Politics & Government

8-term Washington congressman, Tacoma native, Al Swift dies at 82

Al Swift represented the 2nd Congressional District in northwest Washington, first winning election in 1979. The Lincoln High School grad and onetime broadcaster was known as a telecommunications, energy and environmental policy wonk.
Al Swift represented the 2nd Congressional District in northwest Washington, first winning election in 1979. The Lincoln High School grad and onetime broadcaster was known as a telecommunications, energy and environmental policy wonk. The Seattle Times

Al Swift, a broadcaster turned eight-term Democratic congressman from Washington who played a key role in modernizing Pacific Northwest energy regulation and establishing the so-called “motor-voter” law to increase voter registration, died Friday in Alexandria, Virginia, family members said Saturday.

Mr. Swift, 82, had recently been diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease unrelated to smoking, according to a daughter and the former congressman’s brother. Since he retired from Congress in 1995, Mr. Swift had lived and worked as a lobbyist in Alexandria near his two daughters and several grandchildren.



Mr. Swift represented the 2nd Congressional District in northwest Washington, first winning election in 1979. Known as a policy wonk and bipartisan collaborator drawn to complex issues, Mr. Swift served on the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee. In his first term, he worked to pass the Northwest Power Act — groundbreaking legislation that modernized regulation and conservation of hydroelectric energy generation for Washington and three other Northwest states.

Mr. Swift later worked to help deregulate the telecommunications industry and on various environmental issues, according to his former staff members.

“He was the quintessential statesman,” said Jill McKinnie, a former district director. “He loved the institution, he loved his job. He would reach across to both sides of the aisle, and really got a lot done.”

Born in 1935 in Tacoma, Mr. Swift was the older of two sons of a truck driver for Coca-Cola. The family lived on Tacoma’s McKinley Hill, with both boys attending the city’s public schools. Mr. Swift met his future wife, Paula Jackson, at age 12, and the two had their first date while students at Lincoln High School, according to the family.

“He became very interested in radio as a young boy, so interested he set up a mock radio station in our back bedroom,” recalled his younger brother, Larry Swift, of Lacey.

Mr. Swift attended Whitman College in Walla Walla from 1953 to 1955, and he worked for a local radio station before moving to Ellensburg for a higher-paying radio job. He graduated from Central Washington University in 1957.

After college, he was hired by KVOS-TV in Bellingham, where he was director of news and public affairs and won a regional Emmy for his work on a program introducing children to tidal pool creatures.

Mr. Swift left TV broadcasting to serve as administrative assistant for 2nd District congressman Lloyd Meeds, then later ran for — and won — the seat when Meeds retired.

As a member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Mr. Swift chaired the subcommittee with authority over the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund sites, railroads, the Federal Trade Commission, and the National Transportation Safety Board, among other entities.

“He was a workingman’s Democrat,” said Drew Pettus, a Bellingham lawyer who served as Mr. Swift’s chief of staff. “Slightly to the liberal side, but for all the years he was in Congress, he was able to work with Republicans.”

Mr. Swift was preceded in death by his wife, Paula. He is survived by his daughters, Lauri Swift, and Amy Donovan, and Amy’s spouse, Daniel; grandchildren Shannon, Meghan and Jackson; and great-grandson Reed.

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