Gibbons: From the Mat to the Trail

Posted January 15, 2010 at 6:21pm

The competitive juices are flowing again for Jim Gibbons (R), a former champion wrestler and coach at Iowa State University who, in his first bid for political office, is trying to wrest away a seat in Congress from Rep. Leonard Boswell (D).

Gibbons, who left coaching in the early 1990s to become a financial adviser, and his supporters describe his sports background as a major asset as he campaigns in a state where college athletics are big and wrestling in particular has thrived. The title that Gibbons won as a coach in 1987 was one of 30 national wrestling championships captured by either Iowa State or the University of Iowa.

“I think he’s got a great story to tell,— said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a champion wrestler in college who competed against Gibbons’ brothers and later coached the sport. “He’s a successful athlete, a successful coach and successful in business.—

If Gibbons is elected — not a given, because he faces four opponents in the Republican primary and Boswell is seeking an eighth term — he would become the latest in a succession of Iowa officeholders with a wrestling background. Former Rep. Jim Leach (R), who represented eastern Iowa from 1977 to 2007, was a champion wrestler in high school and also competed in college. Former Rep. Greg Ganske (R), who represented the Des Moines area from 1995 to 2003, competed in high school. In past election cycles, Iowa Republican officials have tried to recruit Dan Gable, a champion wrestler who won 15 titles coaching the University of Iowa’s squad, to run for office.

Gibbons said there is “no question— that his wrestling background is an asset, noting the “network of people who are excited, who know me through the sport.—

Coaching, he said, “is a lot like a campaign — keeping people motivated and excited about what you’re trying to accomplish.—

It’s not unusual for individuals with a background in sports to get involved in politics, given the parallels between the two pursuits. As in sports, politics requires discipline, mental toughness and a combination of individual and team achievement.

“We step out there as individuals, but you can’t do it alone,— Gibbons said. “You train as a team and you build a culture and you associate with people who have been down that path before. I think that’s where having that backdrop of our sport has been very helpful for me personally.—

Jordan, who is helping the National Republican Congressional Committee recruit candidates, encouraged Gibbons to run. Jordan said he called Gibbons last summer to sound out his interest in running for Congress — and got a favorable response.

“I’m always looking for the guy who has the eye of the tiger and who is just going to grab hold of a campaign and go, and so I typically like to find people who have a background in sports,— Jordan said. “So I called up Jim and basically said, ‘Have you ever thought about running for Congress?’ And he said, ‘I sure have, and I’m very interested.’ And it sort of took off from there.—

Jordan said Gibbons “is off to a great start— in his campaign, pointing to the $207,000 that Gibbons reported raising after less than two months of fundraising.

“The same effort it took to help motivate individuals to take his team to the national championship, you’re seeing that same kind of intensity and effort in the fact that he’s raised over $200,000 in five and a half weeks,— Jordan said.

Gibbons will be campaigning on a platform of fiscal restraint. He said his background as a financial adviser at a time of economic turmoil also qualifies him to serve in Congress.

National Republican Party officials aren’t taking sides in the primary. Gibbons’ most significant opponent in the primary is state Sen. Brad Zaun, a former suburban mayor. Also seeking the Republican nomination are physician Pat Bertroche, aviation consultant David Funk and retired architect Mark Rees.

A competitive general election is anticipated in the Des Moines-based 3rd district, which also includes some rural territory east of the state capital. In the 2008 election, President Barack Obama carried the district with 54 percent of the vote; Boswell narrowly outran him, winning 56 percent against a little-known Republican.