Wednesday, April 05, 2006


In the Game for Pennsylvania Governor, NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann Is Running Like a Pro

By Mark Leibovich


Novice politicians need to pass a few basic tests. First is the ability to work a room, dominate it, if possible -- or, at the very least, convey a sense that you relish being there, meeting everyone and hearing the stories about how this guy met you at a banquet in Pittsburgh 20 years ago and you were nice enough to sign an autograph that he still has, by the way, in a scrapbook somewhere . . .

Lynn Swann aces this test with an ease and grace that befit his status both as a Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and as a dancer who began studying ballet when he was 8.

Swann, 54, doesn't so much work a room as prance through it: His double-pump handshakes are brisk and authoritative, his grin and eye contact unrelenting. He stutter-steps in and out of conversations in 15 seconds or less, but never seems in a rush. Swann has mastered the art of Being a Famous Guy -- performing on the Famous Guy circuit of sporting events, speaking appearances and autograph scrums.

"Smile," says the man snapping a photo of Swann, who is, of course, already smiling. The Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania is working his way through a wine-and-hors d'oeuvres reception hosted by a chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), a trade group whose membership veers Republican. As for football loyalties, this south-central region of Pennsylvania is a battleground between Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles allegiances.

But, in this office park -- on this evening, in the presence of No. 88 -- the room is trending heavily Black and Gold. "I'm a lifelong Steeler guy," proclaims one, introducing himself to Swann, who spins into his celebrity meet-and-greet routine: signing the man's football, then a cocktail napkin, then posing for a cellphone photo.

He completes the set by signing another man's "Swann for Governor" lapel sticker, the likes of which are now selling for a buck on eBay.

Recurring Doubts

Another essential test for a first-time candidate is whether he has a compelling personal story, ideally of the Horatio Alger, up-from-nothing variety. Swann nails this one, too, although whether his superstar narrative qualifies him to lead a state of 12.5 million people is another matter.

The youngest of three boys, Swann was born in a small Tennessee town, the son of a dentist's assistant (mother) and a janitor (father). He attended the University of Southern California on a football scholarship, was an All-American, played eight years in the NFL with four Super Bowl victories, and is recalled as perhaps the most acrobatic receiver in league history. Announcer Curt Gowdy dubbed him "the Baryshnikov of football."

Swann retired from the NFL in 1982, worked hundreds of ABC college football broadcasts as a sideline reporter, hosted "Battle of the Network Stars" and "To Tell the Truth," played himself in "The Waterboy" with Adam Sandler and "The Last Boy Scout" with Bruce Willis, raised money for the Pittsburgh Ballet and chaired President Bush's Council on Physical Fitness. Now, Swann, who has never run for office before, wants to be the first black governor of Pennsylvania.

"My parents never thought their youngest son would be standing here accepting the nomination for governor," Swann said tearfully on the night in February when he was ensured the state GOP's nomination for governor (Swann has no opposition in a May primary). "We truly do live in the greatest nation of the world."

Still, as Swann traverses the nation's sixth most populous state he is trailed by recurring doubts about whether he's fit to tackle the job. Questions, in other words, about what Swann has ever run before. Besides post patterns.

"Probably Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America, when I was national board chair for two years," Swann says. (Pressed on this, Swann allows that the position was a part-time volunteer appointment that entailed no day-to-day management responsibilities.)

Swann is much more tentative in interviews than he is in a crowd. Since announcing his candidacy in January and winning the endorsement of the Republican state committee in February -- this was after his two GOP opponents withdrew -- Swann has largely avoided reporters. The Swann campaign granted The Washington Post 20 minutes with him before the reception in Manheim.

He sits in a conference room, his long fingers behind his head, a posture of relaxation. But many of Swann's responses come out clipped and abrupt. This is especially so on the matter of why he's running for governor, as opposed to a non-executive office, such as Congress. That has been the preferred route of other former sports heroes, such as NFL great Steve Largent (a former GOP congressman from Oklahoma); Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning (a Republican senator from Kentucky); and NBA great Bill Bradley (a former Democratic U.S. senator from New Jersey).

Swann resists such comparisons as too narrowly focused on former athletes. There have been other celebrities who have been elected governors, he says. Swann and his supporters frequently mention Ronald Reagan and, occasionally, Arnold Schwarzenegger, although never Jesse Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota.

"Did George W. Bush have a payroll to meet prior to running for governor of Texas?" Swann asks. When a reporter mentions the president's stint as owner of the Texas Rangers, Swann protests that Bush wasn't the team's day-to-day manager. (Bush also ran an oil business.)

Either way, Swann has a larger point to make: "There are lots of people who come to politics from varied backgrounds who have done well," he says. "If you go back to the Founding Fathers, I don't think that they intended for everyone to be a professional politician."

"Professional politician" is a favorite phrase among Swann and his supporters. As in, Swann is not one. And his opponent, Democrat Edward G. Rendell, a former mayor of Philadelphia who is completing his first term as governor, is one. Like many other candidates who have limited political experience, Swann fashions himself as "just a citizen," an "outsider," a fresh (albeit famous) face seeking to dislodge an entrenched figure.

"He's just a private citizen and non-politician who has taken a look at what's happening in Harrisburg and said, 'You know what, I can do better,' " says Jack Zimmer, the president of the local ABC chapter who introduced Swann in Manheim. "Yes, we've seen Number 88 make great catches, but more importantly, we feel like we're like him. He's like us."

Swann emphasizes this point in his brief stump speech. That he is an everyday Pennsylvanian -- an Average Lynn with a wife, two kids, a house in the Pittsburgh suburbs. His remarks also include a call for lower taxes, less government regulation and a repeated homage to "common-sense solutions."

"I believe we can do better than we have," Swann says. "I believe in the state of Pennsylvania. I believe in the work ethic, I believe in the people. I think we just need to sit down and do some common-sense things for the commonwealth. This is not rocket science."

It's no stroll on the Astroturf, either. "I have to question whether he understands the magnitude and depth of the job," says Dwight White, a teammate of Swann's on the four Steelers Super Bowl teams. White also remained in Pittsburgh and has gone on to a successful career at a financial services firm. White, who says he and Swann are at "different ends of the political spectrum," is undecided about whether he'll support his former teammate.

He jokingly compares the notion of Swann in the governor's office to a TV ad for Holiday Inn Express in which someone asks a man who is attempting to perform surgery if he has ever done this before. No, the man says. But at least the "surgeon" was smart enough to stay at a Holiday Inn Express the night before.

"People tend to hold people to much higher standards if they are running for president or governor," says G. Terry Madonna, a director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. "If someone gets elected to Congress, and he turns out to be a whack job, so what? There's 435 people there."

As Swann concludes his speech in Manheim, Zimmer breaks in and leads the 100 or so people in the room in a surprise rendition of "Happy Birthday to You" for Swann, who turned 54 a few days earlier.

" Happy birthdayyyy, Mr. Governor ," Zimmer croons, pressing his mouth against the microphone in something of a low-rent version of Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy.

Spotty Voting Record

One of the harsher tests for a first-time candidate is parrying questions from the media. Swann has had a relatively easy go of it so far. But he is clearly on uncertain footing when facing scrutiny.

This was apparent during a February interview on ABC's "This Week," in which he demonstrated, at best, a shaky grasp of some issues he might face as governor. He conveyed, at one point, the impression that he thought abortion would become automatically illegal if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade .

When host George Stephanopoulos asked Swann whether he would try to pass a law banning abortion if Roe v. Wade were struck down, he replied, "Well, if the Supreme Court overturned it, then they've basically overturned it. They've basically said that, you know, you can't have an abortion."

Stephanopoulos corrected Swann, saying it would be up to each state to decide its own abortion laws.

"Well," Swann said, "if they send it to the states to decide, as opposed to making a decision that abortions are illegal, then I would sign legislature [sic] making abortions illegal."

A few days after the Stephanopoulos interview, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Swann had not voted in 20 of 36 state elections over the past 18 years. Reporters pelted Swann with questions about his voting history at a campaign stop near Philadelphia, and he ended the news conference abruptly.

Although some prominent Pennsylvania Republicans privately say they found the Stephanopoulos interview troubling, supporters of Swann ascribe this early turbulence to inexperience. They say the candidate will improve with time. "Lynn needs to be prepared to engage Rendell on the issues at a certain point," says Republican lobbyist Bob Walker, a former Pennsylvania congressman and early Swann supporter. Walker says he is confident Swann will get there.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman answers a question about the interview by dismissing it. "I'm not sure Pennsylvanians are paying attention to Stephanopoulos interviews," Mehlman says. "They're paying closer attention to their high property taxes."

Swann says he was "disappointed" by the interview, but not by his own performance. Rather, he says he was disappointed "that George had so much of his own agenda on the table," which he characterizes as "trying to prove himself a better journalist, or trying to put someone on the spot."

Was Stephanopoulos's Roe. v. Wade question valid?

"Yeah, but see, you know, if I face it, I face it, okay? There are other issues in Pennsylvania that are right here on the table, plain and simple."

After about 20 minutes, Melissa Walters, Swann's press secretary, interjects that the interview is almost over.

Was Swann surprised by the controversy over his voting record?

He laughs. "I expected people to have more common sense," he says. "People" being the people in the media. "I guess common sense doesn't always prevail," he says. "You're not going to let common sense get in the way of a good headline."

The headline is that Swann has a spotty voting record, and several news accounts juxtaposed that record with a quote from Swann in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in October 2004: "I have always been someone to believe that when you have certain freedoms, you should exercise them and not take it for granted. If you don't take part in the process, and you don't vote, then I am not willing to listen to your complaints."

Swann, who does not dispute the quote, is more defiant than sheepish on the subject of his voting record.

"Who has a perfect record, okay?" he says. "How about some basic common sense?" He shakes his head.

"Say you're away," Swann continues, referring to a hypothetical Election Day. "You think you're going to get back. But the plane doesn't take off.

"How about you think you're going to vote after work. And so you head out for the day. But something happens. Traffic jam. Car accident. You don't get there. You don't vote."

Hailing a Hero

Perhaps the most important early test for a candidate is whether he is serious about winning. This is the first thing Swann addresses, and without prompting. With every person and group he meets, Swann says, "I want them to understand that I'm in this to win. People need to understand that. I'm not out there to put a good face for the Republican Party."

The subtext is unmistakable: Most Republican candidates don't have faces like Swann's.

Indeed, Swann's race is something of an X-factor against Rendell, who, like many other Democrats, has received overwhelming support from African Americans when he runs against Republicans. Roughly 85 percent of black voters supported Rendell in 2002, and political analysts posit that if Swann can shrink that margin by 10 percent, it could turn a close election in Swann's favor. Rendell holds a slight lead -- 3 percent or 4 percent -- in early polls.

Some commentators and Rendell supporters charge that the Republican National Committee is using Swann to further Mehlman's aim of bolstering the party's minority ranks. They point to Swann's thin voting history -- even in Republican primaries -- as proof of his Johnny-come-lately commitment to the GOP.

Mehlman says that Swann's candidacy stems not from any elaborate recruiting effort on the GOP's part, but rather Swann's own desire to get involved. "This was Pennsylvania-grown," Mehlman says of Swann's candidacy. "Not Washington-grown."

Another wild card is the popularity of the Steelers in western Pennsylvania after the team's first Super Bowl win since Swann's playing days.

"To me, Swann's not black, he's black and gold," says Larry Ceisler, a Democratic consultant in Philadelphia who is a Steeler fan and originally from Pittsburgh. "You have to be from there to fully appreciate the pull of that team," he says, referring to the Super Bowl teams of Swann's era.

Swann runs a careful cross pattern between leveraging his football popularity for political gain and not overdoing it. "I'll take whatever help I can get," Swann says.

After the reception, Swann beelines for the men's room, emerges after 90 seconds and is met immediately in the hallway by a man waiting with another football for No. 88 to autograph.

Someone follows with a small piece of paper. And another with a campaign sticker. And a woman clutching a Terrible Towel.

"Thanks, governor," a man calls after Swann, who is now doing a down-and-out pattern to a back exit. He signs three more autographs in the parking lot and receives a compliment on his speech.

"Slam-dunk, governor," the fan says, before adjusting his metaphor to the gridiron. "I mean, touchdown, governor."

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