It’s a Long Leap From Sports Team Owner to U.S. Senator

MILWAUKEE — When Alex Lasry dropped out of the Democratic primary for Senate in Wisconsin on Wednesday, he said “there was no path to victory,” something no owner of a sports franchise ever wants to admit. He said he had concluded he could not beat Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and urged voters to rally behind Barnes to defeat the Republican incumbent, Senator Ron Johnson, in November.

Lasry, 35, is a son of a billionaire owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, and has an ownership stake of his own valued at more than $50 million. He made the team, the 2021 N.B.A. champion, the centerpiece of his campaign by playing up the work he had done as a Bucks executive to help build Fiserv Forum and deliver higher wages to union workers. He frequently donned Bucks quarter zips, vests and other gear. He even traveled around the state with the N.B.A. trophy, drawing criticism for using it as a campaign prop.

There are plenty of former athletes and coaches who have made the jump from the playing field or the sideline to Capitol Hill: Bill Bradley, J.C. Watts, Tom Osborne and, more recently, Tommy Tuberville.

But it is much less common for the owners of sports franchises, whose faces are not so familiar, to inspire the same level of electoral fandom.

Some owners have had a hard time keeping sports out of the conversation. During his unsuccessful Republican primary campaign for Senate in Ohio, Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians, was lambasted by former President Donald J. Trump over the team’s decision to change its name from the Indians, which Trump mocked as a sop to the politically correct.

And in Georgia, Kelly Loeffler attacked the Black Lives Matter movement, so incensing members of the W.N.B.A. team she owned at the time, the Atlanta Dream, that they campaigned against her. She lost her Senate seat to Raphael Warnock, whose 2022 opponent is Herschel Walker, the former N.F.L. running back.

Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, a previous owner of the Bucks, was a rare team owner who made it to Washington. But he was already a known quantity through his family’s grocery and department stores and as chair of the state Democratic Party.

“Herb Kohl put in the legwork,” said State Senator Chris Larson, a Milwaukee County Democrat who dropped out of the primary last August and endorsed Barnes. “Lasry and his family were just trying to come in and buy that.”

Alex Lasry grew up in Manhattan as a son of Marc Lasry, a hedge fund manager and Democratic fund-raiser. A star point guard for his high school team who continues to play pickup basketball regularly, Alex Lasry moved to Milwaukee in 2014, after his father was part of a group that purchased the Bucks that year from Kohl for $550 million.

When he began his Senate candidacy in February 2021, Alex Lasry had to overcome skepticism that his résumé was light on accomplishments and heavy on nepotism. By late June, he had surged to a clear second in a crowded field of longtime politicians, according to a Marquette Law School survey. He had also lined up an impressive roster of supporters — including Cavalier Johnson, the mayor of Milwaukee — as well as labor leaders who credited him with being a strong community presence.

“I find him very easy to talk to, very down to earth,” said Daniel Bukiewicz, president of the Milwaukee Building & Construction Trades Council.

Lasry largely self-funded his campaign, pouring $12.3 million into it even though he initially said he would depend on grass-roots support. In the second quarter of 2022, his campaign spent $6.7 million — or more than his Democratic rivals combined.

He also had some notable donors from the sports world, like Jerry Reinsdorf and Michael Reinsdorf of the Chicago Bulls, who were beaten by the Bucks in the playoffs this year, and Stephen Pagliuca and David Bonderman, owners of the Boston Celtics, the team that bounced the Bucks from the playoffs. Other contributors were Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner; Jason Kidd, the Bucks coach when Lasry arrived in Milwaukee; Casey Close, a prominent sports agent; and Rachel Nichols, a former ESPN broadcaster.

On his Senate disclosure form, filed in August 2021, Lasry listed $100 million to $273 million in assets. One investment was his partnership in Sazes Partners, a family holding company, records show.

Through Sazes, Lasry reported owning $5 million to $25 million of Sessa Capital, a private equity fund. John Petry, the founder of Sessa Capital, has played in charity poker tournaments with Marc Lasry to benefit Education Reform Now, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The Lasry family’s ties to Sazes did not become public before he quit the race, but they might have caused a stir if they had. Sessa is the fourth-biggest shareholder in Chemours, a manufacturer of PFAS, which have been linked to cancer and are often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in water. Chemours is among the companies being sued for environmental contamination — including, last week, by Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul of Wisconsin.

Asked last week about Lasry’s substantial family stake in a major Chemours shareholder, Christina Freundlich, a campaign spokeswoman, said that Lasry applauded the efforts of Evers and Kaul “holding any and all polluters accountable” and that he has urged Congress to establish PFAS regulations.

No matter. By Wednesday it was game over. At a news conference in front of the Fiserv Forum, Barnes praised Lasry’s campaign, saying he departs without having made any new enemies.

That’s a notable achievement for a politician or a sports owner.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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