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The melee has turned out to be as spontaneous as a Rockettes' Christmas extravaganza. Related Gully Coverage

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john e. sweeney

Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., speaks at a news conference in Miami, Nov. 19, as Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, looks on at right. Marta Lavandier

Election 2000

The Guy Who Gored Al
The irresistible ascension
of John E. Sweeney

by Toby Eglund

DECEMBER 1, 2000. Among the legions of Republicans who will cash in their chips if George W. Bush gets to the White House is the heretofore nationally obscure U.S. Representative John E. Sweeney, an upstate New York Republican insider.

The suddenly prominent Mr. Sweeney is credited for giving the signal for last week's productive Republican fracas inside the Miami Dade county offices, after which the canvassing board abruptly canceled a hand recount of votes that would have helped Al Gore. "Street-smart New York Rep. John Sweeney, a visiting GOP monitor, told an aide to "Shut it down," and semi-spontaneous combustion took over," The Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot admiringly wrote.

The melee, of course, has turned out to be as spontaneous as a Rockettes' Christmas extravaganza. Democrats are charging that the board was intimidated. Republicans pooh pooh that. And board chairman David Leahy, who seemed to agree at first, has since denied the board acted under duress. The whole, nasty megillah is now before a Florida court.

Working Class Republican
Regardless of whether or not there was intimidation, Sweeney is in an excellent position to benefit from the turmoil. Perception is what counts most in politics, increasingly a branch of the entertainment industry, and Sweeney, who headed the Bush anti-recount forces in Miami-Dade, is now perceived by many as a Republican hero, the guy who gored Al.

Sweeney, 45, embodies that embarrassment of the Left: the rightward drift of America's white working class males. The son of a shirt factory worker active in the Amalgamated Shirt Cutters Union, and a sometime resident of a housing project, Sweeney grew up in the old, gritty industrial city of Troy, New York. He put himself through law school, and toiled as a minor county bureaucrat until, one day, he was discovered by Republican State Chairman William Powers who made him executive director of the New York state GOP in 1992.

patakiSweeney's Cinderella story continued to unfold as he became a trusted aide of New York Governor George Pataki, whom he first served as Labor commissioner. Pataki handpicked him to replace Gerald Solomon, a Republican fixture. Solomon was retiring from the 22nd district's congressional seat after 20 years to work for General Electric, the biggest Hudson River polluter, whom critics charged he had lavishly served throughout his career. Like Solomon, Sweeney opposes requiring GE to clean up PCB's in the Hudson. Pataki, his patron, has remained coyly silent on this hot button issue.

New York's 22nd congressional district (pop. 580,000, almost 97 per cent white) mostly consists of the suburbs of Albany, the state capital, although geographically it stretches north all the way to the Lake Placid area, in the Adirondacks. It is solidly Republican, although Bill Clinton carried it in 1996, with 46 percent of the vote to Bob Dole's 41 percent.

Flirting with Labor
Sweeney, who opposed NAFTA, has some labor backing. The Civil Service Employees Union endorsed him, the Teamsters like him, and the congressman's official website shrewdly offers a link to the AFL-CIO website. Sweeney has worked to curtail acid rain and has been a champion of air passengers' rights.

He strongly opposes abortion, gay civil rights, and federal spending to stop global warming. He is a big fan of social security privatization, flatter and lower income taxes, eliminating the estate tax, and allowing so-called "faith-based organizations" to provide government-funded social services.

Last year, for example, Sweeney voted in favor of the Child Custody Protection Act, which makes it a federal crime for anyone other than a parent to transport a minor girl across state lines to get an abortion "and circumvent state parental-consent laws." The bill, approved by Congress and now waiting on the Senate pipeline, was introduced by Miami Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Elian fame.

Ros-Lehtinen, who is Cuban-American, was protesting against the recount outside the Miami-Dade county building last week while Sweeney was getting ready to utter his fateful phrase inside. Both she and Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the other Cuban-born Republican in the U.S. Congress, had called on Cuban-Americans to join the protest, in on-site interviews granted to Radio Mambi, Miami's biggest Spanish-language station.

andrew cardSweeney is well positioned to cash in his Bush chips. Serendipity has it that Sweeney's chief-of-staff is Brad Card, brother of Andrew Card, George W.'s chief-of-staff-in-waiting and long-time Bush family loyalist. ("I would do anything to help his parents. They were wonderful to me. I have an infinite amount of love for them," Andrew Card told The New York Times a few days ago.)

Related links:

For the site of Congressman John Sweeney, Representing the 22nd District New York.

For the Sweeney campaign's money trail, from The Center for Responsive Politics.

In Depth

Bush Plus
U.S. politics and the Bush administration All about George W. Bush, Dems, Greens, GOPs, and the morass of U.S. politics.

Color and Cash
race and classThe Gully's complete coverage of race and class, two intertwined pillars of American society.

New World
new worldOur Americas. Politics, democracies, failed utopias, and the sullen heirs of colonialism: from Canada to Argentina.

Gay Mundo
gay pride
The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Guatemala to Puerto Rico and more.

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