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Ex-Hart Press Spokesman Hasn't Given Up on Finding a Winner

November 19, 1989|WILLIAM OVEREND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If it hadn't been for a woman named Donna Rice and some reporters from the Miami Herald, Kevin Sweeney might have ended up in the White House this year as press secretary for President Gary Hart.

Sweeney thinks about that from time to time, he says. But when he does, it's with a sense of relief. If Hart's affair with Rice had never surfaced, and if his candidate had won the presidency, Sweeney thinks he probably would have been burned out by now in Washington.

"I like to go in and out of politics," Sweeney said. "I would have liked to have gotten the offer, and it would have been hard to say no. But as I look back, I don't have a single personal regret about Hart losing."

Instead of working in the White House, Sweeney is living in Ventura and learning to surf. He says he likes it here. He has free time to study Gandhi and Martin Luther King and polish his political thinking. He can dabble with the screenplay he's been writing. And he gets to go to work in a T-shirt.

As the public affairs director for Patagonia Inc., Sweeney has had the chance to try his hand at local politics. In the Ventura City Council race earlier this month, he emerged as the chief architect of the landslide win that swept three slow-growth candidates into office.

Sweeney sees himself as a kind of political "hobo" just passing through Ventura on his way to the next presidential election. But the Ventura election was a humbling experience for him, Sweeney said. He is happy that he had the chance to be involved in grass-roots politics and that he had some influence in the way the campaign was fought.

"In a small, small way, I think this city is different because I lived here," Sweeney said. "This is a hiatus for me. My plan is to get back into national politics in another couple of years. But I am glad I was able to be a part of this election because I think it has significance for a lot of other cities."

He has not yet begun to look actively for another presidential candidate to support in 1992 but is in no rush to make a decision, Sweeney said. He is good at politics, and he knows he can afford to take his time.

After the Hart campaign folded in 1987, Sweeney said, he had overtures from Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson about handling the press for their campaigns. But he needed some time off then, and he's not ready to go back yet.

At 31, Sweeney has an almost casual view of what may or may not happen next. His whole life has been a sort of easygoing flow from one thing to the next, dropping in on the nation's political mainstream, then dropping out again.

He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1980 with a degree in political science to take a job as a truck driver, then as a waiter in Washington. From there he went to a research position doing contract work for the U.S. Department of Energy. Then it was his first serious political race, the unsuccessful gubernatorial bid of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in 1982.

Sweeney kept moving in and out of the political scene. After the Bradley campaign, he took another waiter's job, at Lily's in San Francisco. He worked 20 hours a week and read 20 books on national political campaigns, then left California for Iowa in 1983 to volunteer for Hart's first presidential bid.

Between Hart's first presidential race and his second try in 1987, Sweeney served as press secretary for Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and as Hart's Senate press secretary. After the Donna Rice scandal, he spent a few weeks learning how to fly-fish in Colorado and then left the country for a bike tour through Europe.

He ended up back in San Francisco as a waiter, where Yvon and Malinda Chouinard eventually tracked him down and recruited him for Patagonia. They hired him first as a consultant on environmental politics, then let him drift away to be a political reporter and commentator for a television station in Atlanta during the 1988 elections. Then, in February, they hired him on a full-time basis.

When he was hired, there was no talk of this year's Ventura City Council race, Sweeney said. The Chouinards were primarily interested in hiring someone who could coordinate environmental programs with other companies and private groups, he says. They were offering him a "grown-up" salary and the chance to have the experience of dealing with environmental issues through a private company.

But political issues in Ventura were pushing the Chouinards toward a more active role in local politics. The Chouinards were unhappy with the City Council's support of a proposed state university on the Taylor Ranch, and they thought the city was generally moving too fast on a pro-growth course.

The timing for Patagonia could not have been more perfect. The Chouinards had reached the point where they were willing to spend heavily for council candidates generally supporting their views. And they had Sweeney's national political expertise to draw on in deciding just how the money should be spent and who should receive it.

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