It has been a wild and windy road for former Olympic track and field star Carl Lewis. Earlier this year after legislative redistricting ended, he filed his forms to run for the state Senate in New Jersey’s 8th Legislative District against state Senator Dawn Marie Addiego (R-8). Shortly thereafter, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno ruled Lewis to be ineligible to run largely based on the residency requirement of four years for state Senate candidates. The requirement states any candidate be a resident of a certain district for at least four consecutive years before running for office. Guadagno also serves as the state’s Secretary of State and official for electoral matters.
From that point, it has been months of legal and political battles between the two sides.
Lewis was able in June to clear one hurdle to be placed on the primary ballots and earn himself the official Democratic nomination. But, that has not stopped Burlington County Republicans, Guadagno, and others from ensuring that he is not on the ballot come November. As part of that, Guadagno kicked Lewis off the ballot again. Her reasoning for the decision was largely based on her previous decision to rule him ineligible to run. Included in all this was the fact that even though a federal appeal court order to keep Lewis on the ballot was being heard; that only applied to the June primary ballot at that point and not the November general election one. Furthermore, Guadagno would comment,
“Although the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ordered Mr. Lewis’ name to appear on the primary ballot, that order was carefully circumscribed and limited only to the primary ballot — the sole issue before the Third Circuit at the time of its order.”
Nonetheless, Lewis’ legal team led by his attorney; William Tambussi; continued to wage on and look for a legal victory that could circumvent Guadagno’s decision. One such potential ally was U.S. District Court Judge Noel Hillman. A federal appeals panel had ruled on Lewis’ case earlier this year before the primary elections, but still forwarded the case to Hillman.
Unfortunately for Lewis, Hillman would not bring good news. Despite seeing some gray area on the matter, he could not see enough of a reason to overturn Lt. Governor Guadagno’s decision.
Undeterred, Lewis would not be denied like in any race he used to compete in. Essentially down to his last straw or lifeline, Lewis and Tambussi reached out and scheduled a hearing before a panel of federal appeals judges in Philadelphia.
On the heels of Hillman’s decision, Lewis and his legal team sat before a three person panel federal appeals court; where Tambussi laid out Lewis’ case once more. As Tambussi told the panel,
“The thing that can’t be lost in the issue here is the paramount right of the voters of the 8th District to have a meaningful choice. At this point in time, we’re at the end of the race, so to speak.”
On the opposition side of the legal slate, Assistant State Attorney General Donna Kelly argued in favor of the four year residency requirement at the core of Guadagno’s previous decisions on Lewis’ candidacy. Kelly orated,
“We have in the state of New Jersey a constitutional and a lawful 167 year old provision, and our line of demarcation is four years. The face of the matter is that four years is four years, and you need to keep a consistent enforcement.”
As the three judges weighed over comments and arguments; one member, Judge Thomas Ambro, hinted at his uncertainty at points during the arguments. As Ambro would express,
“It’s hard to say that this candidate doesn’t know the local issues affecting the 8th Legislative District, and it’s kind of hard to say the voters don’t know who he is because of the fact that he’s gotten a lot of publicity over the years.”
Equally as ambiguous as Lewis’ candidacy could be viewed based on those comments is the fact that as Ambro saw it; Lewis had bought his Medford home in November 2007 and by the time he would be sworn in; if successful in November; he would have technically resided in New Jersey for four years.
Through it all, Lewis has trucked ahead viewing the ordeal up to that point as a hidden blessing. The three judge panel had given him another chance to run as they overturned Guadagno’s decision and that left Lewis feeling better than ever. As he jubilantly extolled,
“A lot of people knew about the campaign because of this. Then they started to ask me questions about the campaign. So I actually look at it as a positive. You can either look at this say ‘Oh my God, it’s kept me off message’ or you can say ‘Wow, it’s given me an opportunity to talk about what I believe in’.”
As has been part of the regular cycle during this whole ordeal, the ball was in the Burlington County Republicans’ court and they wanted to pursue an immediate path to overturn the latest decision. As Chris Russell of the Burlington County Republicans would state in the aftermath of the last court decision,
“At the end of the day, local taxpayers are going to have a tough time voting for someone who never paid taxes here and has spent nearly his entire adult life living somewhere else. This was a miscarriage of justice and another example of why Americans are losing faith in government institutions that are supposed to treat everyone equally.”
One might not be surprised when word spread that the 2-1 ruling in Lewis’ favor was quickly about to enter another legal battle; one that might not be as favorable for Lewis. The court cases drew some additional pressure as the September 19 ballot deadline was fast approaching with less than a week to go.
As the likely last steps were being taken in this whole legal limbo, state Senator Addiego was quick to call out the panel who voted to put Lewis’ name back on the ballot. Addiego voiced,
“I am extremely disappointed in the decision. Obviously I think they should appeal it. It’s a travesty.”
Addiego was certainly angry at the ballot decision being reversed, but was probably pleased to see the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit deciding to readdress the case not look after all seemed to be in the clear for Lewis.
With Lewis’ eligibility once again in question, Judge Ambro would pose three questions to address during the latest hearing: if someone can be a citizen in two or more states, what are the requirements in California for one to be able to vote, and how far can a federal court go in interpreting a state constitution. Instead of three judges analyzing Lewis’ case, there would be the full 13 member appeals court deciding on the matter.
After another round of hearings and discussions, Lewis once again was removed from the November ballot barely a week after he was put back on it. Lewis’ vote in California in May 2009 was a major talking point in the case and the court saw that vote as Lewis violating being a resident of New Jersey from 2007 forward. With the verdict rendered and the ballot deadline passed, Lewis was finally out of options in his quest to be on the ballot against state Senator Addiego this November.
As part of the decision, the brief read:
“Under these circumstances, (Lewis) cannot show that the New Jersey constitutional provision has been applied unevenly as to him. Even Lewis’ counsel acknowledged the significance of the California voting record by conceding that he would not be in the court on this issue but for the fact that Lewis continued to vote in California within four years of the New Jersey election date.”
Quickly to adjust and stay on path, state Democrats looked to find a way for Lewis to be on a ballot come November; even if it meant him running for the Assembly instead. To run for the Assembly, you only need to be a resident for two years as opposed to four. However, Lewis did not want to interject himself into the Assembly races nor wanted to remove either of the two qualified candidates; as he saw them. Lewis also had the option to pursue an “en banc”, a hearing in front of the full court, or appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Like with running for the Assembly, either of those options were not enticing enough for Lewis and his legal team.
Tambussi would give one more stump speech on behalf of Lewis. As he told those gathered as the final court verdict,
“It is unfortunate that the voters of the Eighth Legislative District are being denied a meaningful choice in this election by today’s decision. The extreme measures taken by the Republican Party to keep Carl Lewis off the ballot truly do a disservice to the voters.”
If state Democrats and Lewis were to come to an agreement on him running for the Assembly instead; Lewis would need a majority of county committee members to approve the change and then garner permission from the Superior Court since the ballot deadline has passed.
The official end for Lewis came Friday as he told those gathered in Mount Laurel,
“You’re not going to get a chance to vote for me on the ballot, but you will get a chance to vote for what I believe in (referring to the two Democratic Assembly candidates).”
Lewis also quickly denounced any potential run at Congress next year. He would potentially be slotted against freshman Congressman Jon Runyan (R-NJ3).
Time will now tell what state Democrats will do regarding filling Lewis’ spot. They will need to go through court proceedings to field a candidate since that ballot deadline has passed. Also, now that his objective of becoming a state Senator this fall has been squashed; what will be the next step for Lewis? Will the state see him involved on its political landscape in various roles? This political chapter is over for Lewis, but one should not be surprised if they see his name reemerge sometime soon down the road.