Lynn Swann Goes Deep

In his first try at politics, the Hall of Fame Steelers wideout won the Republican endorsement for governor of Pennsylvania. Now he has to catch up on the issues in his race against a rabid Eagles backer
February 27, 2006

When 250,000people swarmed into downtown Pittsburgh for the Steelers' victory rally twodays after Super Bowl XL, Ed Rendell, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania,made a pro move. He stayed on the sideline--out of the parade and off thepodium. Not because he's aligned with the Eagles, although he is. The formertwo-term mayor of Philadelphia, a manic sports fan who moonlights as acommentator on an Eagles postgame cable show, is a consummate pol, and undernormal conditions he could have made the Eagles connection work for him, evenin the capital of Steelers Country. But not two days after this Super Bowl, andnot with his probable opponent in the November election, former Steelers starLynn Swann, standing on a platform and rubbing the Lombardi Trophy. ¶ Swann wasnumber 88 again that day, celebrating with the Rooneys, Jerome Bettis, HinesWard, Ben Roethlisberger--and a quarter-million people who still believe thatyour football team is your city and your city is your football team. When somein the crowd chanted, "Gov-er-nor! Gov-er-nor!" Swann said, "Thisday isn't about anything but the black and gold!" Robust cheering followed.How could Rendell compete with that?

In Swann's yearswith the Steelers (1974 through '82, his whole pro career), when the mills andmines of western Pennsylvania were closing, he was the lithe receiver on thebrutish Steel Curtain teams that won four Super Bowls. In those glory days itwas Bradshaw to Swann, time and again, for the game-turning play. And afterSwann retired, he did not go back to Los Angeles to hang with the guys from hisUSC days or to the Bay Area, where he grew up. No, he stayed in Pittsburgh. Itwas an old-timey thing to do, like the Colts' Art Donovan staying in Baltimore,except Swann is way buttoned-down by comparison. He joined the Republican Partyand a country club. He was invited to join the boards of the H.J. Heinz Companyand Hershey Entertainment and Resorts. He remained on the board of thePittsburgh Ballet, which he had joined as a player. He bought a house in thestaid town of Sewickley and enrolled his two young boys at the SewickleyAcademy, a bastion of old Pittsburgh wealth. Suburban white Pittsburgh openedits arms to him. He was Swannie, the All-Pro--and in America, celebrity trumpsrace.

In America, infact, celebrity trumps all. In a ballroom of the Harrisburg Hilton on Saturday,Feb. 11--38 days after he had announced his candidacy--Swann received hisparty's endorsement for governor of Pennsylvania mainly for this reason:Several hundred state Republican committeemen believe he has enough star powerto defeat Rendell. In his acceptance speech Swann cried. "His father was acustodian, and look where Lynn is now," said his wife, Charena, explainingher husband's tears.

"I probablyshouldn't have done that," Swann later said about breaking down. Charena,who has a Ph.D. in child psychology and, like Lynn's parents, is a Democrat,had seen her husband cry only one other time: when he was inducted into the ProFootball Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 2001.

Swann, 53, hasspent much of his life after football with a microphone at his mouth, hostingsuch TV shows as Battle of the Network Stars and To Tell the Truth, speaking atcharity dinners and covering college football games as a sideline reporter forABC Sports. As a campaigner he has that move perfected by Phil Donahue, inwhich you wade in among your listeners even if it means turning your back tosome of them. In other words, he's a natural at connecting with people.

On a Friday nightin January, in the first week of his campaign, Swann spoke to several hundredpeople, many of them white farmers, in the rural center of Pennsylvania.Farmers are a powerful Republican force in the state, and they tend to beconservative Christians. So is Swann. There's little groove to his publicspeaking, but there he was, mike in hand, wading in and talking with just thetiniest hint of the rhythms of the black Baptist preachers he listened to onSundays growing up. Swann was listing the problems that Pennsylvania faces andhis cures for them when one of the menfolk yelled enthusiastically,"Preachin'!" On that night Swann found out he could connect with thestate's substantial white Bible belt. It was a big moment in the making of thecandidate.

From the daySwann entered the race he had a formidable Republican challenger with a 20-yearhead start on him: a rich white guy named Bill Scranton. A lieutenant governorin the early '80s, Scranton is the son of William W. Scranton, the populargovernor of Pennsylvania in the mid-'60s. But Swann quickly became the favoriteof the state's Republican establishment, leading Bill Scranton's campaignmanager, Jim Seif, to say on public TV on Jan. 25 that Swann was "the richwhite guy in this campaign." The statement put the Scranton campaign on thedefensive, and the candidate immediately fired Seif. Two weeks later Swann,sitting in the Starbucks on Beaver Street in downtown Sewickley, received acall informing him that Scranton was dropping out of the race.

Seif's jibe tothe contrary, Swann's race may help him win in November. In 2002 an estimated263,500 African-Americans voted for Rendell. If Swann can attract just 10% ofthose voters--and hold on to the 46,500 black Pennsylvanians who votedRepublican four years ago--it might be enough to get him elected. And amongmany white voters, his race may well be no issue at all. One weekday last monthSwann was campaigning in a working-class Democratic district in Allentown."Are there any black families in this neighborhood?" a reporter askedone resident, a retired union machinist and a Democratic-lever puller.

"No," theman said. "Colored's all down the hill still."

"Who are yougoing to vote for?"

"Swann."

"Why?"

"Rendell saidhe'd lower my property taxes. All they've done is gone up. Swann's race don'tmake no difference."

Another thingthat may make a difference is that Swann is accustomed to winning. At JuniperoSerra High, the boys' Catholic school outside San Francisco, his football andbasketball teams almost never lost. (Swann jumped center, even though he was acouple of inches under six feet.) He won a Rose Bowl as a Trojan and went fourfor four in Super Bowls. And his behind-the-scenes strategist is Washington,D.C.-- based lawyer and lobbyist Mark Holman, who helped turn Tom Ridge from anobscure small-town congressman into the governor of Pennsylvania.

Rendell, whobegins his day with the sports section and ends it with SportsCenter, saysSwann is one of the men who turned wide receiver into a position played by"acrobats." If Swann were to beat Rendell, he would be a pioneer of adifferent sort: the first black governor of Pennsylvania and the first electedblack Republican governor in U.S. history. Republican National Committeechairman Ken Mehlman and President George W. Bush are watching the raceclosely, and if Swann stays close to Rendell in the polls, many millions ofdollars will flow from the RNC's war chest to his campaign. A recent statewidepoll had Swann trailing Rendell by three points. within a field goal read thefront-page headline of the Philadelphia Daily News.

Swann had raisedapproximately $1.6 million by the end of last year. His biggest campaigncontributor was Maggie Hardy Magerko, who gave him $100,000. Magerko is thepresident of 84 Lumber, a construction-supply chain founded by her father, JoeHardy, a leader in western Pennsylvania's business community. Swann has playedin the pro-am and spoken at dinners during a PGA Tour event sponsored by 84Lumber and is a friend of the Hardy family.

Like manyRepublican campaign donors in Pennsylvania, Swann is a staunch conservative. Hewants to lower state taxes, implement the death penalty and protect the rightsof gun owners. He's pro-life, which, in the event that he is elected, may bemeaningful if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court and stategovernments end up determining the legality of abortion. Swann also opposes theslot machines that are coming to Pennsylvania racetracks and other sites laterthis year courtesy of legislation promoted and signed by Governor Rendell.

Who knew Swannwas so ambitious? His mother, Mildred, his wife and only a few others. Until hequit in January, Swann spent 29 years at ABC-TV, many of them as a nearlyinvisible sideline football reporter. What he wanted was to be the host of GoodMorning America, for which he became an occasional contributor in 1995. He hadacting dreams too, but that career topped out with an episode of the TVmelodrama Hotel in 1985.

What he'sattempting now--trying to become governor with no management experience--is waymore audacious. Athletes turned legislators are common enough: Jim Bunning andBill Bradley in the U.S. Senate and Steve Largent and Jack Kemp in the House,to name just a few. Experience matters less when your main task is to vote onlaws. But a governor is the chief executive and a deal maker. The job takesgame. Chris Matthews has the right name for his MSNBC show on politics,Hardball, and Swann made a savvy move when he backed Matthews's brother Jim,the county commissioner of densely populated Montgomery County, outsidePhiladelphia, for the Republican endorsement for lieutenant governor. Rendellwon Montgomery County by more than 93,000 votes in 2002, but having Matthews ashis running mate could help Swann cut into the incumbent's margin there thistime around. Swann's campaign manager is Ray Zaborney, a young party operativeand a political junkie.

Even if Swannupsets Rendell in November, winning the election and governing are twodifferent things, as Jesse Ventura discovered in Minnesota and ArnoldSchwarzenegger found out in California. Pennsylvania has 80,000 stateemployees, a $25 billion budget and more than 12 million residents. It's asmall country, just about.

Rendell is apolitician in the Bill Clinton mold, an all-world talker who has mastered thedetails of issues that Swann, with the help of paid policy advisers, is justnow learning about. During an appearance on the ABC News show This Week withGeorge Stephanopoulos on Feb. 12, it became clear that Swann didn't realizethat abortion would not automatically become illegal if Roe v. Wade were struckdown. Four days later the candidate suffered another embarrassment when it wasreported that over the last 18 years he hadn't voted in 20 of 36 stateelections, including 13 of 18 primaries. He cut short a campaign stop inMontgomery County last Thursday after reporters repeatedly asked him about hisvoting record.

Regardless, Swannalmost invariably comes across as a nice man, and Pennsylvania--Philadelphiaexcepted--is more Midwestern in spirit than Eastern. Nice plays there. Plus,Swann on the campaign trail has a killer line: "Ed Rendell is a governorwho wants to be a football broadcaster. I'm a former football broadcaster whowants to be governor. In November, give both of us the jobs we want!"

"It's a cuteline," says Rendell, who was a reserve on the football, basketball andbaseball teams at the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. When he's watchingthe Phillies or the Eagles or Penn basketball, he's often sweaty and hoarsefrom cheering and looks as if he's still waiting to get called in. "Butit's not true. I don't want to work in sports full time. I'm a fan. Even if Iwere the commissioner of baseball, six months into it I'd be saying, 'What am Idoing here?' My passion is to help people."

Rendell admireselite athletes the way true fans do. The shame, he says, is that so many pros"view the fan as a nuisance." Whom would you rather vote for, thehoagie-scarfing fan who knows the agony of defeat or the Hall of Famer who madewinning look so easy?

But Swann hasalways been good with fans and is especially so now, when he knows he might wina vote every time he signs an autograph. At a hunting and fishing show recentlyhe slipped out of his suit, put on spotless jeans and a gray turtleneck, andclipped his cellphone to his shiny black belt. In that setting, wherecamouflage outfits were the norm, he was in a definite minority--Swann is not amember of the National Rifle Association--but by his fourth try at the tomahawkthrow he was getting it pretty close to the bull's-eye. Rendell has thought outloud about challenging Swann to Pop-a-Shot, the rapid-fire carnival basketballgame, but he might want to rethink that.

Swann has been inthe newspapers since he was a two-sport high school standout at 16, and aphotographer on the campaign trail says, "He knows how to hold thelens." He's got down the perma-smile, and he has a knack for saying nothingwith a great torrent of words. Asked by a reporter what he had accomplished aschairman of President Bush's council on fitness from 2002 to 2005, Swann said,"I tried to be as proactive as possible. There was the opportunity to getthe President's council to be more than it was in the past, with the problemsof obesity being what they are. My idea is to always make things better thanthey were when you found them. But it was hard to be more proactive when youdon't have a huge budget, you don't have a lot of money to go out and actuallydo things, when you have to rely on other companies and corporations for yourfunding and to try to get your message out." Et cetera. Eventually hementioned having revamped the council's website with "more of the X Gamessports, if you will." Rendell has mastered the art of cutting to the chase.When asked to describe his bowling game, he says, "I suck."

But Swann alsohas a knack for sensing the mood of an audience. On Jan. 7, at a Holiday Innmeeting room in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Republicans held a gubernatorialequivalent of the Iowa presidential caucuses. This was weeks before Scranton'sman made his rich-white-guy comment and weeks before the Super Bowl. The threemain candidates were Swann, Scranton and State Senator Jeff Piccola, and eachwas to make his case to the 120 members of the Central Counties Caucus.Piccola, the only candidate who was from one of the central counties, wasexpected to win the straw vote that day. He spoke first and unexpectedlyannounced that he was dropping out of the race because he saw the momentumgoing toward Swann.

There was amoment of confusion among the delegates, the way there often is when lifesuddenly goes off-script. Swann was up next and handled Piccola's news withgrace. He praised the state senator and said his decision to stand down"could not have been easy for him. I honor him as a man." There wassomething moving in the simplicity of Swann's response. He then spoke and tookquestions for the better part of an hour. When he was done, his wife and fourstaffers stood up to leave, but the caucus members misinterpreted the move asthe start of a standing ovation, and they all stood up and applauded.

Several hourslater, after a long tour of the Pennsylvania Farm Show, Lynn and Charena werein the backseat of a rental car when a call came in with the results of theCentral Counties straw vote: 77 for Swann, 32 for Scranton. Swann repeated thenumbers out loud, trying to play it cool. But you didn't have to be a politicaljunkie to understand the vote's implication: Swann was going to get theRepublican gubernatorial nomination. Charena grabbed the lapels of herhusband's topcoat with two hands, said, "Oh, baby," and kissed himhard.

"Thanks,baby," Swann said, staring straight ahead.

Swann saysRendell blew him off when he said hello and offered the governor his hand in anelevator at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, where they had gone for anEagles game one Monday night last season. Rendell says he just didn't seeSwann. "I keep hearing about what a nice man he is, how warm he is,"Swann says of his opponent. "I guess something happens when I'maround."

When they workedthe Pennsylvania Farm Show on the same day last month, Swann and Rendell didmeet briefly and shook hands. There was nothing like a swarm of people aroundeither man, but more people wanted Swann's autograph than wanted thegovernor's. Rendell says that if he could interview Swann, the one thing he'dask is, "What was Chuck Noll really like?" The Steelers' old coach wasan enigma. When Rendell's question is relayed to Swann, the former playerflashes his candidate's smile, pauses for several seconds and says, "A lotof people would like to know that."

Rendell says thatSwann, as a retired athlete, "would have to be inhuman not to miss theapplause. Lynn will find that same kind of reward in politics, if he stays init." But Swann, already wearing his game face, doesn't want career advicefrom Rendell. The incumbent is now just another guy to beat, and aquarter-million people were applauding for Swann just the other day.

The Pennsylvaniagovernor's race--the athlete versus the fan--is on.

Accepting the nomination, SWANN CRIED. "His fatherwas a custodian," Charena said, "and look where Lynn is now."

Swann is accustomed to winning. He won a Rose Bowl asa Trojan and went FOUR FOR FOUR in Super Bowls.

Rendell says that Swann, as a retired athlete,"would have to be inhuman not to MISS THE APPLAUSE."

PHOTOPhotograph by Peter GregoireTHROW ME THE BALLOT In this game it's Swann who is the rookie and Rendell (opposite, top right) who is the old pro. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (SWANN INSET)[See captionabove.] PHOTOJOE HERMITT/PATRIOT NEWS/AP (RENDELL)[See caption above.] PHOTODAVID J. PHILLIP/AP (SUPER BOWL)SUITED UP Swann, at Super Bowl XL and with (below right, from left) Charena and sons Shafer and Braxton, cuts a conservative figure. PHOTOCAROLYN KASTER/APSee caption above. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (LEINART)IN THE W COLUMN Bush (in 2004) had his eye on Swann even while he was still a TV reporter (with USC's Matt Leinart in '05). PHOTOPABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/ APSee caption above. PHOTOALYSSA CWANGER/PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTECROWD FAVORITE Launching his campaign in January, Swann had no experience as a chief executive, but he still had a lot of fans.
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