Swift rise, steep fall, and a shot at history

Jane Swift's political resume is a study in superlatives.

At 25, she was the youngest person ever elected to the Massachusetts Senate. A year later, the precocious Republican was the youngest woman ever to hold a leadership position there. In 1999, she became only the second woman elected to statewide office, as lieutenant governor.

By the end of the month, she could be on track for two more: the youngest US governor in more than a century and the first one to give birth while in office - and to twins.

Since the days of her childhood, when the determined 10-year-old handed out campaign buttons and balloons for a Republican candidate in the remote Massachusetts mill town of North Adams, she's had her eyes on public service. Now, as Gov. Paul Cellucci awaits confirmation of his ambassadorship to Canada, Ms. Swift is on the cusp of becoming an American political pioneer.

Her path to Massachusetts's highest office has been as rough as any in local memory - a series of scandals has left her with only a 17 percent approval rating, according to one poll.

Yet even her detractors acknowledge that she is a quick study and enormously tenacious, traits she will need as people nationwide - fairly or not - look to her as a test case for whether a young mother can handle the responsibilities of her state and a growing family.

"It's a watershed event for women in politics," says Elizabeth Sherman, director of the Center for Women in Politics at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Indeed, precedents are few. Former Rep. Susan Molinari gave birth to a daughter while a member of Congress, and North Dakota state Rep. April Fairfield is pregnant and due during one of the chamber's busiest weeks.

Judi Dutcher, Minnesota's state auditor, campaigned for office while she was pregnant and had a 1-year-old child. She says there's no mystery to how to balance the two worlds.

"You just do it," she says. "It's not like we're the first women ever to perform as an executive while having a family."

Moreover, she notes that her governor, Jesse Ventura, is a commentator for the Xtreme Football League on weekends, showing there's time for more than governing. It's a lesson that more and more women are learning.

"Women are increasingly going into every occupation at every level," says Ms. Sherman. "We were bound to see a woman [in Swift's situation]."

Symbol of the working mom

In some ways, it's a situation she knows well. Just a few months after Governor Cellucci declared Swift his running mate in 1998, Swift announced she was pregnant with her first child - due two weeks before the election. Overnight, she became a celebrity. The Washington Post came to town, as did "20/20."

After she and Cellucci won, she became a symbol of the working mom, balancing a family with a premier job.

And that burden proved too great. When reports surfaced that she used staffers to baby-sit her daughter, for free - and once commandeered a state helicopter to beat the traffic to her western Massachusetts home - the goodwill ended.

Some saw it as proof that a mother's place is in the home. And many working families were outraged over the fact that a state official used her clout to solve problems they face every day.

"It's the mantle she carries," says Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "When she makes a mistake, it gets generalized out to the rest of working women."

As a result, she has been pilloried by the media and the public, becoming easily the most disliked politician in the commonwealth. The tabloids have dubbed her "Queen Jane" and mocked her weight. Critics call her arrogant and say she has a tin ear for politics.

"She can be rough around the edges and abrasive," says Peter Blute, who worked with her at the Massachusetts Port Authority for a few months and is now a radio talk-show host. "She doesn't have a full understanding of how to treat people in public relations."

To be sure, Swift has had fits of pique that seem out of place for someone who is renowned for her girlish giggle and was once a sorority social director.

But this is also a woman who played rugby for a year at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "I'm a little strongheaded," she once acknowledged.

For one, she refused to apologize for the child-care debacle for a week. She also blasted Rep. Joe Moakley of Massachusetts for referring to one of her friends, new Massport chief Virginia Buckingham, as "some girl." And she played a part in forcing Mr. Blute out of Massport when it was discovered that he used state money to pay for a pleasure cruise around Boston Harbor, saying sharply, "Utilizing state resources for personal use is not acceptable."

"What goes around comes around," says Blute.

Yet to many observers, the Queen Jane image is a perplexing misrepresentation. "It's the largest disconnect between a person's intelligence and personality and public perception I've ever seen," says Michael Hannahan, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Without question, Swift is a product of her hometown - a strong-willed underdog. North Adams, a far-flung outpost closer to Albany, N.Y., than to Boston, saw its brightest days more than a century ago, when it was a textile mecca among the wilds of the Berkshires.

Since then, it's been one of the poorest areas of Massachusetts. There, unions rule and Republicans "could have a meeting in a phone booth," says nine-term mayor John Barrett III, a Democrat and friend of Swift's.

A born Republican

But Swift knew she was a Republican from the moment she was born. Her father, a plumber, was campaign manager for GOP state Sen. John Fitzpatrick back in the 1970s and then for his successor, Peter Webber.

The whole family helped out. When Mr. Webber was running his first campaign in 1980, Swift and her three siblings would go door-to-door; they'd organize spaghetti dinners.

This passion and preparation has since come to define her in political life. Just 3-1/2 years after graduation from Trinity, Swift - elected senator in 1990 after Webber retired - was clashing with some of the most legendary figures in recent Massachusetts political history. And winning.

She wanted a milk tax to help dairy farmers in her corner of the state. Virtually no one else did. She threatened to camp out in then-Gov. William Weld's office until he relented. She took on then-Senate President William Bulger, a man whose influence stretched to halls of parliament in Ireland and Great Britain.

"She'd stand right there in the pit and slug it out," says Mr. Bulger, now president of the University of Massachusetts. "She'd give a good, logical argument and do it so well she'd carry people along with her.... She earned the respect in great measure of every member."

These are the qualities, supporters say, that give her the chance to make what would be perhaps the biggest comeback in Massachusetts political history.

"There's no way she's ever going to overcome [all the negative publicity] except if Paul Cellucci leaves," says Mayor Barrett. "Now, she's got 10 months."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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