Former Redskin embarks on toughest run
Oct. 8, 1997

October 10, 1997

If you accept the cliché that most Americans want their athletes and sports heroes to be fighters, then Laytonsville resident Ray Schoenke is a walking -- sometimes limping -- cliché.

During a 12-year professional football career, he played for some of the toughest coaches in the business, Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi and George Allen, fighting on crippled knees for roster spots with the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins.

In 1972, when America voted overwhelmingly for Richard Nixon, Schoenke persuaded hundreds of his fellow athletes to campaign for George McGovern. After Schoenke retired from football in 1975, he built a multi-million dollar insurance brokerage firm from scratch.

In the 1980s, when Montgomery County wanted to open a dump in his Laytonsville neighborhood, Schoenke led the futile fight to keep it away.

And in the early 1990s, when federal officials tried to restrict activity on private duck-hunting farms, Schoenke, who owns such a farm on the Eastern Shore, was there with guns literally and figuratively a-blazing.

Now, Raymond F. Schoenke Jr. is about to embark on his most audacious fight of all. Sometime next month, he plans to announce that he will run as a Democrat for governor of Maryland. And he is putting out the word that he will spend as much as $4 million of his own money on this long-shot bid.

In a region where politicians and Redskins are the most revered celebrities, Ray Schoenke is well-known and well-liked, traveling easily in elite Washington circles since the 1960s. President Clinton is a golfing buddy. Super lobbyist Tommy Boggs is one of his best friends. Edward Bennett Williams, the epitome of Washington power, called him the most intelligent athlete he'd ever met.

"He is a rare breed in the political spectrum, because he combines extensive business experience with a social, progressive political outlook that you don't find very often," said White House Special Counsel Lanny J. Davis, an old friend. Schoenke worked for Davis during Davis' unsuccessful Montgomery County congressional campaigns, in '74 and '76.

Many of Schoenke's friends and admirers have long expected him to run for political office someday. But they are thunderstruck by his plan to run for governor, in a year when he will have to take on a well-funded if shaky Democratic incumbent, Parris N. Glendening.

Del Ali, senior vice president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc., a Columbia polling firm, called Schoenke "a potential Bill Bradley for Maryland." But he expressed skepticism that Schoenke can win this race -- or even surpass Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann as Glendening's leading Democratic challenger.

"I'm shocked he'd go for governor, as smart as he is," Ali said. "I always envisioned him getting into public life, going for state Senate or House of Delegates, maybe then Congress."

"I can't imagine why he'd run, unless it's for publicity," said state Del. Henry B. Heller (D-Dist. 19) of Rockville, who got to know Schoenke during the fight against opening the Oaks Landfill in Laytonsville.

Adding to the mystery is Schoenke's own stony silence since he announced Aug. 20, via news release, that he had formed an exploratory committee to consider the governor's race. He has refused all interview requests, and has made no campaign appearances.

In his written statement six weeks ago, Schoenke talked vaguely about leadership -- his own capabilities, and what he sees as Glendening's failings.

"Maryland is looking for leadership," he said in the news release, "and politicians have failed us once again. The present administration has come up short. Voters want a clear alternative that it will not be politics as usual. I come from a background of professional sports and business, where there are no excuses. You must produce results."

In his charmed 55 years, Ray Schoenke has made many friends and accomplished many things. But in this, the toughest fight of his life, can he produce the results he is looking for?


Schoenke was born in 1941 in Hawaii, a year that will live in infamy. His father was an accomplished U.S. Army athlete. His mother was a Hawaiian islander.

Schoenke played football at Southern Methodist University, then joined the Dallas Cowboys. After two years with the Cowboys, he was cut by Landry. He spent a year out of football, but was signed by the Redskins in 1966.

Schoenke was a 6-foot-3 inch, 246-pound offensive lineman. At times, he'd be called upon to protect the team's celebrated quarterbacks, Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer. Other times, he'd clear a path for Larry Brown and other offensive stars galloping downfield. He was, according to published accounts, popular with his teammates. He often played the piano at team social functions.

Although Vince Lombardi once accused him of not playing hurt, by the time Schoenke retired after the 1975 season, his knees were badly damaged and his back ached constantly.

"I lived with the constant fear that I would be cut," he told the Washington Post in 1995. "I knew if I made one mistake, it would be over; there were no excuses. There were many Sundays when my body performed at 70 percent, but I willed it to 125 percent."

Playing in Washington, Schoen-ke came to know many politicians and power brokers. By the late 1960s, he was involved with a number of Kennedy family charities and other Democratic causes.

In 1972, Schoenke organized a group called Athletes For Mc-Govern. Four hundred pro athletes fanned out across the country, campaigning for and with the Democratic presidential candidate.

"It was really a remarkable operation," McGovern said last week. "Unprecedented in politics, and unequaled since then."

Schoenke recalled in a 1996 Post article: "I think I came close to losing my job because of my endorsement and work for McGovern. Johnny Unitas called me a pinko Communist."

The irony is, Schoenke was then plunging into the not-very-pinko business world, launching Schoenke & Associates, an insurance brokerage and benefits firm that serves large corporations. The business, headquartered for years in Bethesda, and now located in Germantown, made Schoenke a very rich man.

After the McGovern campaign, Schoenke became a fixture in Democratic circles, lending his celebrity, his organizing skills, and later, his money, to a host of Democrats, from Jimmy Carter to congressional candidates. In the 1996 election cycle alone, Schoen-ke, his business, and his family members, gave $133,000 to 33 national Democratic candidates and organizations.

Schoenke and his wife of 33 years, Nancy, moved to Mont-gomery County during his football days. They raised their three children -- Eric, Page and Holly -- here.

In the 1980s, as the county government tried to open the Oaks Landfill in his Laytonsville neighborhood, Schoenke served as president of the Greater Laytonsville Civic Association, and led the fight against the dump. He organized his neighbors, lobbied county officials, and served as the point man for the anti-dump movement.

"He was popular back then, and he was a very strong and very authoritative community activist," said Dana Rawlings, a neighbor.

Rawlings said that Schoenke became less active in the community after the landfill opened, and has since declined requests to join other local crusades.

But friends and acquaintances say Schoenke and his family are always involved with good works, whether it's raising money for charity, volunteering their time to work with children, or taking an active role in the local PTA.

"He's got intellect, a sense of fairness, and an unusual compassion for the poor," Lanny Davis said.

In 1993 and 1994, Schoenke was back in the headlines, as one of several politically-connected owners of duck-hunting farms on the Eastern Shore fighting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's efforts to curtail hunting on those preserves. These farms draw well-heeled hunters who do not have the time or inclination to shoot ducks in the wild.

Angus Phillips, the venerable Washington Post outdoors columnist, featured Schoenke's 400-acre Holland Point Farm on Taylor's Island in the Chesapeake Bay in a number of columns, describing Schoenke as an amiable host and seasoned outdoorsman. But he described the experience as something less than traditional hunting, recounting sitting in Schoenke's lodge the night before the hunt with members of Congress and corporate chieftains.

"We fed like royalty and talked late into the night about 'bidness,' debating the woes of competing in a global economy while dining on duck and pheasant, sipping French wines, and finishing up with Davidoff cigars and Remy-Martin cognac," Phillips wrote. "That was a change from my usual duck-hunting night-befores, when we sit around the wood stove..."

Schoenke did not like what he read, and wrote an angry letter to the editor.

The Fish & Wildlife Service, meanwhile, never did tighten regulations on the duck hunting farms.

In 1994, Schoenke contributed $3,000 to Glendening's successful campaign for governor. A year later, Glendening rewarded him with a place on his 17-member Commis-sion on Gun Violence, which would develop the gun-control proposals that the legislature approved in 1996.

"He drew their [Glendening aides'] attention because he was a hunter, who wasn't one of these guys who doesn't want to talk about gun violence," said Vincent DeMarco, co-chairman of the commission.

"I was impressed with his logic," said Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond M. Kight, who also served on the commission. "He really wanted to do what was right for the state of Maryland."

Schoenke supported the proposal to limit handgun purchases to one a month. But he voted against the proposal requiring people who buy handguns to obtain a state license. Both have since become law. He also defended Glendening and the commission in a 1995 letter to the Washington Post, after the newspaper complained that gun control package did not go far enough.


Many people are dazzled with Ray Schoenke's political skills.

Lanny Davis calls him "a visionary figure." Pollster Del Ali said that unlike most politicians, "he takes the time, he looks you in the eye. He's very intelligent. Very serious."

"He's very sound and balanced and progressive and imaginative," McGovern said. "He's got the kind of qualities I like to see in a political figure."

But despite these attributes, few insiders can understand why he is running for this office at this time.

"I'm puzzled," said one nationally-known Democrat who did not want to be named. "It's too much of a long shot for him to do something like this."

But Schoenke apparently believes the time is right, and some political observers agree.

Thirteen months before the election, most Maryland political watchers see a Parris Glendening-Ellen Sauerbrey rematch as in-evitable. But could a rerun be-tween these familiar and battle-scarred politicians cause the still-unfocused electorate to eventually yearn for a fresh face?

"If he's spun right, he [Schoenke] might surprise some people," said Blair Lee IV, the Silver Spring developer and political commentator. "If ever there was an election year that was tailor-made to a Robin Hood, a Billy Jack, a Harry Hughes-type candidacy, 1998 is it."

Glendening partisans assume that his renomination is almost assured, now that U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Dist. 3) of Baltimore has declined to run. Rehrmann is the only announced Democratic challenger, and al-though she is well-respected among Annapolis and Baltimore-area policy wonks, she is short on cash and name recognition.

While there remains a solid bloc of anti-Glendening Democratic voters and business leaders, the likelihood is that the governor benefits when the number of challengers grows. Schoenke could get caught in that traffic jam.

Just last week, Barry Rascovar, Baltimore Sun editorial writer and political columnist, touted former Montgomery legislator Stewart L. Bainum Jr. and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos -- men with pockets as deep as Schoen-ke's -- as potential Glendening opponents. Schoenke didn't even rate a mention. Perhaps that is a sign that Schoenke's vow of silence is dimming the interest of various opinion-makers.

Still, while Schoenke keeps a low profile, he is busy behind-the-scenes. As he tries to put together a campaign, Schoenke has been meeting with several anti-Glen-dening Democrats in recent weeks, including Lee, Rehrmann and Maryland Speaker of the House Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Dist. 1).

A Rehrmann spokesman, George Harrison, said his boss is concentrating on organizing her own operation, and isn't worried about Schoenke. Bainum did not respond to phone messages from the Gazette.

By the same token, Schoenke has steered away from most Democratic elected officials and people who are close to Glen-dening.

"I haven't spoken to him or met him or received any communication from him," said Peter B. Krauser, Glendening's old friend who is chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.

This is a clear sign that Schoenke will be running as an Outsider next year -- and outsiders with big bucks can often alter a political race. Remember Ross Perot and Steve Forbes?

The Glendening campaign is not commenting on Schoenke. Michael D. Barnes, the former Montgomery County congressman who is Glendening's campaign chairman, declined to be interviewed.

Schoenke began his exploratory effort using his Germantown office as headquarters, and put his loyal staffers to work. His younger daughter, Holly, became his campaign spokesperson and is still working for the exploratory committee.

But the push quickly expanded. Last month, he hired a campaign guru, Matt Reese, former deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and an internationally-known Washington-based polling firm, Hamilton & Staff. This week, he retained Strother, Duffy and Strother, another Washington firm whose principal, Raymond Strother, is a leading Democratic consultant.

Dane Strother, Raymond's son, said the advisors are walking Schoenke through a rigid schedule of phone calls, strategy sessions and issues briefings, in preparation for his November announcement. Although no one is saying so, Schoenke's silence suggest that he's not quite ready for prime time.

Like any new candidate, Schoenke will have to spend a lot of money early to introduce himself to the voters. Because he's committing money of his own, and because he played football, the task won't be as difficult as it might be for some.

But where does he go from there? Can Ray Schoenke become a front-line player in the gridiron of Maryland politics?