The Magazine

Third and Long

Lynn Swann's substance-free campaign.

May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By SALENA ZITO
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LYNN SWANN, Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, walked into the room and instantly owned it. He was among five hundred or so guests attending a March fundraiser for Senator Rick Santorum with George W. Bush as the headliner. But it was Swann who was the man of the moment, rubbing elbows with Pittsburgh's elite in the tony suburban neighborhood of Sewickley, where he happens to live.

A half-hour later, Swann was on the other end of town, inside a Holiday Inn ballroom, joining some 300 people at the 2006 Pennsylvania African-American Political Convention. Although the event was billed as nonpartisan, the majority of the crowd were card-carrying Democrats. No coincidence there: Black Democrats are exactly the people Republicans are hoping Lynn Swann can win over.

Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania's incumbent governor, had just given a speech. He had emphasized the importance of voter participation and noted that he had killed legislation that would have required voters to show ID at the polls. He'd pointed to his accomplishments in minority contracts and education reform, and he had vowed to continue fighting the good fight.

Then, ten minutes after Rendell left, it happened again: Swann--Republican, self-proclaimed conservative--walked into the room and owned it. Only this time, the greeting he received was even bigger than what he had gotten in the rich, white, Republican neighborhood he'd just left.

Swann gave a speech, and it was terrific. There were no references to "back in the day" on the football field. Gone were the sports clichés from the early hours of his campaign. Goodbye Lynn Swann, onetime Pittsburgh Steeler, Super Bowl MVP, and football Hall of Famer. Hello Lynn Swann, candidate for governor.

"Imagine all the people who said 'Well, Lynn, this is not going to happen for you,'" he declared. He encouraged the crowd to never give up, to continue to strive for political influence: "Nobody is going to give it to us. . . . We have a chance to go to the polls and make it happen." After his speech, he did not head for the exit. He lingered, shook hands, and stayed until he was one of the last to leave.

It was a great night for Swann. He never looked better, never delivered better. And that is the problem. Four days later, sitting across from him in his campaign office, with press secretary Melissa Walters in attendance, I asked a series of simple policy questions, hoping to learn about his actual positions.

A half hour and over one hundred uses of the word "change" later, I left with a sinking feeling. On issues ranging from tort reform to education to property taxes, Swann had nothing specific to say. What kind of changes did he have in mind? He didn't say. The only answer I ever really got was "change."

I have been following the Swann phenomenon since its infancy nearly two years ago at the Pennsylvania Society political soirée. This annual must-be-seen-at event (held, oddly enough, at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York) is the party for Pennsylvania's political "It" girls and guys, has-beens, and wannabes.

Swann knew he would have competition for the party's endorsement from Bill Scranton, who was the lieutenant governor under Dick Thornburgh. The night before the revelry began, he called Scranton and advised him of his exploratory intentions.

Swann was fresh off the campaign circuit as a surrogate and opening act for none other than President Bush, and he was energized. The receiving line to greet him in New York was like that of a royal wedding. And he seemed to make a big impression on everyone there. From that moment on, the political whisper became, "What is up with Lynn Swann?"

No one knew where he stood on the issues, but no one, especially Team Scranton, was prepared for the Steeler effect. State committee members, who otherwise would have supported Scranton, began to hedge their bets, to see what would come of the Swann campaign.

Mike DeVanney, Scranton's political director, says of Swann's rapid rise in the endorsement process: "I think a lot of well-meaning people got caught up in the so-called star power of Lynn Swann.

"Many ardent Swann supporters maintained that Bill Scranton would be the better governor. . . . However, it was argued that Swann's star power would guarantee him fundraising equality with Ed Rendell, secure a majority of inner-city Philadelphia votes, and bring throngs of new voters to the Republican party."

And so it went. From political novice to clincher of the GOP endorsement, Lynn Swann had arrived, helped by some heavy-handed moves by the state party establishment and some campaign gaffes by Scranton. Still, the deck was cleared rather bloodlessly for Swann, well before a primary needed to take place.