Congressman Al Swift, known more as a policy wonk than a political operative, is remembered fondly by the next generation of Democratic politicians he mentored.
EIGHT-TERM congressman Al Swift is remembered by friends as a man of grace, integrity, ethics and values. Others add to that list his baritone voice, his wicked sense of humor and talent as a storyteller.
Swift died April 20 at age 82, more than two decades after he retired from Congress in 1995, but his contributions to Washington state stand as a testament to his love of good public policy.
Although he spent nearly half his life in the other Washington, Swift maintained close ties to the place he considered home, the Pacific Northwest, and to the people who benefitted from and appreciated his leadership.
The broadcaster turned Democratic congressman represented the 2nd Congressional District in northwest Washington from 1979 to 1995. His record of achievement includes working to modernize the Pacific Northwest’s hydroelectric regulation to preserve salmon habitat, establishing the so-called “motor-voter” law, and creating wilderness areas within the Olympic, Rainier and North Cascades national parks.
Swift was more of a policy wonk than a political operative. His idea of good governance is far from what we see today in the nation’s partisan battleground. He specialized in complex legislation with little or no political benefit, such as regional power conservation, election laws and the breakup of AT&T.
“He represented an era and type of politics when there was a deeply held belief that good public policy was good politics,” recalls state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who has known Swift since Swift’s wife, Paula, was Carlyle’s fourth-grade teacher.
A number of current lawmakers remember Swift as a mentor and inspiration.
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from the 6th District, had known Swift since childhood, interned for him at age 19 and called him an important voice for people who needed one.
“Beyond what he meant to me personally, Al Swift meant so much to so many of the people he represented,” Kilmer said. “Whether he was advocating for the economic needs of the Olympic Peninsula or working on infrastructure issues for the entire country, Al was the consummate public servant.”
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Swift’s own district, said he often sought him out for advice. “He had much to offer to anyone who would ask,” Larsen said. He appreciated Swift for his contributions to the country and the 2nd District, but also for “his gut-busting stories.”
Swift focused on what was best for the country and his constituents, not what would get him re-elected, and he retired from Congress as the public discourse was changing and the partisan divide deepening. But he remained in the political arena, mentoring a new generation of leaders. They should honor his memory by paying it forward.