Hours before the U.S. Attorney’s office Thursday afternoon announced Wednesday’s arrest of Chris Donovan’s finance director, Tom Swan met with the congressional candidate and agreed to take over as manager of his soon-to-be-embattled campaign.
“There was stuff going through the grapevine,” Swan, a long time friend and political ally of Donovan’s, recalled in an interview Tuesday.
Swan said his wife, Suzanne, suggested he contact Donovan.
“Suzanne said, ‘He’s going to want to talk to somebody. Reach out,'” Swan said. “I texted him. He texted back and asked if I could meet.”
Donovan, the retiring state House Speaker, won the Democratic endorsement in May but faces an August primary made tougher by the scandal. His finance director, Robert Braddock Jr., is accused of concealing the source of donations promised in return for Donovan’s killing a General Assembly bill to tax roll-your-own cigarettes.
Donovan at a press conference Sunday said he was innocent and knew nothing about the roll-your-own legislation.
Swan, a veteran of Democratic political campaigns, notably Ned Lamont’s 2006 bid for U.S. Senate, said the thought of taking over Donovan’s might have crossed his mind during the Thursday morning drive to the candidate’s Meriden home.
“In many ways I was going to see a friend who was having a bad day,” Swan said.
Following an hour or so conversation between the two, Swan was hired to replace Joshua Nassi, another Donovan associate who was fired following Braddock’s arrest.
In doing so Swan temporarily left his post as executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG). The good-government organization at one time employed Donovan as an organizer. Nassi also spent time at CCAG.
The new job also means time away from Swan’s nearly 15-month-old daughter, Mirae.
“I am very fortunate I have such a supportive and understanding family,” he said.
Swan said before agreeing to join the campaign Thursday he asked Donovan the toughest question of all.
“When it was clear where we were headed, I needed to ask the unthinkable and I asked Chris. I looked him in the eye. He made it clear he had done nothing wrong and had not been a part of whatever this is,” Swan said.
Observers say because of his loud and consistent voice for good government and clean elections in Hartford, Swan is perhaps the best choice to help Donovan salvage his chances for higher office.
Swan is, after all, the man who during the Lamont campaign called Waterbury, home of a couple politicians-turned-felons (ex-Mayor Phillip Giordano and ex-Gov. John Rowland), a place “where the forces of slime meet the forces of evil.”
“Look, nobody is a stronger advocate for clean money and campaign finance reform than Tom Swan,” Lamont said Tuesday. “When Tom Swan lends his endorsement to a campaign, he’s endorsing the candidate and the integrity of the system.”
Al Simon, deputy mayor of Windsor, agreed. Simon wants Donovan to win his race and has traveled in the same progressive circles as Swan, meeting at events and demonstrations.
“Clearly something went wrong with the people Donovan hired. I think it encourages Donovan supporters to have someone like Swan there. It’s part of the same fraternity of organizing people who’ve been working for political and social justice forever,” Simon said.
Swan, 50, met Donovan in the early 1990s, when Donovan was first elected to the legislature and Swan took over CCAG.
“He’d been with the organization previously and so fairly early on he was one of the people who I was encouraged to get to know and work with,” Swan said.
Attorney General George Jepsen, who joined Lamont’s 2006 campaign as chairman, said Swan is “a very good choice for where they (the Donovan campaign) are now.”
“He brings credibility and a very clear message that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is not backing away from its support for Chris Donovan,” Jepsen said.
Swan also managed state Sen. Ed Meyer’s, D-Guilford legislative campaign in 2004, similarly taking over after Meyer’s manager departed prior to the election.
“I think it will help Chris,” Meyer said. “Tom is a very savvy guy. He pushes you to the limit as a candidate. Makes you work very hard. I remember Tom saying I had to make three hours of telephone calls every day and he sat next to me to be sure I did that. Tom had a very acute sense of the political jugular, of how to win. He’s an extremely effective political leader. And Chris Donovan is fortunate to have him in his corner.”
But Meyer said the fact Swan remains behind Donovan does not allay his personal reservations.
“I think Tom is acting out of a loyalty for a progressive tradition. I honor that. I respect that,” Meyer said. “But Chris Donovan has had a campaign finance director who appears to have violated the law and the question is why Representative Donovan was not overseeing that (and) what he knew about it? … I think he would help the party most by retiring from the primary and ending questions he himself is not willing to answer.”
Told that some observers believe Swan’s judgement could be impaired by his friendship with Donovan, Swan said, “People are entitled to their opinions. I’m confident in what I’ve said and what I’m doing.”
Asked what message he hoped his joining Donovan’s campaign sent, Swan said, “It was about Chris, right? I wanted people to be reminded that Chris has been the biggest fighter for clean government and that he wasn’t stopping the fight now. He was in it to win it.”