insurance sales gave him reason to retire from the Redskins and professional sports. After passing on a race for an open House seat in Montgomery County, Md. — which many speculated he would run for that year — he concentrated on his lucrative insurance business and didn’t emerge on the political scene again, except as a behind-the-scenes player, until 1998. That year, he challenged Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Despite loaning himself $2 million, Schoenke’s campaign failed to garner real support, and he dropped out before the primary and ended up endorsing Glendening. But the aborted run for governor did put Schoenke back on the political map.

Since the 1998 campaign — and after selling Schoenke & Associates — Schoenke has become a more active donor in Maryland, giving thousands of dollars to numerous campaigns such as those of Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Akaka. He is also a strong supporter of organizations such as the Democratic National Committee and the Handgun Control Voter Education Fund. In 1999 and 2000 — the year he headed up the Maryland operation of the presidential campaign of former NBA star and ex-Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.). — he gave $7,500 to EMILY’s List.

Today, Schoenke is involved in a number of different projects, some more political than others.

Since 2001 Schoenke has been working with Akaka’s office to coordinate support for legislation that would extend the federal policy of self-determination and self-governance to native Hawaiians. Schoenke, who has been a friend of Akaka’s since the Senator’s days in the House, said that the legislation would help resolve a lot of the social and economic obstacles native Hawaiians face.

According to Akaka’s office, the bill is currently pending consideration by the Senate and has been stalled by one or two holdout Republicans.

Schoenke’s most recent project, which he hopes to get off the ground before this election cycle is over, is the creation of a group called the American Rifle Association. He sees the group as an alternative to the National Rifle Association that will represent hunters and shooters but is more reasonable when it comes to gun control. He says the group could go a long way toward benefiting Kerry by bringing in sportsmen who are not happy with Bush but don’t necessarily view the Democratic Party as supportive of gun owners.

“There are a lot of Republicans and other constituents who believe in reasonable gun control, and there’s not really an organization that they can go to,” he said.

Schoenke has also been serving on a state medical malpractice task force put together by Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R).

And of course, he’s hoping to head to as many Redskins games as he can.

“I’m looking forward to watching them this year, I actually make it to most of the games,” he said.

Although he left the Redskins before the time of Joe Gibbs, Schoenke said he’s more confident in the team this year than he has been in a while.

“I think the offensive line appears they can put it together,” he said. “Under [former coach Steve] Spurrier there was a lot of activity going on in the line, lots of changes that caused a lot of problems. … [This year] it looks very promising.

“Gibbs is a first-class individual, he’s been to the top of the mountain. It’s a major, major commitment, and I think they have some good personnel.”

But after almost 30 years of watching Redskins games from the sidelines, does Schoenke miss the action?

“It was a great time, a wonderful challenge, it was my ticket,” he said. “It was a wonderful chance for me to enjoy the fruits of our society, and it enabled me to do many things politically.”

But, Schoenke quickly added, “my body doesn’t miss it.”