Al Swift represented the 2nd Congressional District in northwest Washington for 16 years. The onetime broadcaster was known as a telecommunications, energy and environmental policy wonk.
Al Swift, a broadcaster turned eight-term Democratic congressman from Washington who played key roles in modernizing Pacific Northwest hydroelectric energy regulation to preserve salmon habitat and establishing the so-called “motor-voter” law to increase voter registration, died Friday in Alexandria, Virginia, family members said.
Mr. Swift, 82, had recently been diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease unrelated to smoking, according to a daughter and the former congressman’s brother. Since he retired from Congress in 1995, Mr. Swift had lived and worked as a lobbyist in Virginia near his daughters and grandchildren.
Mr. Swift represented the 2nd Congressional District in northwest Washington, first winning election in 1978. Known as a policy wonk and bipartisan collaborator drawn to complex issues, Mr. Swift served on the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee. In his first term, he helped to draft the Northwest Power Act — groundbreaking legislation that modernized regulation for four Northwest states, aiming to balance affordable electricity while protecting fish and wildlife damaged by the Columbia River Basin’s dams.
Mr. Swift later helped craft the Washington Wilderness Bill to conserve wild lands, drafted and led the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, known as the “motor-voter” law, and was Congress’ ranking expert on election law, according to his former staff members.
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“He was the quintessential statesman,” said Jill McKinnie, a former district director. “He loved the institution, he loved his job. He would reach across to both sides of the aisle, and really got a lot done.”
Born in 1935 in Tacoma, Mr. Swift was the older of two sons of a Coca-Cola truck driver. The family lived on Tacoma’s McKinley Hill, with both boys attending the city’s public schools. Mr. Swift met his future wife, Paula Jackson, at age 12, and the two had their first date while students at Lincoln High School, according to the family. In high school, he served as editor of the student newspaper and grew intrigued by the media.
“He became very interested in radio as a young boy, so interested he set up a mock radio station in our back bedroom,” recalled his brother, Larry Swift, of Lacey.
While Mr. Swift attended Whitman College in Walla Walla from 1953 to 1955, he worked for KUJ, a local radio station, before moving to Ellensburg for a higher-paying radio job at KXLE, his brother said. He graduated from Central Washington University in 1957.
After college, Mr. Swift was hired by KVOS-TV in Bellingham, where he was director of news and public affairs and won a regional Emmy for his work on a program introducing children to tidal pool creatures.
Mr. Swift left TV to serve as administrative assistant for 2nd District congressman Lloyd Meeds; he later ran for — and won — the seat when Meeds retired. The district at the time encompassed all or parts of 10 Washington counties.
With a rich baritone voice, Mr. Swift relied on his storytelling skills as a former broadcaster to move others toward his point of view, staff members said.
“He could spin a story and had a great sense of humor,” McKinnie said. “He had a deep, melodic voice and could just paint a picture for you. He was a master of doing that; it made him very convincing on the floor of the House.”
As a member of the Energy & Commerce Committee, Mr. Swift chaired the subcommittee with authority over the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program, railroads, the Federal Trade Commission and the National Transportation Safety Board, among other entities.
“He was a workingman’s Democrat,” said Drew Pettus, a Bellingham lawyer who served as Mr. Swift’s chief of staff. “Slightly to the liberal side, but for all the years he was in Congress, he was able to work with Republicans.”
Outside the halls of power, Mr. Swift also knew how to live. He was fond of a good joke, the occasional cigar and a stiff drink, according a 1991 profile in The Seattle Times.
“But other characteristics depart from the stereotype,” The Times profile noted. “He collects jazz records, enjoys cooking, watches football on TV, dotes on his grandchildren. Though he is a former TV broadcaster, he resists the pressure to condense complex issues into five-second sound bites. Over his seven terms, he has specialized in complex legislation that carries little or no political benefit — regional power conservation, broadcast deregulation, the breakup of AT&T, elections laws.
“These days, he spends most of his time sorting through the intricacies of hazardous waste and the economics of recycling.”
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from the 6th District, said in statement that he had known Mr. Swift since childhood and later interned for him at age 19.
“Al was the consummate public servant,” Kilmer said.
Mr. Swift opted against running for a ninth term. By 1994, the political winds had changed, with Republicans seizing control of the House.
Following his congressional career, Mr. Swift settled to live and work as a lobbyist based in Virginia. He spent a year as vice president of government affairs for Burlington Northern Railroad, before his contract was bought out during BN’s merger with Santa Fe Railroad.
Mr. Swift later went on to cofound the Fairfax, Virginia-based lobbying firm, Colling Swift & Hynes.
“The last letter he sent out a couple of months ago, he referred to (Washington) as ‘home,’” Larry Swift said. When his brother later pointed that out, Mr. Swift responded: “It will always be home to me, even though I live here in Virginia.”
Mr. Swift was preceded in death by his wife, Paula. He is survived by his daughters, Lauri Swift and Amy Donovan, and Amy’s spouse, Daniel; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson. Memorial services will be held on May 5 in Alexandria, with the family planning a service in Washington state this summer.