Al Swift, 8-term congressman, always sought ‘the path forward’

He died Friday. His “deft touch” led to the Northwest Power Act and Ebey’s Landing historical reserve.

Al Swift, 2005

Al Swift, 2005

EVERETT — Al Swift often described Congress as the place America comes to find its compromises.

And Swift, who died Friday, crafted his share of them in eight terms as the Democratic congressman of the 2nd Congressional District from 1979-94.

He spearheaded the passage of the Northwest Power Act, sponsored the federal motor voter law and played an instrumental role in fending off efforts to close Everett Naval Station and Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

Swift led efforts to create the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve and restore an Amtrak run between Everett and Vancouver, B.C., after it got nixed during the Reagan administration.

“It was about delivering results,” said state Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, who spent seven years as Swift’s political director. “He really viewed it as his role to find the path forward when there were competing issues.”

Swift died at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 82.

Swift was elected in 1978, and re-elected seven times in the district that at one point stretched from Blaine to Ocean Shores and to Port Angeles. Throughout his tenure it included Snohomish, Island, Whatcom and Skagit counties.

An Emmy Award-winning TV broadcaster with a smooth baritone voice, Swift was a master at disassembling issues to a point where all the elements could be easily understood and debated.

“He was pure elegance. He was extremely intelligent and a very eloquent speaker,” recalled Jill McKinnie, who ran his Everett office from 1985 until he left office.

“He could really break down very complex problems.”

Mark Funk, a former Herald political reporter who covered Swift for years, described him as “a remarkably well-spoken man” with a “deft touch for knowing the people in his audience.”

He also was a legislator whose pursuit of agreement would take him across the political aisle to work with Republicans, Funk said.

Allan Byron Swift was born in Tacoma on Sept. 12, 1935. His father was a truck driver for Coca-Cola; his mother was a homemaker and superintendent of Sunday school at a nearby United Methodist church.

He became interested in radio at a young age and after high school got a job at a station in Walla Walla. Swift studied at Whitman College before transferring to Central Washington University where he graduated in 1957 and continued in the field of radio.

Switching to television, he was named director of news and public affairs for KVOS-TV in Bellingham and became active in city politics.

In 1964, he ran Democrat Lloyd Meeds’ successful congressional campaign in the 2nd District and then worked for him for several years before returning to television. Swift later rejoined the Meeds staff expecting to oversee Meeds’ 1978 re-election campaign, according to family members. Instead, Meeds dropped out of the race and Swift ran in his place.

During his first term, Swift successfully spearheaded the passage of the Northwest Power Act, which in 1980 created a framework for Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington to share electricity from dams in the Columbia River basin. It also mandated funding for environmental protections for fish and wildlife in the region.

He sponsored the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, known as the “motor voter” bill for its mandate that states allow citizens to register to vote while applying for a driver’s license. An earlier version of Swift’s legislation was vetoed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 before President Bill Clinton signed it into law May 20, 1993.

In Snohomish County, he was deeply involved in piecing together agreements needed for construction of the Everett Naval Station in the mid-’80s, then fended off efforts to shutter it during Base Realignment and Closure hearings.

“He was able to bring a calming voice, that deep baritone voice of his, in helping people understand the value of the base,” said Paul Roberts, an Everett City Councilman who at the time worked as a special adviser to then-Gov. Booth Gardner on securing the base.

Swift was also known as a skilled storyteller, avid cigar smoker and a big fan of music. McKinnie said he’d regularly compile lists of albums he wanted to buy on his next visit to a record store.

“To me, Al started as my representative, became a mentor and then my friend,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen in a statement. “I will remember Al for his work on transportation, especially rail; for his efforts to increase access to the ballot box; but mostly for his gut-busting stories.

“When asking me which district I represent, people used to ask if I was in the ‘Al Swift seat,’” he said. “Even today, my answer is still a proud, ‘Yes.’”

Swift was preceded in death by his wife, Paula Jackson. He is survived by his brother, two daughters, three granddaughters; and a great-grandson.

A memorial service will be held May 5 in Alexandria, Virginia. His family also is planning a service in the congressional district later in the summer.

Herald wire services contributed to this report.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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