Porky Politicians Drop Pounds for Votes

NY lawmakers push away the ice cream, hit gym to ready for fall elections.

April 26, 2010, 4:50 PM

April 27, 2010— -- New York Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo and at least a dozen other state lawmakers, some up for re-election, are fighting the battle of the bulge.

"The diet kicks in today," Hoyt told ABCNews.com. "I'm a big-boned fellow in the 230-pound range."

Hoyt, a Democrat, is facing a primary opponent this year and wants to be up to the challenge, so he is back on a diet of "discipline, portion control and exercise."

"When my constituents tell me to trim the fat, I want to make sure they mean the budget, and not me," said Hoyt, 48.

"Vanity has never been such a big issue," he said. "Sure, physical appearance is a small factor, but voters would rather see someone whose belly isn't, you know, huge -- someone who is fit and trim."

At a time when 34 percent of all Americans aged 20 and over are obese, politicians are ever more concerned about their fatty footprint.

"It's interesting that once upon a time in the Tammany Hall era, leaders were big corpulent characters whose hugeness in politics or industry needed to be reflected in their physical presence," said Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.

"You talk about the G-word, a formidable presence used to lend a certain gravitas," he said. "A slim, slip of a thing is not going to move public opinion."

Not so today as a svelte, basketball-playing Barack Obama and his organic gardening first lady Michelle, set a leaner tone at the White House.

"Obama looks good in a bathing suit in Hawaii and even George Bush looked fit," said Thompson. "Clinton was the last -- a fast food pudgie."

"Things have changed, " said Thompson. "With the issue of rampant obesity and consciousness about health, there is now a moral and ethical cloud that might float over someone with a large body type."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who once weighed in at 340 pounds, had gastric bypass surgery in 2003 after admitting he was unable to ride the city subway because he couldn't climb the stairs.

Nadler has since lost 100 pounds.

Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee touted his 120-pound weight loss over two years as a campaign mantra.

"I'm a recovering food-aholic," the former Arkansas governor told voters. At his peak, the 5-foot 11-incher weighed 300 pounds, once demolishing a century-old antique chair in the state capitol.

And it's not just an American phenomenon. In New Zealand, five national politicians -- members of parliament and cabinet ministers -- have had gastric bypass surgery, according to the Christ Church Press.

As for Hoyt, "It's less about health than about economics," he said. "I can't fit into my suits anymore and I can't afford more suits.

"I also think it's important to send a message," Hoyt said. "It's difficult to acknowledge the health crisis of childhood and adult obesity and yet be overweight yourself."

When President Obama nominated full-figured Regina Benjamin to the post of surgeon general last year, there was an outcry by some well-respected physicians. They said she carried too much around the middle to be the face of America's new healthcare initiatives.

The criticism was so strong that the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance -- whose slogan is, "we come in all sizes" -- jumped to her defense.

But not all portly politicians are the biggest losers.

New Jersey's jumbo-sized gubenatorial candidate Christopher Christie beat incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine last fall, despite attack ads that showed Republican Christie at his heftiest.

Corzine, a Democrat, had accused Christie of "throwing his weight around" to get out of paying traffic tickets.

'Fat Governor' Goes For 'Lean Budget'

A month before the state election, a Newsweek headline asked, "Is Chris Christie Too Fat to Be the Next Governor of New Jersey?"

The governor's press office did not return a call from ABCNews.com to answer the question, but at the time Christie deflected the issue: "Better a fat governor and a lean budget, than a lean governor and a fat budget."

He also said he was healthy and had begun to take off weight. But now, six months after the election, Christie is still the poster fat boy.

"Let me be clear," said N.Y. State Sen. Craig M. Johnson, D-Port Washington. "I am not as fat as Chris Christie."

Johnson, 39, is purported to have lost the most of the all the New York legislators, according to The New York Times report last week -- down 30 pounds from around 250 on his 6-foot 2-inch frame.

After giving birth to their third child, Johnson's wife reportedly told him, "You are really fat!"

His weakness is ice cream. "She asks me to get the ice cream -- so it's one pint for her and two pints for me, and I can eat it all in the first sitting," he told ABCNews.com.

Now, Johnson is turning away sweets at banquets and speaking engagements and sticking to yogurts and lean meats. He never misses his daily run.

"I've always been a good public servant, but the weight loss has enabled me to really increase my amount of energy and to be more focused," Johnson said. "My wife says I am an energy bunny super-charged. Now I am the lithium bunny."

Historians say that television -- and perhaps now the visual power of the Internet -- have made looks all the more important in political campaigns.

"We often say that Abraham Lincoln couldn't get elected today not because he isn't as brilliant as he was 150 years ago, but he was not a very handsome figure," said Russell Riley, presidential scholar at the University of Virginia's Center of Public Affairs.

"We are now much more intimately aware of what people look like and their ability to appear presentable on TV," said Riley. "I haven't done any studies, but it would likely be the same for people who are overweight."

The fattest president in U.S. history was President William Howard Taft (1913-1917), who got stuck in the White House bathtub at 350 pounds.

Then, as now, voters sometimes presume that a portly politician is "personally extravagant or lazy," said Riley. "Most prefer not to have their public servants fat. I don't know how someone like Taft was able to overcome this."

"Americans like their public servants vigorous, more like Teddy Roosevelt or scholarly like Woodrow Wilson," he said.

Democratic strategist and ABC consultant Donna Brazile said voters have always been eager to "size up" the politician, "especially if they are XL."

"Long before obesity became part of the news cycle, politicians have used election years to get in shape to demonstrate to the voters they are up to the responsibility they are about to assume," said Brazile. "It's a way for them to really practice discipline."

Campaigns are notorious for putting on pounds. Candidates "sit, eat, get up, sit, eat," she said. "In this political climate, the last thing any politician wants to appear is someone who is out of touch as well as out to lunch."

As for Gov. Christie, "I won't pick on him," said Brazile, who knows how hard it is to take the weight off after directing Al Gore's failed bid for the presidency in 2000. "I can stand to go back to the gym myself."

Asked about Al Gore, who has not yet faced the inconvenient truth of his ballooning waistline, Brazile laughed, "He just let it go."

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