Former Congressman Pat Swindall, whose church-centered campaigning pioneered modern evangelical politics in Georgia, and whose Washington career was cut short by a federal perjury conviction, died Wednesday. He was 67.
Robb Austin, who worked on Swindall’s campaigns and served as his chief of staff, posted to Facebook that the Republican died in his sleep. Swindall’s obituary said his death came as he was working on a book about the “sting and cover up” that led to his political downfall, “linking it to the larger systemic corruption in the U.S. political and governmental system.”
An attorney and former student body president at the University of Georgia, Swindall stormed onto Georgia’s political scene in 1984, when — as a 34-year-old Republican — he ousted five-term incumbent Democrat Elliott Levitas, who represented northeast metro Atlanta.
“Not many people gave Pat a chance to win that race,” said Austin, his campaign manager that year. “It was an uphill climb, but he was a dynamic, forever-young kind of candidate.”
It was Swindall’s first attempt at elected office.
His upset victory was built on a wide, suburban network of church activists driven by their opposition to abortion. The strength of what would become known as the “religious right” was still largely untested, and the approach was foreign to Democratic-dominated Georgia. Swindall attacked Levitas as an out-of-control Washington liberal.
“He was a conservative firebrand before they became in vogue,” said Jay Morgan, a lobbyist and former Georgia GOP executive director who was working for the Republican National Committee at the time. “He was the embodiment of young Reaganites, if you will. That’s what made him so attractive as a candidate.”
A DeKalb County resident, Swindall joined Newt Gingrich as one of only two Republican members of the U.S. House from Georgia. Mack Mattingly, a third Republican, was finishing out his single term in the U.S. Senate.
Buddy Darden, a Democrat serving in the U.S. House at the time, said Swindall made an effort to get along with the Democrats in the delegation.
“We were all friends of Elliott Levitas and regretted losing a very valuable and bright colleague, but at the same time (Swindall) was our colleague and … we got along and communicated and tried to work together on the issues that we could involving the state,” Darden said.
Swindall quickly earned a reputation as an uncompromising Reagan conservative, especially on budget issues. Washington magazine gave Swindall its “Straight Arrow” award in 1986, and he was re-elected to the 4th District seat the same year.
Many of Swindall’s colleagues expected him to ascend to higher statewide office.
“He was a young, energetic and very charismatic guy,” Darden said. “If he hadn’t gotten in that trouble, I think it’s likely he could have been governor of Georgia or maybe a U.S. senator.”
But in 1987, in an effort to finance his new $1.2 million home in Stone Mountain, Swindall accepted a $150,000 check from Charles LeChasney, who was later accused of laundering drug money. Swindall returned the check several days later.
Even so, he was later indicted on a charge of lying about the exchange before a federal grand jury. The prosecutor was Bob Barr, a fellow Republican who himself would be elected to Congress several years later.
Despite his indictment, Swindall sought a third term in Congress. He maintained a loyal core of followers. That summer in 1988, when Georgia delegates to the Republican National Convention found themselves bitterly split between presidential candidates George H.W. Bush and Pat Robertson, the television evangelist, Swindall was the compromise choice as chairman of the delegation.
Despite continued support from Christian evangelicals, Swindall lost that November to Democrat Ben Jones, best known for playing the role of Cooter in the TV series “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
The now former congressman was convicted in June 1989 and sentenced to a year in prison and a $30,000 fine. He fought the conviction for five years. In January 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal, and he began his prison sentence shortly afterward, serving 8 1/2 months in a minimum-security facility.
At the time, he and his wife, Kim, had seven children ranging in age from 3 to 9. Swindall occupied himself by lifting weights and working as a prison landscaper and librarian. He wrote mini-reviews of the prison’s religious videotapes.
“The toughest part is when you get there, the shame, the humiliation, the concern about your family,” Swindall told a reporter in 2000. “You don’t know how your child or your wife will handle it. In terms of the actual physical experience, it’s like going to a high school where you can’t leave campus. It’s claustrophobic, which is the extent of it. The toughest part is the humiliation of it.”
Afterward, Swindall always maintained his innocence, but he kept a low profile, operating several flea markets, including one at 82 Peachtree St. He also hosted a Christian talk show on a local radio station. Swindall did continue to closely follow politics, and he kept in touch with many of his former colleagues until the end of his life.
Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston first got to know Swindall while he was a thirtysomething serving as one of only a few dozen Republicans in the Georgia House.
“Here’s a guy who was just a few years older than me elected to the U.S. Congress. He was our hero,” Kingston said. “He was a good-looking guy, fun, articulate, good family man and good Christian story. I just think that he put a lot of pizazz into (politics).”
Patrick Lynn Swindall was born in Gadsden, Ala., on Oct. 18, 1950, one of four children born to Nathan and June Swindall. Nathan Swindall operated the Atlanta Furniture Store at Butler and Decatur streets. Pat Swindall worked in the furniture store as a youngster and would later manage the business. In 1972, Swindall graduated from the University of Georgia, where he also earned his law degree in 1975.
He is survived by his wife, seven children and several nieces, nephews and sons-in-law.
A visitation will be held Saturday at Cromwell Brothers Funeral Home in Peachtree Corners. A memorial service is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at the Vine Community Church in Cumming.