Rebound Man

Can political newcomer Chris Dudley lead Oregon's GOP back from exile?

It's not often you see someone pull out a needle, raise his pant leg and shoot up in the middle of a Lake Oswego coffee shop. Let alone someone who is 6-foot-11.

But gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley is an unusual guy.

Even though his previous political activity in Oregon consists of writing a couple of checks and testifying at a Lake Oswego School Board meeting, the former Portland Trail Blazer may win the Republican nomination nearly as easily as he injects insulin into his bloodstream six times a day to manage his diabetes.

How? Celebrity cachet, prodigious fundraising ability and a personality that is equal parts humility and confidence. That, and a GOP field in the May primary that lacks a strong conservative candidate.

Considering that the Democratic primary features two vulnerable retreads—former Gov. John Kitzhaber and former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury—it's not inconceivable that Dudley could become Oregon's first Republican governor since 1982.

"There are a lot of reasons why a Republican could win the governor's race this year," says Portland pollster Bob Moore.

Dudley's greatest gift in this odd electoral season may be good timing.

In both the Republican and the Democratic camps, there's a palpable feeling that their brand is stale. That sentiment leaves a lot of voters, including 25 percent of the electorate—fully 500,000 Oregonians—registered with neither major party, looking for something new.

Dudley, 45, carries little baggage. Like other newcomers who have parachuted into gubernatorial politics—such as Jesse Ventura in Minnesota and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California—his appeal is as much about what he is not as what he is: a tabula rasa upon which disgruntled voters can project their dreams of better days.

Dudley offers no secret formula and no claim of particular policy expertise.

This year, that may not matter.

"There's a lot of energy out there for change and for a candidate who is not in and of Salem," says Kerry Tymchuk, who served as state director for former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). "If there were ever a year for a guy like Chris, it's 2010."

Chris Dudley folded himself into his black 2003 GMC Yukon for the 325-mile drive out to Wallowa County on March 12.

That is a long way to go to visit a county with a population (at almost 7,000) of about one-third of the number of people who used to watch Dudley play basketball for the Blazers at the Rose Garden.

SECOND TIME AROUND: Allen Alley, who is seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination, ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2008. IMAGE:

But he had some catching up to do. GOP gubernatorial rival Allen Alley, the former CEO of Pixelworks, won Wallowa County when he ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2008 and has visited there several times since.

"Truthfully, I knew nothing about [Dudley] at all, other than that he'd played basketball, and I didn't expect much," says Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts.

Accompanied by Roberts and other locals, Dudley strode through the new 25-bed Wallowa County hospital in Enterprise, his head barely clearing some doorways.

In a deep baritone that betrays traces of his Connecticut boyhood (he says "shou'n't" for "shouldn't"), he kibitzed with hospital staff about Medicare reimbursement rates.

"I was very surprised with the depth of knowledge he has about issues," Roberts says. "Especially things that are important to us out in the backside of the state."

After Dudley met with 10 local leaders, Roberts invited the public for a town hall.

Although a snowstorm threatened, more than three dozen county residents turned out to see the candidate. Roberts says they liked what they saw.

"The difference between Mr. Alley and Mr. Dudley is presence," Roberts says. "One of the people who attended the meeting we had with Mr. Alley said, 'He's pretty good, but he looks like a computer guy.' If you are trying to sell the state, you need presence."

Dudley, who surrounds himself with advisers to former Sen. Gordon Smith and imported campaign talent from New Jersey and California, handed out a glossy but simple 14-page document called "Jobs First: Oregon's Recovery Plan."

Roberts says the document demonstrated to her that Dudley has sharp staff and understands what voters want.

"Out here, people are looking for a plan," says Roberts, a Republican who has not decided whom she'll support in the primary. "Dudley has defined the issues that matter to us."

These days, it's easier to catch Dudley in Wallowa, Tillamook or Lake counties than it is in the heavily populated metro-area counties that decide most statewide elections.

There are a couple of reasons for that: First, in a GOP primary, candidates need to show overwhelmingly Republican rural Oregon that they care.

The second is that, like Broadway plays that start out in Minneapolis or Boston, Dudley is not quite ready for Oregon's big stage.

At a candidate debate in Seaside on March 5, for example, he towered over Alley and former state Sen. John Lim (R-Gresham) but came up short on specifics and polish.

In other settings, he's learned that answering political questions is a little tougher than responding to the softballs sportswriters typically lob at pro athletes, like, "How'd it feel to win (or lose) tonight?"

In a 45-minute radio interview on The Lars Larson Show earlier this month, Dudley stumbled at times. He is unfailingly earnest, although platitudes sometimes bubble out of him in streams of consciousness.

Here's how he responded to Larson's question about conflict over charter schools:

"It's unfortunate when the education of our children is not the top priority. It should be, and to me that's our future," Dudley said.

But Dudley also showed an ability to navigate the toughest issue moderate Republicans must address: abortion.

A caller who identified herself as "Tammy from McMinnville" and said she was "extremely pro-life" wanted to know where Dudley stood.

"I've said I don't favor government making that choice for others," he said.

That's a dangerous answer for a Republican. An unqualified pro-choice position would be a real provocation for the GOP's right wing.

Larson helpfully prompted Dudley to elaborate. "Do you care to say where you stand personally?" the talk-show host asked.

"Personally, I favor life," Dudley responded. That response is a nuanced straddle: It signals to abortion foes that he is sensitive to their concerns but tells abortion rights advocates he will not challenge them.

ABORTION POLITICS: Abortion can be a huge issue in a GOP primary, as evidenced by these mock fetuses distributed at the Dorchester Conference. IMAGE:

Nuance may placate middle-of-the-road voters, but it falls short of what Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, was hoping for in her anti-abortion group's recent endorsement interview.

"He is pro-choice, not pro-life," Atteberry says. Dudley agreed with Atteberry's characterization.

"I am pro-choice," he told WW. (In reality, whoever is Oregon's next governor is unlikely to affect abortion law.)

Dudley's stance on other issues places him squarely in the GOP's moderate middle.

On gay rights, he supports civil unions but opposes same-sex marriage, a position he claims his sister-in-law, who is in a civil union, endorses. He's "concerned" about illegal immigration but says it's a federal issue. He doesn't like the state's dependence on the Oregon Lottery and would like to see more of the take spent treating gambling addicts.

Dudley opposed the income tax increases Oregon voters approved in January and will vote against any effort to amend the state constitution to allow annual legislative sessions.

"It's a solution in search of a problem," Dudley says. "The governor can already call the Legislature into session at any time if there's a real emergency."

Mostly, Dudley wants to talk about Oregon's "jobs deficit."

There's nothing too surprising or innovative in the four-point plan he produced: He'd focus on private-sector job growth (in part by cutting capital gains taxes), rein in state spending, unshackle public universities from the Legislature, put the first 3 percent of tax revenues into a rainy-day fund for education and "rebuild trust in government."

"Economic growth is the key to everything," Dudley says. "If you look at all the problems we have in this state, we have to have an economy that's growing to address them."

His focus is logical, considering Oregon's high unemployment rate, but also invites a comparison to Alley's extensive business background.

Dudley says Alley's experience, while admirable, is no more relevant than his own.

"I think government is in the business of creating an environment for job creation," Dudley says. "It helps to have business experience, but government is not the same as a business. There's more to it than that."

Simple as it may be, Dudley's message is resonating.

Powerful groups such as the Farm Bureau, the Oregon Restaurant Association and the Oregon Business Association have already endorsed Dudley. The ORA, traditionally one of the largest, biggest-spending interest groups, did not even bother to interview Alley.

For a Republican pitching free-market solutions to Oregon's economic woes, Dudley brings an unusual background.

Perhaps his greatest fan is a New York union lawyer and Democratic activist named Ron Klempner.

Klempner has been the National Basketball Players Association's attorney for 17 years. In that time, he has dealt with thousands of athletes, many of them far more talented than Dudley.

Yet Klempner says there is a poster of just one player on the wall of his Manhattan office—Chris Dudley.

"Dudley is my hero," Klempner says.

Not because of Dudley's athletic prowess. Instead, Klempner explains, Dudley's singular contribution was his seven years as secretary-treasurer of the Players Association, when he twice successfully challenged NBA salary cap rules. Those victories benefited every NBA player since.

"I don't want to call him a freedom fighter, but he was never afraid to step up for what he thought was right," Klempner says.

"Some players are a little afraid to take on management," Klempner adds. "They are afraid of being blackballed. But that never entered into Chris' mind. He was his own man and always has been."

Ironically, the NBA union hero opposed Measures 66 and 67, the public-employee-union-backed, $727 million tax increases that Oregon voters passed in January.

If elected, Dudley says he'd tackle the escalating cost of public-employee benefits. He says his past union activity and plans for the future are consistent.

"'Balance' is the key word," he explains. "Unions have a place in both the public and private sector. But when one side has too much leverage, that's not good."

Although Dudley may not have mastered intricacies such as state fishery policy, he possesses the common touch essential in retail politics.

As he showed while sipping Guinness during a two-hour stop at Kells' St. Paddy's Day celebration last week in downtown Portland, Dudley's a hand-shaker, a shoulder-squeezer and a smiler.

Part of that skill comes from the summer camp for diabetic kids he's run for 15 years.

Dr. Andrew Ahmann, an Oregon Health & Science University diabetes specialist, says the camp and diabetes are central to Dudley's identity.

"I worked at his camp and saw how he is with kids," Ahmann says. "That's the core of how he lives his life."

Ahmann says the challenge of having to monitor and regulate his blood sugar has shaped Dudley.

"I would say the discipline required to deal with diabetes has a lot to do with Chris becoming a professional athlete," Ahmann says. "When you've dealt with challenges on almost a daily basis, you don't let many things bother you."

Dudley comes from an old Yankee family (two towns in Connecticut, Guilford and Dudleytown, are named after his ancestors). His paternal grandfather, Guilford Dudley, ran a large Nashville insurance company and frequented the New York and Palm Beach social circuits.

President Richard Nixon named Guilford Dudley ambassador to Denmark in 1969, and he served as trustee of Nixon's campaign fund after the president resigned.

Chris Dudley's parents, Democrats who met at Yale Divinity School, split when he was young. His mother taught school and his father worked as a minister and sometime college professor, which meant that despite his paternal grandfather's wealth, Dudley grew up in modest circumstances.

"Chris delivered newspapers and mowed lawns and had a gardening business in high school," says his sister, Natasha, a fifth-grade teacher in Portland.

When he was 16, Dudley learned he had Type 1 diabetes, an inability to control blood sugar that affects about one-half of 1 percent of the population.

Dudley says the affliction challenged him mentally and physically.

"You're very self-conscious at that age," Dudley says nearly three decades later. "You realize that you are not invulnerable. Some people told me I couldn't play anymore, but my goal was to make it to the NBA. My approach is to dream big and not to listen to anybody who says you can't do something."

As a senior in high school, Dudley finally made the varsity but was beanpole thin. "I was about 6-foot-7 and a buck sixty-five," he says. Yale recruited him to play basketball, although he says he was not among the school's top targets.

A Yale teammate, Chad Ludington, recalls that although expectations for Dudley were low, he soon out-worked Ricky Ewing, a phenom whom Yale snatched away from Georgetown and other basketball powerhouses.

At Yale, Ludington says, Dudley, who majored in economics and political science, "was the tallest man on campus, but not a big man on campus."

Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships. So to help pay tuition, Dudley sold tickets at football games, operated the manual scoreboard at baseball games and delivered pizzas by bicycle.

"That was a lousy job," Dudley says. "College kids don't tip."

Ludington says he's not surprised Dudley is moving into high-level politics.

"He was a quiet follower when he arrived at Yale, and by the time he left, he was a vocal leader," says Ludington, now a history professor at North Carolina State University. "Most people who are quiet followers stay that way, but Chris didn't."

After Dudley retired from basketball in 2003, he settled in Lake Oswego.

The following year, he briefly considered running in the 5th Congressional District race. Last year, GOP officials asked him to run against U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) in 2010.

Challenging a strong incumbent for the right to commute each week to Washington, D.C., did not appeal to Dudley, who says constant travel is the aspect of NBA life he misses least.

But he and his wife, also named Chris, found the idea of running for office increasingly attractive.

"I grew up here [in Beaverton] and I want our kids to be able to live here when they're grown," says Dudley's wife. "And I just see everything going in the wrong direction."

Unlike some candidates, Dudley neither needs the job or the spotlight. He earned more than $30 million during his NBA career and says he loves nothing more now than taking his three kids, ages 11, 10 and 8, to El Ranchito, their favorite Lake Oswego restaurant, or leading family skiing or hiking trips from his Black Butte Ranch vacation home.

In a recent interview, Gov. Ted Kulongoski, for whom Alley briefly served as assistant chief of staff, warned against underestimating Dudley.

"He survived [16 years] in the NBA, and you know why?" said Kulongoski, a Democrat. "In the vernacular of the industry, he's a 'grinder.' He's a guy that gets in and gets the elbows flying and he gets the rebound, plays defense. I think this guy is one tough cookie."

Dudley also possesses a Midas touch. He has already raised more than $1 million, more than twice Alley's total. He's done that not only through NBA connections—his former agent, Dan Fegan, wrote a $100,000 check—but also through big donations from people who either don't normally contribute or contribute far less.

"Chris is humble, talented and bright," says Steve Shepard, managing director of M Benefit Solutions, who wrote Dudley a $50,000 check. "The governor's job is all about leadership, and that is my friend Chris. He is very much a social moderate and fiscal conservative. He is not beholden to any group whatsoever."

In recent elections, the GOP gubernatorial primary has been a minefield for moderates. In 1994, 1998 and 2002, the GOP nominated pro-life candidates (Denny Smith, Bill Sizemore and Kevin Mannix) whose positions on abortion hurt them in the general election.

But the conservatives in this year's GOP primary—former state Sen. John Lim (R-Gresham) and Sizemore—are longshots.

Lim, a quirky six-term lawmaker who also ran for governor in 1990, has little fundraising or institutional support. Sizemore enjoys strong name recognition but faces criminal tax-evasion charges and the undying hatred of public-employee unions.

Registered Democrats in Oregon outnumber Republicans by 220,000, according to state figures. That's a daunting disadvantage for the GOP nominee. But there are also more than twice that many voters registered with neither major party, which means that a Republican who avoids alienating voters on social issues has a chance to capture the middle of the electorate.

Moore, the pollster, says independent voters are increasingly focused on fiscal issues, which should make the GOP candidate more appealing.

Dudley acknowledges that some voters will question his lack of political experience, but believes more will applaud it.

"My greatest weakness—not having been part of the political process—is also my greatest strength," he says.

Oregon Right to Life's Atteberry agrees: "There's something to be said for not having any political baggage."

Dudley By The Numbers

The average NBA career lasts fewer than five years. Dudley stuck around for 16, including two stints in Portland (1993-97 and 2001-03). He enjoyed his best season in Portland in 1994-95, when he started all 82 games and averaged 5.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.

Hoops fans know Dudley as a banger and a team player—and a dreadful free-throw shooter who set an NBA record in a 1990 game by missing 13 consecutive free throws.

Dudley says he's thought endlessly about his futility at the line.

"In retrospect, I wish I'd tried shooting underhanded," Dudley says.

Dudley says his political role model is Jack Kemp, a former NFL quarterback turned Republican congressman, cabinet official under President Ronald Reagan and GOP vice presidential candidate.

Dudley reads widely, mostly nonfiction. He recently finished Fire at Eden's Gate, Brent Walth's biography of Oregon Gov. Tom McCall.

He also likes New York Times columnist David Brooks and The Atlantic magazine. A keen skier and cyclist, he has climbed Mount Hood and rafted the Rogue River. He does not own a gun. —NJ

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