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Column: Don't turn up your nose at 'celebrity candidates' like Kenny Egan

In Ireland ‘celebrity’ candidates are typically drawn from the sporting world – while in the US they’re often actors. Either way, don’t underestimate the potent blend of skills, experience and dynamism they bring to politics, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

OLYMPIC SILVER MEDAL-winning boxer Kenny Egan recently announced that he would be one of Fine Gael’s candidates in the Clondalkin ward for a seat on South Dublin County Council in May’s local elections. At a press conference where the announcement was made, Egan proclaimed that his campaign slogan would be the same as his motto during his boxing career: “Keep It Real.” He also stated that his primary motivation for deciding to become involved in politics is “to make a difference in my local community.”

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and Dublin Mid-West TD, Frances Fitzgerald, seems to have been the key mover in persuading Egan to run under her party’s banner. At first glance, recruiting Kenny Egan to be one of its candidates in Clondalkin looks like a real coup for Fine Gael. Working class sections of Dublin are far from natural Fine Gael territory. But Egan is very popular in the area he grew up in.

He has an extraordinary life story to tell. It runs the entire gamut of highs and lows, from winning an Olympic medal to battling alcohol and other addictions. That he has conquered his demons and now wants to give something back makes his candidacy compelling. On the campaign trail and – should he be elected – in public office, he could set a wonderful example for young people in Clondalkin and encourage some to engage actively in politics and civic life for perhaps the first time.

Sneering reaction

Idealistic musings aside, it wasn’t long before critics seized on some of the other comments Egan made at the press conference. He admitted that he “didn’t know much about politics or anything to do with politics.” Moreover, responding to questions about his new political affiliation, Egan said that “it didn’t really matter what party it was to be honest with you.”

Partisans have argued that enlisting Kenny Egan ahead of the local elections is evidence that Fine Gael has no principles. Others allege that the presence of a neophyte like Egan somehow further diminishes politics. For instance, a review in The Irish Times of a radio interview Egan did with Matt Cooper on Today FM posited that the candidate emerged “with his good-guy image weirdly enhanced,” but that the political system seems “more tarnished than ever.”

Many of the comments made by Fine Gael’s political opponents are borne out of jealousy that the party now has a “can’t lose” candidate in May’s elections. The sneering reaction from some pundits is overwrought and misplaced. Most of them simultaneously despair at the reality that a sizeable majority of Irish politicians come from families that have long been politically active. And the much-subscribed to notion that a good politician must be a policy wonk is nonsense.

Don’t underestimate ‘celebrity candidates’

So-called “celebrity candidates” have always been and will always be a fact of political life. In Ireland, they are typically drawn from the sporting world – by way of example, Jimmy Deenihan, the current Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and a Kerry-based TD, was a great Gaelic footballer. And former Taoiseach Jack Lynch earned five All-Ireland hurling medals and an All-Ireland football medal in an athletic career that may have even outshone his sterling track record as a politician.

In the US, actors have achieved a very high degree of political success. Ronald Reagan, who also played American football in college, was elected Governor of California and President after appearing in dozens of films. Like him or loathe him, he remains a hugely popular public figure a decade after his death. Actor and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura was Governor of Minnesota. Movie star and body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger was Governor of California. And “Cooter” from The Dukes of Hazzard, Ben Jones, was a two-term US Congressman.

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In addition to an already well-established public persona, “celebrity candidates” usually bring a potent blend of skills, experience and dynamism to politics. Claims that they’re in it for the money are rather easily debunked by the fact that they ordinarily could earn far more in their respective, or more closely related, fields. They are every bit as much entitled to stand for elective office as any other citizen.

The most unforgiving business?

It doesn’t always work out – as the Fine Gael leadership knows well from the failure of the “George Lee experiment” – yet celebrity candidates have made genuine, significant contributions to politics here in Ireland and around the world. The dismissive snootiness that their decisions to seek public office often engenders is, for the most part, unseemly and unwarranted. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of it since Kenny Egan revealed his intention last week.

I can’t help but offer a bit of unsolicited advice to Ireland’s latest “celebrity candidate”: don’t listen to the handlers who tell you that, in order to be taken seriously as a political aspirant, it’s imperative to be identified as Kenneth Egan. Nothing will more quickly prompt neighbours to ask “who do you think you are?” And regardless of what people call you, stay true to yourself every step of the way as you learn the ropes in what might be the toughest, most unforgiving business of them all.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and political columnist with IrishCentral.com.

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Read: Here’s definitive proof that Kenny ‘Kenneth’ Egan will be ‘keeping it real’

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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