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Political Father Now 'Good Dad'

Kevin Sweeney, who helped spark Ventura County's slow-growth movement, returns to sign books and do his duty as a parent.

April 28, 2003|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Kevin Sweeney rolled back into Ventura County the other day, with his 16-year-old stepdaughter riding shotgun in their gold Honda hybrid and two long surfboards cinched to the top.

They stopped at an old hangout near the Faria Beach house that they rented the summer he taught her to surf. This time they were fulfilling a rite of spring by shopping for the right college for Hannah, who graduates from high school next year.

See a campus, hit the surf.

"Hannah and I are driving the coast and surfing along the way," Sweeney said, laughing. "It's a rough stereotype, but someone has to uphold it in California."

It was a fitting return for the lanky red-bearded Sweeney, 44, now a Bay Area environmental consultant, whose love for things natural brought him to Ventura 15 years ago to help sow the seeds of a ballot-box revolution.

It also brought him back in 1995, after a stint in the Clinton administration, to raise a family and nudge along a local growth-control movement seen by urban planning experts as one of the most successful in the country.Sweeney came back this time not only to do his duty as a dad, but to promote a new book about his quest, as a boy, fatherless at age 3, who secretly sought out three father figures to serve as role models.

The thin memoir -- to be released before Father's Day -- is the outgrowth of an essay Sweeney published following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He hopes to reach the families of World Trade Center victims and encourage men in their communities to reach out to surviving children.

"I do have advice for the men in the Bronx and Queens and Staten Island and all around New York and Arlington, [Va.] who might find themselves haunted by kids who keep hanging around, or look like they might want to: Laugh at the bad jokes and tell some that you remember from fourth grade; ask about their batting stance and whether it changes with two strikes; go to a movie -- even the new Martin Lawrence movie -- then go again. Look them in the eye when you ask how they're doing.

"And remember: You don't need to be perfect. You just need to show up."

Sweeney, who moved to the San Francisco Bay Area community of Piedmont in 1999, will return to Ventura County next month for a bookstore reading in rural Ojai, where he put down roots a few years ago with his new wife, stepdaughter and baby girl, Julia.

His family would probably still be there, enjoying the slow life beneath giant oak trees, Sweeney said, had opportunity not knocked for his wife, Jennifer Foote Sweeney, a journalist who became an editor at Salon.com in San Francisco.

It was Ojai, in fact, that pioneered Ventura County's slow-growth movement in the 1970s, halting the widening of two-lane state Highway 33 and thus blocking large-scale development.

While individual candidates and environmental groups scored slow-growth victories during the 1970s and '80s, it was not until Sweeney took control of the political arm of Ventura-based outdoor clothing company Patagonia that the greening of county politics became a broader campaign.

Only 30, Sweeney, former press secretary to U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, brought Capitol Hill savvy to a Ventura City Council election in 1989. The slow-growth candidates he backed sought to block construction of a new Cal State University campus on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

He schooled that group of Ventura activists -- including current Supervisor Steve Bennett, who co-founded the SOAR anti-sprawl movement years later -- in the nuances of grass-roots environmental organizing, and shocked the political establishment by sweeping a new council majority into office.

The next year, Patagonia helped bankroll the astounding upset victory by 25-year-old political novice Maria VanderKolk for county supervisor.

"I'm proud of the work I did there to get things started, but these guys have taken it to another level," Sweeney said. "I had to pull the car over the other day to listen to Steve Bennett on a national radio program. I listen to him today, and I'm very much the student."

While Sweeney was Patagonia's point man, he would often sneak away to the company's on-site day care center, where he'd hang out with the kids.

"I was conscious at the time of parenting," he recalled. "I had a dozen nieces and nephews. And I thought, 'I like kids. I don't have any of my own, and I may never have.' It was a blast."

Unsuccessful in a run for Congress in 1992, Sweeney returned to Washington as the top communications aide to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. He helped reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park and even occasionally counseled President Clinton.

"The wolf thing was just the most fun," he said. "I got to help carry the third wolf back into Yellowstone, a 110-pound male.... I got to look into its eyes."

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