Lynn Swann hits the top of the steps, his shoulders rising and falling with a final cleansing breath before he approaches the three reporters waiting for him on the other side of the hallway.
It's game time.
He strides toward them with every ounce of grace that carried him through nine NFL seasons, ready for anything they can throw at him, ready to give a speech. But they didn't come to Washington & Jefferson College's Convocation ceremony on Aug. 25 to interview Lynn Swann, Hall of Fame wide receiver and catalyst for four Steelers Super Bowl titles. They are here to talk to Lynn Swann, all-but-declared Republican candidate for governor.
Any break he got from the media as a Pro Bowl receiver is light years in the past. When you run for the highest office in the state, you have to expect hard-nosed reporters everywhere you travel, even in Washington County.
"Before you go," a middle-aged female reporter asks, "could I get you to sign something for me?"
Then again, maybe you don't.
A campaign aide breaks up the less-than-rabid questioning as Swann moves toward the main reception area. He works the room like he worked over Dallas cornerback Mark Washington in Super Bowl X. He's suave, knowing when to finesse around an obstacle with a sweet spin move, and when to muscle through an awkward situation with a brutal stiff arm. In these kinds of situations the spin move is a handshake and a smile, and the stiff-arm is a look of conviction, a stern tone and firm hand gestures -- followed, of course, by a smile and a handshake.
Swann moves around the room, taking on all comers, signing the occasional autograph, sharing the occasional laugh. As in his days on the gridiron, Swann keeps moving past defenders on his way to the end zone -- the exit doors. But in the game of big-time state politics, there's only one way to know if you scored.
To a crowd of W&J football players, he talks about their football program, shares stories of his playing days, and signs the ball each young man holds in his hand. The five athletes are captivated by Swann, and he seems genuinely interested in their words.
"Would I vote for him just because he played for the Steelers?" asks W&J senior cornerback Mike Wilmus, moments after Swann departs. He smiles as his cheeks flush, unsure whether he should answer honestly or search for a response that seems more politically correct.
"Yeah, I guess I probably will," Wilmus says. "He's a really great person who did a lot of great things on the football field. He's a leader."
But does gridiron leadership make Lynn Swann capable of being elected governor in 2006, let alone governing? It's the question Republicans and Democrats alike are asking themselves.
The gubernatorial election isn't for another year, and Swann hasn't officially declared his candidacy. But he has a campaign committee, Lynn Swann Team 88, captained by Ray Zaborney, who ran Michael Diven's failed campaign for the state Senate. Swann recently added nationally known media consultants and political strategists Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, who were part of George W. Bush's re-election media team. Swann is making speeches across the state and raising money, and he's set up on the Web at www.lynnswannteam88.com. Everyone associated with his campaign committee speaks as if his candidacy is a foregone conclusion.
His appearance in the race has already stolen the limelight from established politicians who long ago announced their intentions to run: state Sen. Jeff Piccola, the majority whip from the 104th Legislative District in Dauphin County, and former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton, of Scranton.
Anyone who speaks of Swann mentions his deep sense of honesty and his celebrity status, but what is he really bringing to this game? His opponents and others watching this race say there is nothing more to Swann's run. His campaign insists his core ideals and the makings of a winning platform are there. But his well-constructed Web site is decidedly thin on the issues, for one. Media coverage of his quasi-campaign has so far recorded Swann's criticisms of Gov. Ed Rendell's administration but not the policies Swann would implement to make things better. His campaign refuses all requests for interviews with Swann.
Will crowd-pleasing speeches translate into proper leadership for one of the largest states in the union? Can he draw large numbers of African-American voters to the GOP? And even before that, can he win over the hearts and minds of his own party?
"I'd like to know the answer to that one myself," says political pundit and GOP consultant Bill Green. "This appears to me to be nothing more than a media-driven fantasy trip. I have yet to see any substance to Lynn as a candidate. I'm not trying to be mean or nasty, but I just don't know what he stands for."
But one thing is for sure: Lynn Swann knows how to win the big games, and this one is just getting started.
Ed Rendell better start working on his Hail Mary.
-- Blog post from andisworld.typepad.com
Standing on the stage at W&J, Swann has the packed house focused on his every word. The people inside the large white tent are probably a lot like the voter turnout the GOP would hope to draw with a Swann-for-Governor ticket, with young people outnumbering everyone else. The majority of the students in attendance are the typical frat crowd in madras shorts and wrinkled button-down cotton shirts. But there's something a little different about this group gathered to hear a Republican speaker.
Dotted throughout are Steelers jerseys and T-shirts donned by prototypical Steelers fans in training -- the working class, likely here because they went into debt with student loans. The few African-American students probably still beat the total who voted for Mike Fisher on the GOP gubernatorial ticket in 2002. It is beginning, ever so slightly, to look more like the demographically diverse crowds at Heinz Field than those at the Republican National Convention.
Although he has not yet been anointed by his party, Swann is part of a recent trend by the GOP to find candidates, like California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who can secure votes just by showing up. But Ray Zaborney, Swann's campaign manager, says it's unfair to frame Swann as a mere celebrity candidate. Over the next several months, Zaborney promises, the campaign will offer detailed proposals. Swann will begin, Zaborney says, "to move Pennsylvania forward ... by making the state more attractive to job creators, because this state runs far behind the national average in job creation and Lynn wants to do something about that." Swann also wants to reform and reduce the property-tax system that Rendell has failed to fix, Zaborney asserts, as well as improve education, lower business taxes and "do something about tort reform."
At least one of Swann's likely GOP opponents doesn't have a wealth of advertised policy positions yet either. Scranton's campaign did not return press calls; nor does it yet have a campaign Web site. But Piccola's Web site, www.jeffpiccola.com, is filled with his take on the issues, including proposed solutions to statewide problems, such as a plan to provide property-tax relief.
But both GOP opponents have something Swann lacks: a political record.
During Swann's meeting with the Washington County press corps, he emphasized his political inexperience, which he portrays as a qualification for the job, not a hindrance.
"Do you know how many governors had prior political experience before taking office?" Swann asks. "About 15" in the country, he says. "I have traveled around and talked to people about what they want in a leader and they don't want more of the same politicians they have now."
That would include Rendell, Swann implies, who spent two terms as Philadelphia's mayor after being elected Philadelphia district attorney for two terms, from 1978 through 1985.
Swann has spent the past 25 years working with Big Brothers Big Sisters, as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and as a television broadcaster. He also serves on the boards of three public companies -- Heinz, Hershey and the hotel chain Wyndham International. Zaborney says that gives him experience as a policy-maker.
Swann's take on the value of inexperience is the verbal stiff-arm, delivered flawlessly. The funny thing is, as Swann delivers it, you believe him. That's why, even for President Bush, having a guy like Swann on his arm during the 2004 campaign was golden. While Swann's reputation for honesty may not have rubbed off on the president, it is always good for a vote or two. In Swann's campaign, sincerity combined with celebrity could be money in the bank.
According to a poll conducted in April by Quinnipiac University, Swann would beat Scranton 35 to 34 percent and best Piccola 35 to 27 percent. Swann trailed Rendell in that poll by 13 percent. But the polls had a of error of plus-or-minus four points. However, in a poll conducted by the private company Strategic Vision in late July, Swann held the same 1 percent advantage over Scranton, and trailed Rendell by just 6 percent, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus three points.
Swann's potential vote totals are pleasing to Zaborney, who believes they will only increase as the Feb. 11 party endorsement meeting and the May 16 primary election get closer. In the coming months, Swann's strengths and weaknesses will be out for all to see.
"I agree that, except for stumping for political candidates, Lynn has no political experience," Zaborney says. "He has policy-making experience from his work as a director [on company boards]. More importantly, what Lynn has that no other candidate can offer is that he has no Harrisburg experience. He has no experience raising taxes and giving huge pay raises. Lynn Swann is going to Harrisburg to reform Harrisburg and get them working for the people."
Some of the people are already working for Lynn Swann. While Rendell has a formidable $9.2 million raised as of July 19, according to state records, Piccola has only $343,000. Neither Swann nor Scranton has had to declare their earnings yet to the state. But at one Heinz Field fund-raiser alone earlier this year, Swann raised $600,000.
Lynn Swann will be a popular candidate, there's no doubt about it. But before he can convinces the masses, he's going to have to convince his party's leaders.
Rendell can't let Swann's appealing personality become the issue in the race; this is a mistake Democrats have made too frequently in the last few cycles. He needs to find a way to force Swann to confront tough issues right out of the box, to make him look like he's trying to exploit his fame and wealth for a job -- as opposed to Rendell's record of doing the work the people really need done.
--Blog post from MyDD.com
Allegheny County GOP consultant Kent Gates predicts a two-person race for the Republican nomination between Swann and Scranton, the party stalwart.
"This is a lot different party than it was when Bill Scranton ran for lieutenant governor and governor in 1978 and 1986," Gates says. "Everything Lynn Swann has tried has been successful, from his football career to being a television commentator to working as a businessman. That translates into a candidate who will motivate and excite people."
Exciting people has always been a Lynn Swann trademark. Born in the small town of Alcoa, Tenn., he moved to California with his family at age 2. Swann told the W&J crowd he's happy to be anywhere, because his parents weren't going to have another child. Instead, they decided to try for the daughter they didn't have. He took ballet and played football, skills that made him the athletic receiver that many people know from the University of Southern California and the Steelers. He made a career motivating and exciting people as both a broadcaster and motivational speaker.
But before Swann can motivate and excite people as governor, he must win his party's endorsement and then the nomination. Last week he announced two of his first major public endorsements, when congressmen Joe Pitts of the Philadelphia area and Bill Shuster from Holidaysburg backed Swann as the candidate who will, in Pitts' words, "promote conservative Republican values and interests."
Scranton has received significant legislative endorsements from congressmen Phil English, John Peterson and Don Sherwood.
Dean Ouellette, campaign manager for Jeff Piccola, says his candidate is gaining support daily from state GOP committee members because he hasn't been shy about his plan or about specific issues and the steps he will take to execute it. According to Piccola's Web site, he has garnered the support of 100 state committee members, "far out-gaining" his rivals.
"All we're hearing about Lynn Swann from the committee members is how he wants to build bridges," Ouellette says. "We have done what no other candidate has and that's lay out a detailed platform. Jeff Piccola has been working in Harrisburg for 25 years, fighting for the party and fighting for the state."
GOP consultant Bill Green says the party has to be careful when deciding its endorsement. Rendell is ripe to be picked off, Green says, because of so many hot-button issues in the state -- the recent pay raise legislators granted themselves, the prospect of gambling coming to many communities and much-criticized inequities in state property taxes. So many people are focused on the Bob Casey/Rick Santorum race for U.S. Senate in 2006 that the importance of the governor's race is being overlooked, he adds.
Green says that Scranton is the more mainstream Republican and that Piccola's experience can't be overlooked. Swann, he says, is a nice, likable guy, but probably not the best choice to face Rendell next November in a race he believes will be decided by a point-and-a-half or less.
"It's quite an undertaking to run a statewide campaign and that's where experience is going to help," Green says. "A lot of folks in the party are wondering what Swann's campaign is all about, and the deeper you look at it, the more I realize I don't think there's anything there."
Gates, however, thinks Green's assessment could not be further from the truth. Gates ran Jim Roddey's successful campaign for Allegheny County executive in 1999, catapulting a regional leader (but a "first-time candidate") past a Democratic career politician, coroner Cyril Wecht. One of the big positives for an inexperienced politico, he believes, is that there is no record to attack.
"Swann has a fresh perspective and comes from outside the political establishment," Gates says. "Once you merge his charisma and populist appeal with a winning message on policy issues, I honestly believe that in a close election he'll be able to run all the way to victory in November."
Can Swann win? Sure if the stars align perfectly. But the whole reason his backers are telling him to run is the success of Arnold.
-- Blog post from MyDD.com
Liberal WPTT-AM 1360 radio host Lynn Cullen remembers exactly how she reacted when she heard that Swann had decided to explore a run for governor.
"I just groaned when I heard about it," she says. "It seems to me he's just a further indication of the general bankruptcy of electoral politics in this country. If your party doesn't have anyone with new ideas, you just turn to the celebrity. The Republicans are notorious for this and I actually find it rather depressing."
Cullen is not alone in decrying the trend. However, the effectiveness of a celebrity candidate can't be ignored. From Arnold Schwarzenegger in California to former Love Boat actor Fred Grandy, who became a U.S. representative for Iowa, celebrity is becoming part of the GOP landscape.
Bill Green doesn't think Pennsylvania will be as open to a celebrity candidate as other states. There has to be more substance to the Swann campaign for him to be legitimized in the eyes of voters, especially those outside of western Pennsylvania, he believes.
"Celebrity is an odd thing," Green says. "If Bill Scranton and Lynn Swann were to walk down the streets of Scranton together, I assure you that Swann wouldn't be the most recognized face."
Josh Wilson, state GOP spokesman, is quick to point out that Swann "is not a hollow candidate," which will become obvious as he develops his platform, Wilson maintains.
Dean Ouellette, campaign manager for Jeff Piccola, says that Swann could be a formidable candidate because of his popularity, but also that voters want substance, not just someone who can tell great football stories.
Republicans shouldn't look to California as a sign of things to come, he adds. Schwarzenegger won a special election in a crowded field with six weeks to campaign; a name candidate was bound to emerge as the winner. In a comprehensive, statewide election, name recognition, Ouellette says, won't be enough.
Susan Hansen, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, says vagueness has, unfortunately, become a campaign strategy in recent years.
"Saying as little as possible, as late as possible, seems to be the current trend," says Hansen. "There are issues out there like the pay raise that will be criticized, so that gives politicians plenty to say without having to get too specific. Now what that says for the democratic process and the idea of informed voters is another story."
Gates believes even the Democrats realize the power of celebrity. He asserts that Rendell tried to play off his level of celebrity with a "rock star" image in the 2002 governor's race.
But Rendell was never actually in a band.
"Look at their list," Cullen says of Republicans across the nation. "Sen. George Murphy was a tap dancer, then there's Sonny Bono, Ronald Reagan and for crying out loud, Gopher from The Love Boat. The Republicans have cornered the market on this practice because the American people have shown a weakness toward the star turn."
He could definitely peel away a large chunk of the African-American vote. Though I think Rendell will kick Swann's ass, I bet that he could make the race interesting ...
-- Blog post from MyDD.com
While he's not the first African American to run for Pennsylvania governor, Lynn Swann is the first to do so on the Republican ticket.
With a party that, according to a July Gallup Poll, has only a 9 percent African-American membership, having Swann face Rendell could be a boon in a contest that might be down to the wire in November 2006.
Rendell isn't exactly making friends following the pay-raise debacle. He could be ripe for a kill by the right candidate. If Swann develops a clear platform in time to win the endorsement and the primary, his ability to court African-American voters could be the much-needed X factor.
Swann, says campaign manager Ray Zaborney, is not running so that Republicans can appeal to African Americans. But, he adds, "I expect Lynn will do very well among African-American voters. And I think that's a dynamic that Lynn has that the others who want to face Ed Rendell don't."
Gates admits the GOP has to work harder than it has in the past to secure the black vote. But he believes Swann will make an ideal black candidate for statewide office. "An African-American candidate has to get out and campaign in every community in Pennsylvania," Gates says, "and some candidates are more comfortable than others in doing that. I think Lynn is very comfortable in that role."
Allegheny County Councilor Bill Robinson, a black Democrat, agrees that a potential Swann candidacy would provide a certain level of excitement for African-American voters -- to a point.
"Since the majority of African-American voters are Democrats, that edge will have little to do with securing a victory in the Republican primary," Robinson says. "If you ask me, the real challenge for Lynn Swann is going to be convincing European Americans that he's worthy of their consideration. I think there's a segment of whites that won't vote for a black candidate regardless of what party he represents or how good a candidate he is. Let's be honest: An average black man wouldn't stand a chance running for governor on the Republican ticket, but if Republicans give Swann a chance, they'll probably find he's the perfect match for them philosophically."
Zaborney says Swann is already proving that he has a mass, statewide appeal. He points to fund-raising dinners earlier this year in Blair and Lancaster counties. These events, which a year earlier had garnered just 100 people, quadrupled in attendance when Swann appeared, and the Blair County event netted $70,000 for the county party.
"So, how we will do in Central Pennsylvania," Zaborney says, "is not on our list of worries."
Pitt's Susan Hansen says Swann's candidacy follows a trend among Republicans to try to chip away at the Democrats' dominance among African-American voters. However, she adds, "there has been a sharp increase in the poverty level and black voters know who and which party serves their best interest."
Says radio host Lynn Cullen: "I don't think there's any chance of any Republican gaining a large number of African-American votes. Especially given what's happened in New Orleans, I don't think any African-American voter will fall for a black poster-child candidate knowing how much that party discounts them."
Swann at 34% worries me a bit.If he can prove that he actually knows something about government, he could shoot up pretty quick.If he shows he is qualified to hold a government job, I don't think you can write him off right away. -- Blog post from MyDD.com
Watching Lynn Swann cut across the center of a football field, make an acrobatic catch and turn it into six points was a thing of beauty. He is without a doubt the measuring stick for all modern receivers
Guys have made careers out of copying the style and grace of Lynn Swann. But guys doing Lynn Swann today -- Randy Moss and Terrell Owens -- are just copying the moves, not the class and grace. Swann seemed to be always friendly with fans and media members, never acting in his own best interest, always for the good of the team. Look at Lynn Swann, talk to Lynn Swann, study Lynn Swann: You see a man every bit as confident playing this new game as he was wearing a black-and-gold uniform.
"I've always believed in the importance of public service," Swann said during his appearance at W&J. "Come November 2006, if a number of things work out my way, I'll increase my chances of being a public servant in the state of Pennsylvania."
Lynn Swann sounds as determined to become governor as he was to win four Super Bowls. That makes him a threat to anyone he opposes -- be it the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970s or the Democrats of the new Millennium.