Embattled Congressman John Sweeney looked out across a somber oom of republican supporters gathered at the Holiday Inn and finally faced the music.
“I’m only sorry that I let you down,” he told the crowd, as he conceded the 20th District to challenger Kirsten Gillibrand, the first democrat to take the seat in nearly three decades.
Among the many upsets that swept the people’s house out of republican control, Sweeney’s loss might not seem like much more than a footnote to the otherwise nightmarish political drubbing taken by the Grand Old Party. Yet his colossal rise to power and subsequent plummet to political ruin are deserved more than a mere mention in the glossary of the 2006 midterm Election.
In his younger years, Sweeney was perhaps the antithesis of the gluttonous icon he’s most recently portrayed. Growing up the son of a blue-collar factory worker in a somewhat rough-and-tumble area of Troy, he seemed the prodigal child of the proletariat. Like his father, Sweeney was also active in the labor movement, becoming a member of the Newspaper Guild while working ironically for the circulation department of the Albany Times Union.
By many accounts, Sweeney was a self-made man, who worked hard for associate’s degree at Hudson Valley, a bachelor’s in political science from Sage College and finally a law degree from Western New England College. During the 80s, he served as Rensselaer County’s Stop- DWI program director and remained in relative political obscurity until becoming an aide to GOP heavyweight William Powers.
Ultimately, it was from this relationship that the congressman’s career was ultimately bore. He made the head of the state’s Republican Committee and then honed his politcal acumen working as an insider on the successful senate campaign of Alfonse D’Amato in 1992.
It wasn’t until two years later that Sweeney hit his pay dirt by helping Rudolph Giuliani's successful campaign for New York City mayor and George Pataki’s bid for the governor’s office in 1994. Ironically at the time, the GOP was seizing hold of the House of Representatives in Washington with a grip they would not relinquish until now.
Sweeney’s loyalty and past labor movement history earned him Pataki appointment as head of the state Labor Commission, where he stayed until Pataki called on him again during his bid for reelection in 1998. Sweeney’s continued party loyalty made him the ideal candidate to succeed long-time Rep. Gerald Solomon in 1998, after the congressman held the district for two decades.
But Sweeney didn’t coast to election. He battled an ugly primary win against four challengers that depicted him as a district outsider who refused to debate them and as being handpicked by Pataki and Powers. Even after securing the nomination, he was forced to ward off criticism after the Saratoga County Democratic Chairman brought alleged that Sweeney’s estranged wife Betty had an order of protection against him.
Still, Sweeney’s name stayed largely out of the national spotlight during his freshman term in the house. That is, until the congressman decided to go on vacation to Florida’s Dade County in November 2000. As the hotly contested presidential recount simmered in the Miami heat, Sweeney jumped to attention with the move that ultimately earned him the nickname Congressman Kickass from newly elected President Bush.
“Then the Three Counting Sages repaired to semi-isolation, forcing TV cameras to watch through a window and keeping reporters 25 feet away,” recalled Wall Street Journal correspondent Paul Gigot. “That did it. Street-smart New York Rep. John Sweeney, a visiting GOP monitor, told an aide to ‘Shut it down,’ and semi-spontaneous combustion took over.”
Republicans descended upon the vote counters chanting "Three Blind Mice" and "Fraud, Fraud, Fraud" in what would later be termed the Brooks Brothers Riot. Sweeney later told The Associated Press he didn’t recall his exact words, just that he urged the masses to stop the recount. The rest is history.
Less than six months later, the now well-known Sweeney managed to shut down something else: the power to Willard Mountain and dozens of surrounding homes. In what was to be the first of Sweeney’s many missteps and abuses of power, he commandeered his 2001 Jeep Laredo into a telephone pole, trapping dozens of skiers on the mountain’s lifts. Despite admitting to having “one or two” glasses of wine, the congressman was never tested for driving while intoxicated.
What followed was five years of corruption and scandal that hovered over Sweeney like a dark cloud that never seemed to get enough momentum to rain down. The list of indiscretions seems to go on at infinitum; ties to Abramoff, trips to the Marianas Islands to ironically support the small nation’s sweatshop-conducive labor policies, paying his future second wife thousands of dollars to be a political consultant, charging the Olympic Regional Development Authority nearly $30,000 for congressional ski trips in Lake Placid, being top on the list of congressmen accepting money from lobbyists. Yes, this guy was a one-in-a-million politician.
In the end, what probably killed Sweeney’s campaign was abandonment by the ambitious Pataki, who is more concerned with the electorate in Iowa and New Hampshire than the fate of New York’s flailing GOP. No longer do names like Powers and D’Amato strike fear in the hearts of opponents like they once did. And Giuliani, well he was too busy capitalizing on his 9-11 fame to be bothered with state or national politics –at least not for another year.
Sweeney was also hung out to dry by the national Republican Committee, which spent more time fighting to hold U.S. Senate seats than bothering with the doomed house. In the end, it was the Times Union’s one-two punch that knocked him out. Breaking the Marianas Island story over his bow one week before publishing a story about his alleged choking of his wife was enough to sink the S.S. Sweeney to the murky waters of the political graveyard.
Mind you, Sweeney’s career in politics is not done. There are plenty of party names that would be more than happy to pull his battered hull from the depths; the names Pataki and Giuliani come instantly to mind. But for now, he’ll nurse the wounds he sustained from his dramatic but ironic fall from party grace.