Lynn Swann is a man who hasn't grown accustomed to losing.
The 54-year-old from Sewickley Heights, just north of Pittsburgh, was a star football player for the University of Southern California who made it to two Rose Bowls. After being drafted by the Steelers in 1974, Swann went on to earn four Super Bowl rings with the team in just nine seasons. He parlayed his success as a National Football League wide receiver into a long, lucrative broadcasting career, and, in 2001, Swan was inducted into Pro Football's Hall of Fame.
After earning so many victories on the playing fields, Swann — the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania in 2006 — finally learned defeat in a contact sport of another kind. A newcomer to politics, save for a stint as chairman of the president's council on physical fitness during the elder George Bush's administration, Swann lost overwhelmingly in his bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Gov. Ed Rendell. Final returns showed he garnered 40 percent of the vote to the incumbent's 60 percent, although national news outlets weren't waiting for all the precincts to report in before declaring a winner.
Swann staffers had literally just opened the doors to his election-night party at the Downtown Pittsburgh Hilton on Nov. 7, when the Associated Press called the race for Rendell. As a consequence, perhaps, fewer than 100 people showed up to cheer on their candidate. Swann spokesperson Leonardo Alcivar ran from reporters.
It didn't always look this bleak. Swann's initial announcement to run created a lot of buzz. If elected, he would have been the first African-American governor in Pennsylvania history, as well as the first to unseat a sitting governor in 60 years.
State party leaders quickly endorsed him over the more seasoned former Lt. Gov. William Scranton, explaining that Swann's star power and magnetism might be the best weapons against a natural campaigner like Rendell.
Many others — even here in Swann's home base of western Pennsylvania — remained skeptical about the ex-Steeler's qualifications for high office, especially after papers reported his sparse history of voting in elections. Bagumba Lowery, an African-American community activist from Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood, said that "people want to know more about Lynn Swann politically. Folks in this town love him, but they wonder if he'll be his own boss, or just another puppet."
Sarah Horowitz, a University of Pittsburgh student from suburban Philadelphia, said it bothered her that Swann "can only criticize Rendell on what he's done, and can't point to a record of his own."
Even here in Steelers' nation, "I don't think football helps," noted Horowitz, a political-science major. "Maybe we don't like some of the things Rendell has done, but what can Swann do? He's never held public office. Experience is important."
Swann and his campaign were further hindered by an inability to keep up with Rendell's prodigious fundraising. The governor, with millions on hand in the final days, kept up feel-good TV ads; Swann all but disappeared from the airwaves until a last-minute donation got him back on the small screen 24 hours before the end.
With more cash, insisted Pittsburgh political consultant William Green, Swann could have run television commercials that "rammed" down Rendell's throat the governor's indelicate comments about senior citizens' need to stave off boredom with gambling.
Swann's attacks on the governor's plans to bring slot-machine parlors to the state resonated with area Jewish voters like Sandy Wedner.
"Swann is on the ball when he says gambling is not a panacea for our budget problems," explained the retired businessman. "How is Rendell going to get $2 billion in taxes every year? I want the facts. Show me honesty."
Honesty proved a theme that Swann hammered home in other ways, accusing Rendell of breaking his promise to reduce Pennsylvanians' property taxes. In his commercials and debate appearances, Swann never made this point more effectively than at one town hall meeting in September, where he took off his Super Bowl rings and offered them to anyone in the audience who had received a 30 percent reduction, as Rendell had promised.
Green called this "brilliant political theater," which Swann learned to orchestrate far too late. Yet even a perfectly run campaign might not have worked, given Pennsylvania's 60-year track record of electing governors for eight-year stints.
Acknowledged Green: "The odds were always stacked against Swann."