Football star, restaurateur headline Oklahoma governor's race

Thursday, August 22nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Former Rep. Steve Largent is careful not to rely too much on his storied past as a football star, even in football-crazy Oklahoma. The Republican favorite for governor knows how athletes can be stereotyped.

The NFL hall of famer has instead been quietly raising more than $2 million and has the best name recognition of all those trying to succeed GOP Gov. Frank Keating, who is barred from seeking a third term.

``He is one of the better-known people in the state,'' said Gary Copeland, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma. ``He has a seemingly infinite capacity to raise money. If he runs a smart campaign and is able to deflect potential criticism, then he's clearly the front-runner.''

Largent, 47, who resigned from the House to run for governor, faces only token opposition in Tuesday's primary. Polls show a millionaire Italian restaurateur leading a field of five Democrats, but there may be a runoff.

Whoever wins is expected to criticize votes Largent missed in the House and his office's botched press release after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Largent was hunting in Idaho that day and didn't learn of the attacks until he emerged from the woods on Sept. 13. His staff issued a statement indicating his reaction even though they were out of contact with him.

``Whoever gets the Democratic nomination will be capable of mounting a serious challenge,'' Copeland said.

The Democratic nominee will face a veteran campaigner who has represented Oklahoma in the House for seven years.

Like Rep. J.C. Watts, a fellow Oklahoma Republican, Largent has a football pedigree. The Tulsa native was a star receiver for the Seattle Seahawks before opening a business consulting company, but he does not make it a campaign theme.

``It also can cut against you,'' he said. ``A lot of people stereotype athletes. You have to work to overcome that stereotype.''

Vince Orza, 52, who has written a book full of homespun wisdom from his Italian upbringing in Connecticut, has been the leader in polls going into the Democratic primary.

Orza is the head of Edmond-based Eateries Inc., which has more than 70 restaurants in 27 states, and is a former college professor and television newsman. Orza has raised $1.1 million for his campaign, including $195,000 from his own pocket.

Orza ran for governor as a Republican in 1990, finishing first in the primary but losing in a runoff. He says his background is perfect for what he sees as the two big issues in this year's campaign: jobs and education.

``We're not picking an NFL player, we're picking a governor,'' Orza said. ``It's not a matter of who is nice, handsome, charismatic. It's a matter of who is the right guy to be governor.''

Orza's toughest primary competition comes from veteran state Sens. Kelly Haney and Brad Henry.

Haney, whose Seminole-Creek tribal ancestors followed the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, is the first full-blood Indian to run for governor in Oklahoma. His bronze statue of a warrior recently was hoisted to the top of the state Capitol dome.

A popular independent candidate who is pushing for a state lottery and an end to turnpike tolls also lies in wait this fall. Gary Richardson, a Tulsa attorney, has pumped $1.5 million of his own money into the race.

The state's other hot race is the one to replace Watts, the only black Republican in Congress and the fourth-ranking member of the House. Front-runners include longtime Republican strategists Marc Nuttle and Tom Cole.