The word through the grapevine was that “something really bad” was unfolding in House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan’s congressional campaign, so Tom Swan sent Donovan a simple text message: “You’ve got a friend.”
Less than 48 hours later, Swan faced reporters as Donovan’s new campaign manager, vouching for his friend’s character, fighting a slight case of the flu and doing his level best not to drop an f-bomb on camera.
Those who know both men say no one should be surprised that Donovan would turn to the pugnacious, perpetually rumpled Swan to take over a campaign rocked by the FBI’s arrest of its top fundraiser — or that Swan would accept.
“They are that close,” said Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, a friend to both. “This isn’t just a political decision.”
Swan sheepishly told friends later that he accepted the 24/7 exercise in crisis management without consulting his wife, Suzanne Haviland, whose union job requires frequent travel, meaning their 15-month-old daughter, Mirae, was introduced early to take-your-daughter-to-work day.
Mirae was in Swan’s arms Wednesday during a rally in support of Donovan outside Connecticut Education Association headquarters near the State Capitol. She grabbed a reporter’s necktie — a garment seldom seen on her father — as Swan talked to the press after the event.
His face settled into a scowl as he listened to media questions, even though Swan actually was in a light mood. He enjoys joking with the press, but the scowl is Swan’s default expression, responsible for a long series of unflattering news photos over the years.
There is no playbook for what faces Donovan and Swan, at least not in Connecticut.
With 10 weeks until the Democratic primary, Swan has to rebuild the campaign’s fundraising capacity, reassure supporters that Donovan still is viable and rev up a field organization — all while he keeps one eye on the feds.
For reasons still unknown, the campaign’s fundraising was the target of a federal sting: an undercover agent posed as a businessman interested in killing a proposed tax on roll-your-own cigarettes.
The agent delivered two $10,000 donations on the condition that the campaign hide his identity, a violation of federal law. Last Wednesday, the FBI interviewed Donovan and arrested the campaign’s finance director, Robert Braddock Jr.
Swan’s joining the campaign for the 5th Congressional District race gives Donovan the services of the man who managed Ned Lamont’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 2006. It also is the first of what Donovan hopes will be the first in a series of public reaffirmations of support.
“In the circumstances Donovan finds himself in, Tom is perfect for the job,” said Tom D’Amore, a former Republican state chairman who backed Lamont six years ago. “My guess is the primary thing is he trusts him, and that is probably as important as Tom’s competence.”
For the “Stand with Chris” rally Wednesday, the campaign used emails and social media to generate a crowd of union leaders and other activists who have worked with Donovan.
Lori Pelletier, the secretary-treasuer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said the labor federation has scored state legislators on 55 votes since 1998. “And not one time did he vote against working families,” Pelletier told the crowd. “That’s why we’re here today.”
Swan said the campaign already proved over the weekend it was maintaining grass-roots support. About 150 volunteers campaigned door-to-door in Danbury, Waterbury, New Britain and Meriden to mark the opening of satellite headquarters, Swan said.
“I guarantee you that is multiple times more than any candidate in this race had,” Swan said, calling it a show of support for “the only person in the race who will fight for Connecticut’s working families.”
Swan, 50, is the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, which once employed Donovan as an organizer. In 19 years with CCAG, he has worked closely with Donovan on issues ranging from universal health care to campaign finance reform.
His wife, Suzanne, who works for AFSCME International, was a volunteer on Donovan’s first successful campaign for the General Assembly in 1992.
Swan was at Donovan’s house in Meriden Thursday morning, hours before the story of the FBI investigation and Braddock’s arrest became public. FBI agents had interviewed Donovan the previous day, apparently informing him of the investigation.
After sending Donovan the supportive text message, Donovan summoned him to come discuss the future of the campaign. Swan said he did not visit expecting to leave as the new campaign manager.
“I probably had an inkling [the job would be offered], but I probably was in denial,” Swan said.
Lamont, who defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic primary, only to push Lieberman into running and winning as a petitioning candidate that fall, said Swan was among the few willing to take on his campaign against an entrenched senator.
“If you want a friend in a foxhole, there is nobody better than Tom Swan,” said Lamont, who has written two $2,500 checks to Donovan’s congressional campaign.
D’Amore, now a political independent, said he has twice spoken to Swan in the past week, but he demurred when asked to describe their conversations. D’Amore was Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.’s co-chief of staff with Stanley Twardy, a former U.S. attorney whom Swan has hired to conduct an internal investigation.
John Murphy, a CCAG organizer now running for the state House, said Swan has the ability to reassure the activist community that the campaign will be stabilized.
“Chris turns to Tom as someone he felt was one of the few persons, or only person, in the state who could pull this out and restore credibility to the campaign,” Murphy said.
Swan is a visible member of the network of left-leaning, grass-roots activists often influential in Democratic primaries. His work on the Lamont campaign gave him a national profile.
He is a man with with deep loyalties, passionate grudges and a long memory for times when politicians disappointed on issues. The Lamont campaign was fueled by opposition to the war in Iraq, but Swan had soured on Lieberman in the early 1990s over the senator’s failure to embrace health-care reform.
Tercyak recalls Swan, who grew up in Syracuse, refusing to join him in the late 1990s in courtside seats at a UConn-Syracuse basketball game. The reason: Swan knew Tercyak had bought the tickets through a friend in Lieberman’s office.
Instead of courtside, Swan sat in nosebleed seats he purchased elsewhere. The mere mention of Lieberman today can provoke Swan, whose language can run blue when he isn’t in the presence of microphones — or his daughter, Mirae.
Swan and his wife had given up on having children when Suzanne got pregnant in 2010, when he was 48. A political bomb-thrower who happily did battle with Lieberman and Gov. John G. Rowland, Swan now is a father quick to show off baby pictures on his iPhone.
He mentioned his daughter in vouching for Donovan at his first campaign press conference Friday outside the State Capitol
“I want to start off and say, unequivocally, Chris did nothing wrong, and if I thought for one second there was a question about that, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” Swan said. “I have a beautiful 15-month-old daughter that I’d much rather be hanging out [with] on Coventry Lake.”
In his new job, success or failure ultimately may be determined by what else, if anything, the FBI and U.S. attorney intend to say or do about the case before the primary. No evidence in the public domain implicates Donovan in any wrongdoing, but the most intriguing question is what prompted the FBI sting.
Swan said he can live with the uncertainty.
Swan, who once was a hard-drinking rugby player, quit drinking before coming to Connecticut nearly 20 years ago. Swan said his approach to the campaign and its troubles draws on what he’s learned staying sober: He intends to focus on the things in his control.