Swann lacks experience, but celebrity status a plus

Lynn Swann has had success in different careers and ventures. He now seems poised to run for governor of Pennsylvania.

Originally Published: September 14, 2005
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

He is a man of many accomplishments: A member of the 1972 national championship football team at the University of Southern California. A Hall of Fame wide receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers and owner of four Super Bowl rings. A family man and father of two boys, who lives in a million-dollar home in the plush Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley. A respected broadcaster at ABC Sports for more than a quarter century. An entrepreneur who commands between $20,000 and $50,000 for speaking engagements. A recognized philanthropist, who has served on the boards of numerous charities.

So, why on earth would Lynn Swann want to be the governor of Pennsylvania, a job that carries a relatively pedestrian annual salary of $144,416?

Why?

Lynn Swann photo gallery
Lynn Swann's accomplishments aren't limited to the playing field. Here's a collection of photos taking a look at Swann's post-football career.
• Photo gallery
"I think this is an opportunity for me to use my talents to help the people of Pennsylvania," Swann said to ESPN.com in an exclusive interview. "I think we can be much better than we have been in recent years. I believe Pennsylvania needs leadership from outside the box."

If anyone can navigate his way through the sometimes Byzantine, 67-county Pennsylvania political system, it's probably Swann. He has a 500-watt smile, a formidable work ethic, a firm handshake and a degree in public relations from USC's School of Journalism.

The Keystone State is composed of approximately 46,000 square miles and 12 million people. The charismatic Swann seems intent on covering and connecting with all of them.

There are approximately eight million registered voters in Pennsylvania, including 3.8 million registered Democrats and 3.3 million registered Republicans. Swann's appearances on the rubber chicken circuit of modest GOP country gatherings the last six months have produced record attendance figures.

Pres. Bush/Lynn Swann
AP Photo/Donna McWilliamThere are some in the Republican Party who already envision a presidential run for Swann.

Swann is a rare creature, indeed. The son of Democrats is an African-American Republican, something once thought to be an oxymoron. His potential ability to excite both suburban conservatives and urban African-Americans intrigues national GOP operatives. A year from November, Swann arguably could be the nation's highest ranking elected Republican African-American -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was, of course, selected by President George Bush. From that platform, it would not be inconceivable to imagine a run at the presidency in 2012.

But that's getting ahead of the game. Way ahead. Officially, Swann hasn't even decided to run for governor yet, but those close to him say the announcement is likely to come at the beginning of 2006. It is likely to be a three-man race for the Republican nomination that also features former lieutenant governor William W. Scranton III and state Senate majority whip Jeff Piccola, who is considered less of a threat. The winner would then take on incumbent Democrat Ed Rendell -- an unabashed Eagles fan.

Sam Smith, the state's House majority leader and a rabid Steelers fan from the western part of the state, is excited about Swann's candidacy.

"Swann's celebrity status definitely brings a different excitement to the room," Smith said. "His ability to reach out into new areas could energize the party."

The "celebrity" candidate, as history demonstrated recently in California and Minnesota, can make an impact on the political process. Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a former professional wrestler, served as Minnesota's governor during 1999-2003, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former bodybuilder-turned-movie star, became the governor of California in 2003. Voters in those states were ready for outside-the-box leaders and proved it at the polls.

According to G. Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Politics and Public Affairs, Swann could follow the same trajectory.

"For six months, he's been traveling the length and breadth of state," Madonna said. "As a pollster, I can tell you he's done what he has to do -- he's convinced people he's serious. We've had celebrities in Pennsylvania -- Joe Paterno and Arnold Palmer -- stick their toe into the waters of the political system, but they never jumped all the way in.

"He's very popular, a crowd magnet wherever he goes. I think when he jumps in, he's a viable candidate."

It almost certainly will not be easy. Scranton comes from one of the best-known political families in the state; his father served as governor during 1963-67. Most Pennsylvania pundits describe the likely Swann-Scranton race as a 50-50 proposition, with Scranton currently enjoying a slight advantage. A recent Rasmussen Poll had an undeclared Swann trailing Rendell by only six percentage points in a potential showdown. Although Swann lacks political experience, his formidable Team 88 (his Steelers number) does not.

Swann's staff includes some of the same experts that got Tom Ridge, a once-obscure congressman from Erie, in the northwestern corner of the state, elected governor in 1995. Ridge served during 1995-2001, before becoming Bush's first Office of Homeland Security advisor. Mark Holman, Ridge's former chief of staff, helped direct Ridge's victory. Ray Zaborney, a volunteer for that campaign, is the executive director of Team 88.

"Trust me, he's a serious candidate," Madonna said. "He hasn't just walked onto the scene and showed up. Lynn Swann has hung in there. It's going to be fascinating to watch the process play out."

Swann sounds adamant.

"I wouldn't be in this," he said, "if I didn't think I could win."

Fresh and energetic

The words "fresh" and "energetic" turn up often in conversations with Swann's staff and on his Web site. Cynics call it political inexperience. The battle between Swann and Scranton is likely to go to the side that makes its argument most effectively.

Shuler for Congress
Heath Shuler
Shuler
Heath Shuler doesn't have four Super Bowl rings or a Hall of Fame career on his résumé. Still, like Lynn Swann, he wants to serve his community in the political arena. "I think there's a time in your life when you weigh options," Shuler said in July when he filed papers to run for the congressional seat in North Carolina's 11th District in 2006. "There's a point in time when you want to help people." Shuler, a former quarterback at the University of Tennessee, was the third overall choice in the 1994 NFL draft. But he never lived up to his potential, playing only parts of five seasons with the Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints with injuries playing a large role. His post-football career has been far more successful. Shuler and his brother Benjie own Heath Shuler Real Estate in Knoxville, Tenn., a firm with 250 employees. Shuler -- who grew up in western North Carolina and was a high school star in Swain County -- moved back to North Carolina two years ago and registered in Waynesville as a Democrat. In 2001, Shuler was courted by Tennessee Republicans for a congressional run. Shuler, 33, said he was motivated to run for office when he saw the spirit of the local community in the wake of devastating damage caused by hurricanes Fran and Ivan. It won't be an easy race. Incumbent Rep. Charles Taylor, a Republican, has been in office since 1990 and is currently serving his eighth term.
-- Greg Garber
Zaborney has not ascended to Karl Rove status among GOP strategists, but don't bet against him.

At the age of 29, he already has become a player in Pennsylvania politics. Zaborney said he discussed joining the staff of all three major groups that were vying for the Republican nomination before settling on Swann.

Zaborney met Swann for the first time at a dinner honoring Ridge in early December 2004. Though he wasn't auditioning for a job, Zaborney urged Swann to make the run.

"I told him that someone outside the political system would be attractive to Pennsylvanians at this time," Zaborney said. "He had the ability to do well in the critical areas of the southwest region and in the Philadelphia suburbs."

Swann is not coming into the political arena cold. He has been moving in this direction, consciously or semiconsciously, for years.

He volunteered for the 1988 reelection campaign of the late U.S. Sen. H. John Heinz and was master of ceremonies at an inauguration event for Ridge in 1995. He began serving on the President's Council for Physical Fitness and Sports in 2002, a position that helped launch Schwarzenegger's political career. He has contributed a total of $10,800 to various political campaigns going back to 1987, beginning with Heinz's run for U.S. Senate. Although he contributed $2,000 to Democrat John Kerry's senatorial campaign in 1996-97, Swann actively campaigned for Bush in 2004.

It was this particular experience, he said, that spurred him to run for public office. The power of politics to improve the quality of people's everyday lives, he said, was a motivating factor. Pennsylvania Republicans, particularly Jan Rae, the southwest caucus chairman, also lobbied hard to convince Swann to run.

While running for public office might have been a natural progression for Swann, there were plenty of folks caught off guard by his interest in being governor.

John Banaszak, a former Steelers defensive lineman, played with Swann for seven seasons. Currently an assistant football coach at Robert Morris University outside of Pittsburgh, Banaszak isn't sure where Swann got the idea to run for governor.

"We never discussed politics, to be honest with you," Banaszak. "It came as a complete surprise, but a pleasant surprise. I think he'd make a great governor."

Banaszak said Swann was a quiet leader.

"We had nine Hall of Fame players, and he was one of them," Banaszak said. "Because of the way he played the game, the toughness he had on the field -- those were his leadership qualities.

"There's no question it's a tough job, but the one thing that motivates Lynn is the challenge of it. Knowing him as I do, he's not going to back down from this."

This latest challenge, even if he hasn't yet announced his candidacy, has made him a target. Minutes after he was introduced as Scranton's campaign chairman in mid-July, Glenn Meakem was on the attack. While acknowledging Swann was "a great guy," Meakem pointed out that "the problem with Lynn Swann is that he has no private sector or public sector leadership experience."

Zaborney, who signed on with Swann back in May, replied, "What Lynn's campaign is all about is spreading his positive message across Pennsylvania. Earlier this week, we were in northeastern Pennsylvania where we found a lot of people receptive to something different and something new."

Lynn Swann/Dorothy Hamill
Alex Wong/Getty ImagesSwann and Olympic Gold Medalist Dorothy Hamill spoke at the Republican National Convention last year.

Certainly, Ventura was something new in Minnesota. Born James George Janos, the Minneapolis native went on to a successful career as a professional wrestler and also did some acting. After a stint as mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minn. in the mid-1990s, he went on to serve as governor. Ventura's politics-as-unusual message resonated with Minnesota's voters. Schwarzenegger mined the same territory in California and, after winning an historic recall election, was sworn in November 2003 as 38th governor of California.

"The biggest advantage of a quote, unquote celebrity candidate," Swann said, "is name recognition. The successful ones have backgrounds as varied as most other candidates. The American people had no problem electing Ronald Reagan to the presidency -- twice. Eisenhower was as much a celebrity as anyone.

"Athletics is an arena that lends itself to leadership. Look at Senator [Bill] Bradley, Steve Largent, J.C. Watts -- they all come from athletic backgrounds. It's about team building, the value of hard work and taking advantages of opportunities. I see more similarities than not."

Some experts believe that Swann's outsider candidacy might not be as big an advantage in Pennsylvania as it was for Ventura and Schwarzenegger.

"Pennsylvania is a long way from California," said Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "They haven't seen a big-name popular candidate who is not a politician run for office.

"Still, it's interesting to note that when Ed Rendell ran for governor the first time, he traveled like a movie star with his picture painted on the side of the bus. He campaigned like a famous popular person -- and it worked for him. So maybe the voters will respond at that level to razzle-dazzle."

Madonna's not so sure.

"We're a meat-and-potatoes state," Madonna explained. "Experience and a grounding in politics matters in Pennsylvania. We have a very strong party system here, a higher level of partisanship and strong feelings about politics. We promote our political leaders from within, and Lynn Swann has to convince voters that Rendell is a failure and somehow has to get over that experience hurdle."

Zaborney, of course, sees Swann's celebrity as a plus.

"We don't have to spend millions on name identity," Zaborney said.

There is another dynamic at work here, one that Zaborney said didn't occur to him when he encouraged Swann to run. Swann, unlike Ventura and Schwarzenegger, is an African-American. In today's increasingly diverse political world, that could spell an advantage.

In a September 2004 Web chat organized by the Bush campaign, Swann addressed the issue of his diversity: "I am always somewhat amused by the fact that some people would ask, 'Why as an African-American am I a Republican?' In many cases, my response is, 'Why not a Republican?' Why is it such a grand assumption that African-Americans should be Democrats when historically the Republican Party has been a leader on issues important to African-Americans?"

There are signs that the electorate is changing its old-school views. Barack Obama made national headlines when he won the U.S. Senate seat as an Illinois Democrat. He is seen as a future star on the national level.

Black Republicans are currently being groomed to run for governor or U.S. Senate in Ohio, Michigan, Maryland -- and now, Pennsylvania. In 2006 a number of similarly ascendant black Republicans are expected to contest statewide elections in Ohio, Missouri, Vermont and Texas. Swann is the perfect vehicle for Republicans who are trying to access new voters. Republican candidates have not historically resonated among African-Americans. According to exit polls, George Bush won 11 percent of the black vote in the 2004 presidential race.

"I don't see it as a delicate balancing act," Swann said. "Some people are under the misconception that because you're an African-American you're not a conservative. In many cases, there are similar conservative values in the African-American community, consistent with the Republican party."

"The Republican party is about opportunities," said Smith, the House majority leader. "Lynn Swann has worked hard to succeed, and that is a good, positive image he could bring to the African-American community. Obviously, that's one of the things that makes him attractive from a national perspective. This would give us the opportunity to expand our base in counties where we've struggled."

Swann would become the first African-American to be nominated for governor in state history.

"Lynn has a leadership style and will have a program for Pennsylvania that will appeal to people of all ideologies," Zaborney said. "He reaches across all boundaries."

Laying a foundation

As the Swann campaign found traction in Pennsylvania over the summer, there was one small problem: A glaring lack of substantive ideas -- in short, a platform.

In a July 7 editorial, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review called him out.

"If Lynn Swann wants to be taken seriously," the Tribune opined, "he must trade weaselly platitudes for concrete policies. Otherwise, he'll be an also-ran before he even formally says he's running. And he's dangerously close to being an also-ran already."

Harsh stuff but politics, not unlike football, has always been a tough arena.

Swann, always a careful and cautious man, had embarked earlier in the year on a listening tour of the state -- "I will begin to have a conversation with the people of Pennsylvania," he said -- to get a better handle on the concerns of voters. By the end of July, he had visited 27 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties.

Josh Wilson, the political director for the Pennsylvania Republican state committee, did not sound concerned in August.

"Like every other candidate in this race, Lynn Swann will come to the table with ideas," Wilson said. "Throughout the next several months, it is incumbent on him to reveal more specific plans. Clearly, the voters of the state are going to want to hear a platform that explains how the candidate is going to propel us forward in the future.

"I don't get the sense that too much time has passed, that he missed his opportunity."

Still, 14 months before the gubernatorial election, Swann offered little in the way of specifics.

On the very day he was introduced as Scranton's campaign chairman, Meakem mocked Swann's vague approach by saying, "Lynn sort of says, 'My people will figure that out.'"

These criticisms seem to irk Swann.

"It doesn't make sense to run out there, right off the edge of the cliff," Swann said. "There are a lot of people that will want you to run ahead of your own campaign and ideas and staff -- and that doesn't make sense.

"Some people are impatient to know and some people are pushing to hurry you and drag you into a difficult position. I will say this: I am conservative by nature. Pennsylvania needs to find ways for business to thrive. I am for reducing taxes for business and an environment that will create more jobs and revenue for our state. I am conservative as far as social values are concerned."

The lack of specifics early on has led to some awkward moments. At the Westmoreland County Republican dinner in late February, Swann had his first major opportunity to publicly discuss his potential run for governor. Addressing the crowd, he called himself a conservative but declined to provide his position on gun control or taxes or even abortion.

"Until I decide to step out and run for a position," he said, "I don't think it is necessary for me to go out and take a particular position."

Minutes later, he returned to tell the reporters gathered at the dinner that he opposed abortion rights -- putting him in line with most Republicans.

"I wasn't supposed to be born," Swann said, explaining that his father had wanted only two children, but his mother wanted a third. "I was born. That's enough for me to be pro-life."

Zaborney scoffs at criticism of Swann's lack of detail regarding policy.

Lynn Swann
Sporting News Archives/Icon SMISwann was a unanimous first-team All-America choice in 1973.

"They make it sound like he's rudderless, without core principles," Zaborney said. "They obviously have to criticize us about something. Lynn already discusses issues at the level of the other candidates, but we're held to a higher standard because he's an athlete.

"Lynn's been listening for awhile. Rest assured, he'll soon begin offering solutions."

Again, Madonna's not buying it.

"Well," said Madonna, of Franklin & Marshall, "he's been out there listening since December -- that's eight months. At some point, you have to say something of substance. He's saying to folks, 'your ideas matter.' Well, running for governor, your ideas matter. The bottom line is, he has not demonstrated any understanding of the complexity of the issues."

Smith is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"There's a formula out there from which he can win," Smith said. "I'm not sure they've hit on it yet. The thing that gets you through a primary is convincing your core constituency that you have an agenda."

Due diligence?

Five months from now, around Super Bowl time, we'll know if Swann is a viable candidate.

In early February, 358 Republicans -- representing all 67 of the state's counties -- will gather in Harrisburg to see if they can agree on a candidate to run against incumbent Rendell. Since the Republicans historically go out of their way to build a consensus and avoid a primary, most observers think a singular choice would be binding.

Candidates who have received that singular endorsement have not lost an important statewide election since 1980. This is why candidates tour the state endlessly and endure thousands of handshakes and dozens of dicey dinners. Some in the Pennsylvania political system wonder if Swann has the stamina to do the diligence.

One of the state's prominent Republicans, who wished to remain anonymous, used a football analogy.

"Wide receivers get all the glory, but this is more of a job for an offensive lineman," the Republican said. "I'm not sure that he recognizes the kind of grunt work that running a statewide campaign entails. Dinner to dinner, town to town, saying the same thing over and over and over. I'm not sure he's going to like that."

And yet, the Republican said, "It is realistic to see him winning. He has a real chance."

"I spent a lot of days practicing football when there was never a game," Swann said. "No one in training camp is having any fun, for a long period of time. It's the same thing with a campaign; you have to do the day-to-day things that need to get done. I'm willing to do it, and I'm excited about it."

Swann has another adjustment to make, according to Smith.

"Lynn Swann will get scrutinized in ways he's not used to," Smith said. "Can he turn the page from being a sports celebrity to a political person? It will be a very big challenge to suddenly be criticized in a political context. There's a big difference between the sports pages and the editorial page."

The first obstacle is Scranton, who almost won the executive seat in 1986, losing one of the closest gubernatorial elections in state history to Robert Casey. Previously, he was the lieutenant governor during 1979-87, serving under Dick Thornburgh. He is the son of former Gov. William Scranton and has managed the family's considerable interests for more than a decade.

The younger Scranton, who describes himself as a progressive conservative, said he believes in limited government. He has already criticized Rendell on a variety of fronts, including raising taxes and borrowing money.

"[Rendell] came in with a mandate to change Pennsylvania," Scranton said, "and he has not done it."

William Scranton III looks and sounds like a candidate, which might be a good thing. The key for Swann is cashing in on his celebrity, while appearing credible on the issues. If Swann beats Scranton, the national attention his candidacy will draw is likely to help him within the state.

Rendell, however, still poses the biggest challenge.

"In time, anyone can learn about the tax structure or the education system," Madonna said. "But Rendell will say that he's been in charge of the state and Swann has never run anything. He'll say, 'Would you trust a football player with a $24 million budget?' "

Swann counters that people are too quick to limit his success to his playing career.

"I was a professional football player for nine years, and I've been a broadcaster for ABC for 28 years -- which is the most important career?" Swann said. "The fact that I don't come from the typical political background -- it's a strong asset."

Swann is listed as the president of Swann, Inc., described in its Web site as a "consulting and marketing firm specializing in marketing and communications." The primary thrust of the company, based on the site, seems to be marketing Lynn Swann. A wide variety of Steelers memorabilia can be purchased; 50 percent of the profits, according to the site, go to Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater.

Ultimately, the former Steeler will have to produce big numbers in Philadelphia. Some 40 percent of the state's voters are within the reach of the Philadelphia television market. If Swann can take, say, 20 percent of the African-American vote in Philadelphia and carry the typically pro-GOP southern suburbs -- a surprising Rendell strength in 2002 -- Swann could win.

So far, Zaborney likes the early returns.

"At the outset, [a Rendell reelection] was a foregone conclusion," he said. "Now, it certainly doesn't look like a lock.

"Look, I'm a serious guy. This is what I do for a living. I wouldn't have committed 18 months of my life to do this if I didn't think this guy could win. This is an historic opportunity. I'm lucky to be a part of it."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.