Al Swift, former Washington state congressman, dies at 82

He represented the 2nd Congressional District in northwest Washington, and retired in 1995.

  • By Harrison Smith The Washington Post
  • Sunday, April 22, 2018 1:30am
  • Northwest

By Harrison Smith / The Washington Post

Al Swift, an eight-term Democratic congressman from Washington, who helped pass the “motor voter” law of 1993, legislation credited with helping millions of Americans register to vote, died April 20 at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 82.

He had recently been diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease, and last week underwent abdominal surgery for an unrelated issue, said his brother, Larry Swift.

A former TV broadcaster with a smooth baritone voice, Swift was a master at public relations who nevertheless focused on issues of crucial importance but negligible appeal.

“Over his seven terms,” the Seattle Times wrote in a 1991 profile, “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.”

Swift was elected in 1978, and represented a broad swath of northern Washington, where he had received a regional Emmy Award years earlier for his work on a children’s program about marine life in tide pools.

In office, he drew on his TV experience to defend the Federal Communications Commission’s long-standing “fairness doctrine,” which required broadcasters to devote time to both sides of an issue. (Under President Ronald Reagan, the FCC repealed the rule in 1987.) He also took part in the complex regulatory effort that resulted in the breakup of “Ma Bell” — the telecom giant AT&T — in the early 1980s.

“I don’t know if I’ve been eating magic mushrooms or wandering around Alice’s Wonderland, but the more I learn about this field the bigger it gets,” Swift joked during a discussion on the company’s pricing policies. “I’m always losing ground. I think I’m going to cry.”

He held leadership positions on the Energy and Commerce Committee, where he chaired a subcommittee that oversaw entities including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup program, and on the Rules Committee, where he chaired the elections subcommittee.

In that role, he sponsored what became 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. It also required states to allow voter registration by mail and at certain state and local offices.

More than two dozen states, including Washington, already had similar systems in place, but some Republicans argued the legislation was too costly and would increase the chances of election fraud. 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 on May 20, 1993.

“I think it’s going to make it easier for every single American to be registered if they want to,” Swift said. “Somewhere in all of the debate, that got lost.”

A 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service found that voter registration grew by more than seven percentage points between 1992 and 2012. For the 2016 general election, the Election Assistance Commission reported that 33 percent of voters registered through their department of motor vehicles – dwarfing the number of voters who registered online, or those who registered by mail, email or fax.

Still, Swift expressed regret that he was unable to push through significant campaign finance reforms while in office. He announced in 1994 that he had decided not to run for reelection because campaigning was increasingly tedious, impersonal and expensive.

“What you have to do to get the job is something I’m just not willing to do anymore,” he told the New York Times. “Money has virtually divorced campaigning from people. Money has allowed us to professionalize campaigns, when they should be an amateur sport. I did negative research the last time. I’m appalled at what you can find out about people, all legally.”

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 as a teenager would produce a Sunday afternoon request show for patients at a tuberculosis sanatorium. By the time he graduated high school, he had become so proficient he was hired for a full-time broadcasting position at KUJ, a radio station in Walla Walla, Washington.

Swift studied at Whitman College before transferring to Central Washington University in Ellensburg, where he was offered a higher-paying job in radio and graduated in 1957.

Switching to television, he was named director of news and public affairs for KVOS-TV in Bellingham, near the Washington-Canada border. He also became active in city politics, chairing a citizens’ advisory committee on schools and serving in Bellingham’s local housing authority.

He ran a successful congressional campaign for Democrat Lloyd Meeds in 1964, and served as his administrative assistant for several years before returning to television.

When the congressman became embattled over his support of Native American tribes in a dispute with commercial fishermen, Swift rejoined his staff, expecting to oversee Meeds’s 1978 reelection campaign, his brother said. 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 married Paula Jackson, whom he had begun dating in high school, in 1956. She died in 2012. In addition to his younger brother, survivors include two daughters, Lauri Swift of Reston, Virginia, and Amy Donovan of Ellicott City, Maryland; three granddaughters; and a great-grandson.

After leaving office, Swift was vice president of government affairs for Burlington Northern Railroad and a partner at Colling Swift & Hynes, a Fairfax City, Virginia-based lobbying firm. He also returned to radio, co-hosting the weekly show “Backroom Politics” from inside a Washington cigar lounge, Shelly’s Backroom.

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