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Swallow learned responsibility early

John Swallow is persistent.

He doesn't like to give up. He doesn't like to lose. He knows what it's like to have responsibility thrown upon him — and have to perform.

He learned much of that after turning 9 years old, when his father was killed "in a stupid accident" in St. George.

"I was the oldest boy" in the six-child family, recalls Swallow, 41. "And so I had to grow up, try to help out" his suddenly widowed mother.

Losing a father relatively early is something Swallow shares with his Democratic opponent, Jim Matheson, whom Swallow is facing for the second time in Utah's 2nd Congressional District race. Matheson's father died when the two-term congressman was 30 years old.

The death of Swallow's father shook the family's core. They moved to live with Swallow's mother's parents in Juneau, Alaska, for three years.

Then they moved to Orem, where his mother met and married a Nevada rancher named Richard Swallow, who adopted the children and John took his stepfather's last name. The family then moved to Spring Valley, Nev. (whose name is a lot prettier than the actual place).

All told, Swallow moved five times before high school graduation. And he knows hard times.

As a teenager in Orem, he picked blueberries in Shinner's orchard. "I earned 6 cents a pound. And my goal was to pick 100 pounds so I could pay the $6 it took to fill up the gas tank of our old white Impala station wagon.

"I became a leader in the family. Kind of breadwinner when I was 12 or 13 years old. But I have no complaints."

Swallow realizes now he was growing quickly into manhood — taking on a job, finishing it, helping support the family.

Laying pipe

His stepdad's Nevada operation was a 600-acre hay farm. It was John's job to move the sprinkler pipes daily — hard, physical labor.

"You had to move the pipe. If you didn't, the hay didn't get watered. It died," Swallow said. "Failure wasn't an option."

At 16 he drove 40 miles into town and back, took care of chores, finished his school work, did what was required. "I really felt mature at 16. I had a lot of freedom. I was responsible with it."

And one day, the sweat running down his arms, stinging the scrapes from freshly cut hay, Swallow said he made a decision: "I was not going to be a rancher. I was going to college, get an education, go to law school, wear a suit," and just maybe run for political office.

And so he went about it in a kind of lay-the-pipe manner.

First a Spanish-speaking LDS mission to Los Angeles, "where I learned to speak Spanish with an L.A. accent."

Then Brigham Young University, undergraduate degree in psychology, then a law degree.

At 23 he met and married Suzanne Ceader; the couple now has five children.

One of Swallow's first big career decisions came after one year of law school. As a young couple, the Swallows met Brad Pelo and his young wife.

Pelo was starting his own "little software company, and I asked John to join me" in the firm. Ultimately, Pelo made millions of dollars when the firm sold out.

"I asked John to leave school and work with me full time, be a partner," says Pelo.

"But I wanted to be a lawyer," said Swallow, who declined, even though he was greatly tempted.

Trusted friend

"I was just drawn to John," recalls Pelo. "His genial nature. We were in the same student (LDS) ward, both newlyweds and our wives were pregnant with the first child at the same time. We've remained friends since."

Boyd Craig and his wife also became close friends with the Swallows at BYU, when the Swallows lived in the basement apartment of the home the Craigs were in.

And over the years, both Craig and Pelo have seen a side of Swallow not caught in the tough campaign ads or stump speeches. They see a trusted friend who stands by you in hard times, giving solid advice.

"I was a victim of white collar crime" several years ago, says Pelo. And while Swallow was not Pelo's personal attorney, he "counseled me on the trauma of being cheated" out of big money, Pelo says.

"He got me to understand that I had to let go of the anger part of it, let go of the vengeance" as the court case seeking reimbursement continued. "Over the two-year process he became a trusted adviser — it was a life-changing experience."

Recently Craig's father fell suddenly ill and was rushed to the hospital. Craig's wife called the Swallows and others from the emergency waiting room, letting them know what had happened and saying things were not looking good.

"We called late that night and soon, in walks John and Suzanne to sit with us in the waiting room," says Craig.

After law school, Swallow went to work in a local law firm, where he became a partner in five years. He left the firm in the late 1990s to work as in-house counsel for one of the firm's clients, Silver Sage, a dietary supplement company. He left there to run his 2002 congressional campaign against Matheson.

After that loss, Pelo renewed an employment offer, this time to be president of a new high-tech firm, On International, which Pelo is financing.

On International is trying to develop a revolutionary lighting system, says Swallow, one that would use solid state "cool" technology to develop commercial and residential lighting.

Never stopped running

Swallow says his move into politics was gradual, an extension of his desire to be involved in public policy and decision-making.

A Sandy resident, Swallow says he wasn't interested in getting into city politics, which in Sandy can get ugly. Instead, Swallow looked toward the Legislature. But in 1996, when he decided to make his move, his home House seat was held by another Republican. Swallow started organizing anyway, seeking support. And in the end, the incumbent got out of the race and Swallow got in.

Swallow served from 1997 to 2002, winning re-election twice. Observers thought he might try to climb the rungs of Utah House leadership. But he had higher sights.

Swallow said he considered running against GOP incumbent U.S. Rep. Merrill Cook in 2000 — as Cook languished in the polls and rumors of intra-party challengers flew. But Swallow doesn't have personal wealth and couldn't afford nor raise the money needed to run against Cook.

When Cook was defeated in the 2000 GOP primary — but the party's nominee fell to Matheson that fall — Swallow saw his chance.

So did 11 other Republicans who got into the 2002 2nd District race along with Swallow.

The GOP-controlled Legislature, of which Swallow was a member, had redrawn Matheson's 2nd District in 2001, making it more Republican. Swallow's Sandy home was left in the 2nd District, although Swallow maintains he kept his hands off the 2nd District redistricting because he knew he was running for the seat.

Swallow and fellow Republican Tim Bridgewater struggled out of the candidate-packed 2002 convention and into a bitter primary that Swallow won. But hard feelings remained, and Bridgewater never endorsed him.

The two met again this year in another even more bitter primary in June. Bridgewater has not endorsed Swallow this year, as well, and now Matheson is running a TV ad quoting a previous Bridgewater statement disparaging Swallow's campaign tactics.

In November 2002 vote, Matheson won re-election by less than one percentage point. The narrow defeat clearly left a mark on Swallow, who never really stopped running after that vote.

By January 2003, Swallow was visiting Washington, D.C., talking to leading GOP House members and political action committees. The Club For Growth, a pro-business, anti-tax, anti-government group, agreed to take Swallow's challenge on this year. The club — which is already making a political impact after only three years of operation — bundles individuals' contributions together and sends them on to their chosen candidates.

The club has funneled Swallow more than $220,500 this year, or about 13 percent of the $1.7 million he's raised so far.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has dumped more than $650,000 into the race, running TV ads, sending out direct mail and making automated telephone calls.

And, like 2002, Utah's 2nd District is getting a lot of national attention, one of maybe 2 dozen House seats that are actually competitive.

If he loses Nov. 2 — something Swallow doesn't believe will happen — Swallow says he will do something that is uncharacteristic of his lifelong habit of never leaving a job undone: "I'll take a vacation from politics."

"If we don't prevail in this race, I'll get very busy with On International and find other ways to contribute. I'll take a rest (from politics). I can't imagine running three times in row (against Matheson), having lost twice."