[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
January 20 - 27, 2000


See Jane govern

Jane Swift is a cabinet appointment away from becoming governor. But a fresh look at our 34-year-old lieutenant governor suggests she isn't yet ready for prime time.

by Seth Gitell

Sometime during the media firestorm surrounding Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift's version of the Checkers speech, it became obvious that we know almost nothing about her. Okay, that's not entirely true. We know that she's 34 and will turn 35 in February. We know she has a 15-month-old daughter named Elizabeth. We know that Elizabeth has just started blowing kisses. We know Elizabeth is taken care of during the day by her dad, Charles Hunt III -- who drops Elizabeth off at the State House when he wants to go for a run. Um, wait a minute -- we were talking about the lieutenant governor, weren't we?

Okay, we know that Swift used a state-police helicopter to beat traffic on the Mass Pike and get home to her husband and baby in North Adams for Thanksgiving. We know that she has used her aides to serve as Mary Poppinses for Elizabeth. Oh, and one other thing: we know that Swift is a step away from becoming governor -- should George W. Bush get elected president and appoint Governor Paul Cellucci to a cabinet position, as many have speculated he will.

But a look at the reams of copy written about Swift since Cellucci selected her as his running mate shows that no one seems to know much else about her. The media coverage during Swift's campaign for lieutenant governor focused almost exclusively on the fact that she was pregnant. The phenomenon prompted an opinion piece by that barometer of mainstream feminist opinion, Ellen Goodman, who in June 1998 penned a column headlined MUST WE FOCUS ON SWIFT'S PREGNANCY, NOT HER POLITICS?

"There's no question the primary interest of the public was that this was a woman running for a very high office and she would be a working mom in the future," says Janet Jeghelian, Swift's opponent in the GOP lieutenant-governor race. "It was difficult to run against someone in that position when you can't replicate it yourself."

Few stories have closely examined Swift's rapid rise to power. Nor have they made much of her bruising 1996 congressional run against Representative John Olver -- a race so bitter that Olver complained afterward to the Federal Election Commission and sponsored a bill that would ban the practices some believed the Swift campaign had used against him. Few reporters discuss her family background or her two siblings; we rarely hear that she comes from Northern Italian stock, that her father is a plumbing and heating contractor, or that her middle name is Maria. Only one piece notes that Swift met her future husband while campaigning. And none seems to have mentioned that she's a stepmom to Hunt's twentysomething son. Her political accomplishments, too, get short shrift (see "Swift's Politics," right).

To be sure, this is partly because the lieutenant governor's position is not the highest-profile political job around. Paul Cellucci didn't attract all that much attention when he held her seat, and neither did Evelyn Murphy. We knew about Ed King's number two, Thomas O'Neill, mainly because he was Tip O'Neill's son. But still, Swift, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has a damn good chance of becoming governor without having to campaign for the office. And we should know more about her. A lot more.

Swift's politics

When Jane Swift left the state senate in 1996, she had voted with liberal Democrat Lois Pines (D-Newton) 774 times out of 1244, according to a computer analysis of Swift's voting record by Michael Segal's Advance Research Group. By contrast, Swift voted with Senate President Thomas Birmingham 584 times and against him 637 times.

Don't start calling Swift a progressive, however. Stephen Collins, the executive director of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition, says Swift consistently got bad grades during her time as a legislator. Collins's group rates lawmakers on 10 votes of concern to the human-services community. Swift scored her highest grade -- a 60 -- in 1992. The next year she scored only a 20. The other years her grades ranged from 30 to 55. "Her scores are fairly consistent with a Republican state senator," says Collins. "It would indicate during her tenure as a state senator that I wouldn't call her a champion of working people or working mothers. The record would indicate that these issues were not her highest priority. They weren't the worst scores, however."

During her farewell address to the Senate, Swift mentioned her support for dairy farmers. She recalled the time she brought a cow to the State House and gave free Ben & Jerry's ice cream to members. Swift was praised for her advocacy of regional schools, agriculture, and jobs for her district. Her colleagues gave her a standing ovation.

The dairy-farming issue represents the kind of pure regional advocacy that has consumed much of Swift's energy. She was outraged that the Berkshires often got left out when it came to state funding. In 1995, she wanted the state to start reimbursing local communities for the costs of natural disasters and storms. She told one legislative committee: "We joke now that if we get hit with a snowstorm or wind or rain, we hope it will hit Boston too. It's unfortunate, but it's the only way we'll get assistance."

-- SG

Jane Maria Swift was born February 24, 1965, to Jack and Jean Swift of North Adams. The family is Roman Catholic; Jack is a plumbing contractor, and Jean is a Catholic-school teacher and former Girl Scout leader. Jane is the second of three children.

Like many successful politicians, Swift was blessed with luck. Her father, a politically active Berkshires Republican, served on the North Adams Housing Authority and forged lasting political alliances within the state GOP that have helped Swift to this day. For example, Jack Swift was a close political ally of Jack Fitzpatrick, the proprietor of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, who held the same state-senate seat that Jane Swift would later win. And when Fitzpatrick stepped down in 1980, he was succeeded by his former aide Peter Webber, who would play a crucial role in Swift's career.

As an American-studies major at Hartford's Trinity College, where she studied after graduating from her hometown Drury High School, Swift interned for Webber and made quite an impression. "She was very talented, very mature, very capable," Webber recalls. "That's why when I had an opening on my staff three years later, I recruited her as a legislative aide."

Swift was working at G. Fox, a Connecticut department store, when Webber called her back to the Commonwealth in 1988. It was the beginning of a rapid rise. Quickly asserting herself in Webber's office, Swift became the point person on mental-health issues, a particular interest of the senator's. She helped create the Children's Trust Fund, which raises private money to fight child abuse -- a forerunner of "compassionate conservatism." Soon she was Webber's chief-of-staff.

Luck again had a hand in her next move. As the 1990 election approached, Webber decided not to run for re-election. When he informed his staff of his decision, Swift expressed interest in running. "Jane stepped forward," Webber says. "She was enthusiastically interested in winning the seat." A campaign strategy rapidly took shape. With rumors flying around the district that he would step down, the senator called a dramatic press conference in Pittsfield. Webber and his family shared the stage with the Swift family. He announced that he would not run again, but was throwing his full support behind Jane Swift.

Even more significant, the Republican electoral machine that had produced, supported, and nurtured Fitzpatrick and Webber would now belong to Swift, who hoped to become the youngest woman ever to be elected to the Massachusetts Senate.

Only Sherwood Guernsey stood in her way. Guernsey, a Democrat, had been serving as a state representative, and he saw his chance for a bigger job when Webber stepped down. But his timing was as unlucky as Swift's was lucky. As loyal a Dukakoid as there ever had been, Guernsey campaigned for Michael Dukakis around the country during the Massachusetts governor's 1988 presidential race. If Dukakis had won that election, who knows? Guernsey might have ended up in the White House. Instead, he found himself fighting for his political life against a brash, ambitious 25-year-old.

Guernsey says that Swift successfully outflanked him by presenting herself as more liberal on social issues than she really is. "She tried to portray herself as a guardian and friend of the elderly," he says. "She has done nothing to support that."

Despite Guernsey's best efforts, Swift won the election. And the Republican contingent that she joined on Beacon Hill was not the ineffectual, weak bunch of today. These were the glory days of Weld-Cellucci, when there were enough Republican votes in the Senate to override the vetoes of the Democrats. In this environment, the young Jane Swift had an immediate impact.

Swift threw herself into two key legislative issues that still resonate today. She represented the state GOP's interests in negotiations over education reform, going up against such Democratic powerhouses as state rep Mark Roosevelt and Senate President Thomas Birmingham. And she had to support local-aid cuts -- cuts that affected her district, with its impoverished farm towns, more than other parts of the state. "Those were very, very tough times for a new member having to cut," recalls senate minority leader Brian Lees of East Longmeadow. "The toughest thing was to cut local aid. She had to stand up and make some tough decisions."

Choppy ethics

Even though Jane Swift has apologized for using state aides to baby-sit her daughter Elizabeth, and for having used a state helicopter as a taxi to get home to North Adams over the Thanksgiving holiday, that's not enough for some critics. Many Democrats are calling for Swift to reimburse the state for the cost of the helicopter ride. But instead of writing a check -- as her nemesis Peter Blute did for the cost of the Nauticus voyage -- Swift has referred the matter to the state ethics commission.

It's unclear what standard the commission will use to determine whether Swift has to pay the money back. The helicopter ride falls under Section 23 of the state's conflict law, which reads, in the relevant section: "No current officer or employee of a state, county or municipal agency shall knowingly, or with reason to know . . . use or attempt to use his official position to secure for himself or others unwarranted privileges or exemptions which are of substantial value and which are not properly available to similarly situated individuals."

A state publication titled "Avoiding 'Appearances' of Conflict of Interest" notes that a city official who used a computer in the mayor's office to work on his wife's accounting business would be in violation of the ethics law. In 1995, the commission levied a $500 fine against Edward J. Kennedy Jr., a Middlesex County commissioner, for using a county photocopy machine for his political campaign. It's possible that the ethics commission could liken Swift's use of the helicopter to that instance.

Marc Perlin, an associate dean at Suffolk University Law School, says that the ethics commission will consider "the extent that use of a helicopter is made available to high officials in the state." Governor Cellucci told the Phoenix last week that he and Swift each used the helicopter twice during 1999. "The statute would not make it improper to the extent other people at her level also have access to these things," Perlin says.

If Swift is found liable in the helicopter matter, the commission could order her to reimburse the state for the cost of the trip and fine her the maximum under the law -- a total of $2000.

Swift also faces liability for using her aides as baby sitters. In 1990, the commission found that then-Speaker of the House George Keverian had violated the conflict-of-interest law for using State House maintenance workers to renovate his Everett home. (Keverian paid the employees for the work.) But the commission did not fine Keverian.

Whatever the commission decides, it's doubtful that the issue will go away. Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman has been circulating buttons that read QUEEN JANE 'AIR' PAY BACK THE FARE . . . !

-- SG

But in the midst of this harrowing political environment, Swift was able to hone her talent. Intensely ambitious, she found she could compete with more-experienced colleagues by combining her intelligence with hard work. Plus, as one political veteran recalls, the quick-tongued young senator "could zing questions like the best of them." (Birmingham did not respond to queries about his experiences with Swift during the educational-reform effort. Perhaps he is saving his arrows for a future gubernatorial battle?)

During this time, Swift became a voice for a disaffected region -- the Berkshires. State Senator Stanley Rosenberg, a Democrat, recalls her opposition to a measure, proposed in response to a tragic accident in Eastern Massachusetts, that would have tightened the rules on truck-borne snowplows. The fight symbolized the kind of non-ideological battle that mattered most to Swift's constituents; many residents of the Berkshires saw their winter livelihoods threatened. On this issue, Swift was tenacious -- and victorious.

"She had guts enough to be heard on the issues whether it was popular or not," says former state senator Mary Padula of Lunenburg, who became something of a mentor to Swift. "She backed up her stands with a lot of fortitude. She fought and she brought home the bacon. Sometimes legislators will file bills, but few follow them through the whole process time and time again. That's how minority members get something through: they try and try and try."

By 1996, Swift found herself at a crossroads. After serving three terms, she had risen to assistant minority leader. She could cast her lot with the state GOP and stay in the Senate, or she could take a risk and run for Congress. She chose the latter. Two years after the Gingrich revolution, in the biggest political gamble of her life, she challenged US Representative John Olver for the First Congressional District, which stretches all the way from the New York border to north and east of Worcester. Again backed by the Fitzpatrick-Webber machine, Swift found she could raise money. Olver, the incumbent, raised $650,888.30 during 1996; Swift, the challenger, collected $594,976.35. During the important summer months, Swift outraised Olver, $94,157 to $80,155.

In this race, though, she faced more scrutiny than ever before. Ironically, given the position she now finds herself in regarding her use of the state helicopter, Swift had been scrupulous about following ethics rules. During speeches she had often joked that when her husband-to-be lavished her with chocolates and flowers, she had to make sure the gifts were under the Commonwealth's official $50 limit. But on April 15, when Swift was in Westfield campaigning against raising taxes, someone asked her whether she took the tax deduction provided to state legislators who live more than 50 miles away from their state capitals. Swift became flustered; she did take the deduction, which lowered her annual taxable income by $50,000, according to the Boston Globe. The tax break is legal, but it is seen as a boondoggle. The controversy made the local dailies, and the Globe later reported that Swift was one of 40 legislators who took advantage of the loophole. Swift overcame the early storm, although the issue briefly came up again when she was vying to become lieutenant governor.

Thanks in part to the efforts of Padula, who ran the eastern half of Swift's congressional campaign from the "war room" in her Lunenburg house, Swift at least found relatively smooth sailing in that part of the district. The two women were a good match, Padula says: "We're both obnoxiously assertive. We don't take no for an answer. In that respect I didn't have to teach Jane anything. She's pretty assertive on her own."

But there was trouble in Swift's home base -- the western part of the district. During the waning days of the campaign, more than 500 senior citizens received phone calls warning them that Olver would slash Social Security and Medicare. Such allegations are often made in the form of leading questions in a campaign tactic known as "push polling." Swift denied any involvement in the calls, and they have never been linked to her.

Still, the incident stung Swift. At one event in October, a group of senior citizens and Olver supporters surrounded her and her husband, protesting the telephone calls. The episode is thought to have put Olver over the top in the district. Later, he sponsored the "Voters' Right to Know Act," aimed at preventing push polling.

The perfect storm

Jane Swift is running second only to Hillary Clinton in the ability to make the wood -- the front-page headline of a tabloid. When news broke that Swift had used her aides as baby sitters and had taken a state-police helicopter home to North Adams, the press had a field day. On January 6, the Herald ran a photo of an imperious-looking Swift with the headline GET OVER IT, BOYS! On January 12, it was EXPLAIN, JANE: SWIFT AIDES WHO HELPED WITH BABY DUTIES GOT PROMOTIONS. On January 13 -- after the mea culpa -- the Herald proclaimed: JANE ERRED: SWIFT ISSUES APOLOGY FOR HELICOPTER, BABY FLAPS. Though less colorful, the Boston Globe has been no less aggressive in following the story. Plus, the saga made network television. NBC's Today show expounded on it -- as did the tabloid show Extra. As the Phoenix went to press, there was talk that a reporter from the Washington Post Style section was also on the scene to sound off on Swift.

This is not the first time Swift has captured the local and national spotlights, however. When she announced that she was pregnant just as she was seeking her party's nomination for lieutenant governor, it touched off a perfect media storm. In May 1998, the New York Times ran a dispatch headlined A PREGNANT CANDIDATE DISCOVERS SHE'S AN ISSUE. The Washington Post weighed in a month later with a Style piece headed BIRTH OF A CAMPAIGN; JANE SWIFT IS PREGNANT. SHE'S HOPING NOVEMBER WILL BRING HER TWO BLESSED EVENTS. Swift told the Post she was surprised at her ability to make news: "I thought this was a one-week story -- 'Jane Swift's pregnant, isn't that wonderful.' " She also figured that the helicopter/baby- sitting scandal would die down quickly -- which is exactly what allowed it to spiral out of control.

Earlier in her career, Swift easily squelched questions about having taken a legal tax deduction offered to local legislators who live more than 50 miles away from their state capital. She also denied allegations that she'd had anything to do with anonymous phone calls questioning John Olver's commitment to Social Security when she ran against him for the US House of Representatives.

Most political observers say Swift should have apologized sooner for using her aides as baby sitters and the state-police helicopter as a taxi. And, they say, it should have been a much bigger apology, with the governor present and a representative from a women's organization by her side. But the way it went down made Swift seem even more frazzled.

Nevertheless, she's certain to learn from the incident. If she figures out how to control the media, the type of interest they've displayed could help turn her into a national figure.

-- SG

Even though Swift came up short, her performance amazed political insiders. In the same year that John Kerry trounced William Weld in the Senate race, she lost by only a few hundred votes. This earned her a reputation as a rising political star. She was featured in a publication called the Women's Times, and Glamour magazine named her one of "Eleven Women Who Could Change the Country."

Following her strong performance, she joined the Republican administration on Beacon Hill. First Weld appointed her director of regional airport development at Massport. And in December 1997, Cellucci (then the acting governor) appointed her director of the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

That appointment didn't meet with universal approval from long-time GOP-ers, though. Earlier in the year, Swift had tangled with Paul Babeu, a fellow young Republican from her hometown. Babeu, a county official, had challenged Democratic incumbent John Barrett to run for mayor of North Adams. He defeated Barrett in a primary, but Swift endorsed the Democrat, who then won the election. Some familiar with the race say that Swift picked Barrett, who remains loyal to the lieutenant governor, because Babeu was too right-wing. Yet Babeu, who was an ally of former treasurer Joe Malone, says he is pro-choice and pro-gay-rights (though he concedes that he was pro-life at age 18). Babeu blames Swift for his defeat.

The intricacies of North Adams politics are somewhat hard to appreciate from our vantage point in Boston. But one interpretation of the Babeu episode is clear: Swift saw an opportunity to eliminate a potential Republican rival, and she took it. It was a similar story when, earlier this year, she seized upon Massport head Peter Blute's seaborne cavorting to eliminate a more seasoned Republican rival. Certainly, this bloodlust for fellow Republicans has won Swift no friends in GOP ranks. Although the lieutenant governor's political potential is still viewed with relish among the party die-hards, many state Republicans revile her. Part of this animus, to be sure, stems from the old Joe Malone faction. Still, there are many who quietly think that Jane Swift cares more about herself than about her party.

Whatever mixed feelings Swift may evoke from party stalwarts were not enough to dim her appeal for Cellucci and his team. By the winter of 1997-'98, they had been twice disappointed in drafting a candidate for lieutenant governor. First, Suffolk County district attorney Ralph Martin turned them down; then Charles D. Baker Jr., another strong candidate, bolted the administration to become president and CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Inc. (Some said at the time that Baker had wanted to be Cellucci's number two and was miffed at being overlooked as the first choice.) Regrouping, Cellucci's people concluded that they needed an attractive candidate, preferably a woman. For the third time in her career, Swift benefited from good timing. And this time she did her best to display loyalty. No sooner did Cellucci draft her than she changed her position on the death penalty (she now says she supports it), assault weapons (she now opposes a ban), and increasing the minimum wage (she supported it, then opposed it; subsequently Cellucci embraced and signed an increase).

For what it's worth, Swift may have changed her mind about another issue, too. In 1993, during a Senate debate of an amendment that would have restored cash assistance to poor pregnant women, she said it didn't strike her as particularly responsible to get pregnant when you couldn't already support yourself, let alone a child. According to a State House News Service account of the debate, Swift said that there were already all sorts of programs out there to help mothers. Now that Swift has a child of her own, and finds herself calling on the services of her aides to "keep it all together" as a working mom, it appears she's discovered that even responsible women may need extra help sometimes.

Jack Swift, who's said to be one of Swift's closest confidants, won't say much about the political trauma his daughter has been through in recent days. "I agree with the statement that she made yesterday, and we're very proud of our daughter," he says of the lieutenant governor's apology. "Jane spent six years in the Senate, and you should speak to the senators on both sides of the aisle -- there's a pretty good consensus on how she did there. She has our full support, and we're very proud of her."

Swift's closest friends will tell you that the real Jane Swift is kind and loving. That she was deeply saddened by the loss of a friend to breast cancer at the age of 32. That she is struggling with being a mom and a lieutenant governor. And they will also tell you that Swift is getting a raw deal -- not just from the press and the Democrats, but from the governor. Swift is ever the loyal soldier, they say, and if Cellucci had asked for an apology, Swift would have capitulated.

In fact, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the babysitting/chopper scandal is that it showed the limits of the administration's loyalty to Swift. When things got hot, Cellucci's top advisers -- such as Rob Gray -- distanced themselves from her. They may even have planted the stories in the Globe and the Herald saying that she had failed to take advice. These stories were warning shots to Swift, showing her that Cellucci's people were willing to make her look bad if she refused to apologize.

It's too early to say whether Swift has sustained permanent damage, but it's significant in itself that this is the biggest political test she's had to endure so far. If she were made governor tomorrow, her experience would have to rank her as a lightweight. (By comparison, when Cellucci was made acting governor, he had two decades in state government under his belt.) Swift's allies may love to say the lieutenant governor has been "underestimated," but the fact is that Swift emerged from the milk-pail culture of Western Massachusetts with every political advantage -- especially the backing of a party machine (and thus an ability to raise money). Swift's old Senate district comprised some 45 communities, each with its own political leaders. That means that someone with a modicum of talent, name recognition, and organizational support would naturally have had a tremendous advantage over someone known in just one of these towns. And that's what Swift had the minute Webber announced his support for her at the Pittsfield press conference in 1990. It didn't hurt, either, that she benefited from political alliances forged by her father. She's also a Republican in a heavily Democratic state, she's young and assertive, she faced less competition in the Western Massachusetts bush leagues than most politicos have to contend with (her challenge of Olver was her first race of any consequence), and her pregnancy during her first statewide run shielded her from scrutiny. When such a pol is plopped onto center stage, you have to ask: what's not to underestimate?

In spite of her flaws and her lack of seasoning, Swift's colleagues from the state senate insist she's pretty good. They praise her for having done her homework during her stint as a state legislator. They go on about how articulate and how sharp she is. But isn't that the way public servants are supposed to be? The praise Swift gets for asking tough questions and speaking well in public sounds an awful lot like the praise mediocre students get for having perfect attendance. If she's competent according to the current standards of state government, perhaps we should be asking why we expect so little from our public servants.

All that said, we did learn something else about Swift from the recent scandal: she is tenacious. And if political history has taught us anything, it's that victory often goes to the most persistent -- even if they stumble once or twice.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.