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Lynn Swann Skating By On Issues

How long can Republican candidate get away with it?

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Finally, gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann has found an issue he doesn't have to punt on: who should win a license to build a slots casino in Pittsburgh.

On March. 29, Swann announced that, of the three gambling interests hoping to build a casino here, he favored giving a license to Isle of Capri. The company would use slots revenue to build a new hockey arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Swann noted. And its pledge to redevelop the surrounding area would be "a win for the Hill District." The whole proposal, he maintained, was a "win win win."

And how much difference will Swann's support make? Zero, zip, zilch.

For one thing, unlike other local politicians who've backed Isle of Capri, Swann hasn't been elected yet. So he doesn't represent city residents, and as a Sewickley native he's not one himself. More importantly, the state's seven-member Gaming Control Board plans to award gambling licenses this December, says board spokesman Nick Hays. If that timetable holds, the license-winners will be selected before Swann takes office. Even if the timetable doesn't hold, the state's gambling legislation says that board members can't be removed until their terms expire.

But so what? This was an easy way for Swann to pander to Pittsburgh's home crowd, which naturally supports the Pens. The issue also allowed Swann to mention his own sports background — as he wasted no time in doing. ("Having played for the Steelers for so many years," Swann told reporters, "I know how important it is for the Penguins to have a new home." Yeah, I can see how catching a football makes you an expert in facilities management.)

Contrast Swann's content-free appearance with Gov. Ed Rendell's press conference the next day.

Rendell bantered with reporters for an hour about his own arena-funding proposal. The proposal would build a new Pittsburgh arena in case the Gaming Control Board doesn't award the slots license to Isle of Capri. In that case, Rendell would finance a new arena by using some slots proceeds, money from the Penguins, and a "voluntary" contribution from the winning casino applicant.

Cynics suspect Rendell is proposing such options for one reason: He knows Isle of Capri won't be that applicant. Locally, it's an article of faith that Rendell supports a rival casino at Station Square, whose owners have supported him politically.

Even if that's true, I'll say this for Rendell: At least he doesn't hide from tough questions. Rendell was asked point-blank about whether he was trying to help his political allies. His answer wasn't exactly a masterpiece of spin: Among those seeking licenses, he said, "I'd be hard-pressed to find … anybody who hasn't given money to my campaign."

Rendell isn't exactly popular with reporters: He's notorious for badgering and mocking them. But at least his press events don't insult their intelligence.

Swann's handlers, meanwhile, hustled him out of his press conference after a half-dozen questions. Perhaps they feared reporters would start asking about widely reported rumors that Swann's business, an on-line sports memorabilia retailer, had failed to pay state sales tax on items such as $200 signed footballs. Swann's campaign in fact dodged those questions until Friday, when Swann disclosed the company would start paying the tax on in-state purchases. The timing is suggestive: Few people pay attention to the Friday evening news or the Saturday paper, so Friday's a great time for politicians to disclose matters they'd rather avoid.

Then again, maybe Swann's campaign didn't fear questions about his business dealings. Maybe they just fear questions, period.

So far, Swann hasn't done substance very well. His strongest policy position all along has been his opposition to abortion — and it seems he doesn't understand even that issue thoroughly. In a February broadcast of ABC News talk-show program This Week, Swann said that if the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, "[T]hey've basically said that, you know, you can't have an abortion." As the candidate had to be told by host George Stephanopoulos, overturning Roe would allow states to decide whether to permit abortion.

So Swann has favored overturning Roe, apparently without knowing what that would mean. And now he has staked out a gambling agenda he has little, if any, power to bring about.

Is Swann's campaign strategy win win win, or lose lose lose? Beats me. I only know he seems to think voters are dumb dumb dumb.

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