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When 250,000 people swarmed into downtown Pittsburgh for the Steelers' victory rally two days after Super Bowl XL, Ed Rendell, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, made a pro move. He stayed on the sideline--out of the parade and off the podium. Not because he's aligned with the Eagles, although he is. The former two-term mayor of Philadelphia, a manic sports fan who moonlights as a commentator on an Eagles postgame cable show, is a consummate pol, and under normal conditions he could have made the Eagles connection work for him, even in the capital of Steelers Country. But not two days after this Super Bowl, and not with his probable opponent in the November election, former Steelers star Lynn Swann, standing on a platform and rubbing the Lombardi Trophy. � Swann was number 88 again that day, celebrating with the Rooneys, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Ben Roethlisberger--and a quarter-million people who still believe that your football team is your city and your city is your football team. When some in the crowd chanted, "Gov-er-nor! Gov-er-nor!" Swann said, "This day isn't about anything but the black and gold!" Robust cheering followed. How could Rendell compete with that?
In Swann's years with the Steelers (1974 through '82, his whole pro career), when the mills and mines of western Pennsylvania were closing, he was the lithe receiver on the brutish Steel Curtain teams that won four Super Bowls. In those glory days it was Bradshaw to Swann, time and again, for the game-turning play. And after Swann retired, he did not go back to Los Angeles to hang with the guys from his USC days or to the Bay Area, where he grew up. No, he stayed in Pittsburgh. It was an old-timey thing to do, like the Colts' Art Donovan staying in Baltimore, except Swann is way buttoned-down by comparison. He joined the Republican Party and a country club. He was invited to join the boards of the H.J. Heinz Company and Hershey Entertainment and Resorts. He remained on the board of the Pittsburgh Ballet, which he had joined as a player. He bought a house in the staid town of Sewickley and enrolled his two young boys at the Sewickley Academy, a bastion of old Pittsburgh wealth. Suburban white Pittsburgh opened its arms to him. He was Swannie, the All-Pro--and in America, celebrity trumps race.
In America, in fact, celebrity trumps all. In a ballroom of the Harrisburg Hilton on Saturday, Feb. 11--38 days after he had announced his candidacy-- Swann received his party's endorsement for governor of Pennsylvania mainly for this reason: Several hundred state Republican committeemen believe he has enough star power to defeat Rendell. In his acceptance speech Swann cried. "His father was a custodian, and look where Lynn is now," said his wife, Charena, explaining her husband's tears.
"I probably shouldn't have done that," Swann later said about breaking down. Charena, who has a Ph.D. in child psychology and, like Lynn's parents, is a Democrat, had seen her husband cry only one other time: when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 2001.
Swann, 53, has spent much of his life after football with a microphone at his mouth, hosting such TV shows as Battle of the Network Stars and To Tell the Truth, speaking at charity dinners and covering college football games as a sideline reporter for ABC Sports. As a campaigner he has that move perfected by Phil Donahue, in which you wade in among your listeners even if it means turning your back to some of them. In other words, he's a natural at connecting with people.
On a Friday night in January, in the first week of his campaign, Swann spoke to several hundred people, many of them white farmers, in the rural center of Pennsylvania. Farmers are a powerful Republican force in the state, and they tend to be conservative Christians. So is Swann. There's little groove to his public speaking, but there he was, mike in hand, wading in and talking with just the tiniest hint of the rhythms of the black Baptist preachers he listened to on Sundays growing up. Swann was listing the problems that Pennsylvania faces and his cures for them when one of the menfolk yelled enthusiastically, "Preachin'!" On that night Swann found out he could connect with the state's substantial white Bible belt. It was a big moment in the making of the candidate.
From the day Swann entered the race he had a formidable Republican challenger with a 20-year head start on him: a rich white guy named Bill Scranton. A lieutenant governor in the early '80s, Scranton is the son of William W. Scranton, the popular governor of Pennsylvania in the mid-'60s. But Swann quickly became the favorite of the state's Republican establishment, leading Bill Scranton's campaign manager, Jim Seif, to say on public TV on Jan. 25 that Swann was "the rich white guy in this campaign." The statement put the Scranton campaign on the defensive, and the candidate immediately fired Seif. Two weeks later Swann, sitting in the Starbucks on Beaver Street in downtown Sewickley, received a call informing him that Scranton was dropping out of the race.
Seif's jibe to the contrary, Swann's race may help him win in November. In 2002 an estimated 263,500 African-Americans voted for Rendell. If Swann can attract just 10% of those voters--and hold on to the 46,500 black Pennsylvanians who voted Republican four years ago--it might be enough to get him elected. And among many white voters, his race may well be no issue at all. One weekday last month Swann was campaigning in a working-class Democratic district in Allentown. "Are there any black families in this neighborhood?" a reporter asked one resident, a retired union machinist and a Democratic-lever puller.
"No," the man said. "Colored's all down the hill still."
"Who are you going to vote for?"