John Sweezy, R.I.P.

Last Tuesday, I got a text from an old friend telling me that John Sweezy had died.

The name John Sweezy won’t be a familiar one to most of the people reading this blog, but for many years, John headed the Republican Party in Marion County, Indianapolis, Indiana. John served as the Republican County Chair for twenty-eight years, and during those years, the local GOP dominated Indianapolis’ political life. Much of that political success was a result of his meticulous attention to grass-roots organization: making sure that each precinct had a committee-person who polled their neighborhoods and used the information to turn out the vote on election day.

Politicians today could learn an important lesson from that grass-roots emphasis, because those regular Republican victories under John’s management were despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans 3 to 2. (John used to say he was so grateful that “Democrats don’t vote.”)

But there was another, important reason so many people (even friends of mine who were Democrats) voted Republican. John consistently threw party support to competent, sensible candidates–people who understood municipal governance and wanted to do it well. He had nothing good to say about the then-emerging Christian Taliban, and he welcomed women and minority volunteers and candidates.

I know, because I was one of those women. I had been an active volunteer, working for Dick Lugar and Bill Hudnut, among others, when Hudnut decided to appoint me Corporation Counsel. No woman had previously held that position. John was supportive–in more ways than one. Not only did he approve of Bill’s choice to place a relatively young (33) woman at the head of the city’s legal department, he did something that now, in the wake of serial scandals, seems prescient: in a private conversation, he identified the men I should avoid being alone with! Later, when I ran for Congress, he was incredibly supportive.

I still remember a number of John’s favorite sayings. My own favorite was his mantra–and firm belief– that “Good government is good politics.”

He used to say that every citizen should be required to work for government for two years, and prohibited from staying in government for more than four. It was his way of acknowledging the problems government faces when citizens are ignorant of the operation of their government and the issues involved in managing a city or state–and the sclerosis that sets in when too many people have been in office too long. (John had trained as a mechanical engineer, and had served a stint as Indianapolis’ Director of Public Works, so his attitude was informed by experience.)

Later, when the GOP stopped being the party I had worked for, the party of people like John Sweezy, I became a Democrat, and only rarely saw or spoke to John. It was my loss. (Once, after he read a particularly snarky column I’d written, John called me to say he disagreed with my point, but that he still “appreciated” me. We made vague plans to have lunch “soon,” but somehow that never happened. My fault for letting the minutiae of everyday life interfere with the importance of friendship.) Now he’s gone–and so is the party he served so well.

I miss them both. R.I.P.


  1. He was the Marion County king maker for decades that fielded Lugar , Hudnut and countless county elected officials.
    He ran a tight political ship and was the undisputed last word in Marion County Politics

  2. “Everyone should work in government two years and only stay four years.” How did he justify 28 years as ‘king-maker’? When active in IPS Board elections I was told he informed a bi-partisan coalition of parents, “you select the candidates and they will be elected.” At the same time the coalition had appealed to Hudnut to become active in those elections if not directly intervene. He honored the sovereignty of an independent school board. Surely Sweezy and Hudnut had the same goal – good governance.

  3. I remember the name but not the man; I was an Independent voter who, with five children, kept up with candidates in both parties as best I could. When my marriage fell apart and I needed a job I applied at the City-County Building among other places, simply a possible source for a job and no political inclinations involved although my mother was vice precinct committeewoman and number of years for the Republican party. When the job offer came through from City Personnel was when I learned the strength of politics in general; after beginning my job as clerk-typist in the Indianapolis Police Department I also learned the full meaning of nepotism, political patronage, sexism, racism and the lack of job qualifications if you supported the “right party”. Sorry Sheila; as I said I knew the name but not the man; we share the pride of working within Mayor Bill Hudnut’s administration as he was an exceptional Mayor and probably the last of the “real Republicans” in this state.

    Because I did not know the man I was simply going to read your article today and move on till this sentence brought back an ugly Republican memory; “He used to say that every citizen should be required to work for government for two years,…” I wonder if the conditions under which I was hired were part of his “grass-roots emphasis”? I was one with a “lack of qualifications” other than being known in my Irvington neighborhood and maybe my strong work ethic came through when I went for the final approval interview with Mr. Otto, the Republican precinct committeeman in my neighborhood. He accepted me for employment then I was required to raise my right hand to be “sworn in” and “declare my loyalty to the Republican party and would work for and support the party”. I was then required to sign the declaration of my loyalty and dedication…hell, I was desperate for a job. I was TOLD when and where to appear to “work for” the Richard Nixon reelection campaign with the implied expectation to vote for the man. Didn’t learn till I got my first paycheck that my “support” required a “2% donation” of my paycheck, in cash by the end of every payday. We stood in line to hand it over or lose our job. Five women in the police section next to my desk lost their jobs when their superior told them it was illegal to demand their “donation” and they refused. These requirements, under Mayor Richard Lugar, were in place until Mayor Bill Hudnut’s election. The “good old boy” system was eased under his direction.

    I’m sure Mr. Sweezy did a lot of good in many ways for the Republican party; but as I said, I didn’t know the man. I had to maintain my employment by following the demands of the Republican party at that time; no idea if he supported that part of the system or if his backing of Bill Hudnut as Mayor was his way to rid local government of the “good old boy” and the “loyalty declaration” system with it’s “2% donation”. I will accept your accolades of Mr. Sweezy as the primary reason Mayor Bill Hudnut led this city for 16 progressive years.

  4. You’ve written a wonderful essay about a person who surely was a good guy.
    But, out here in the country, I’m afraid our memories are centered on Republicans like William Jenner (the McCarthyite), Harold Handley ( who stabbed Gov. Craig in the back while serving as his Lt. Gov.) who declined Federal sharing of $$$ because “we can take of ourselves” thinking, and also the KKK which ran the party in the Twenties :: and sadly, they are fondly remembered out here.

  5. JoAnn, your description of the Republicans here reminded me of the Democratic Party where I grew up in the Chicago area. The Precinct Captain was expected report to the Ward Chair. The Ward Chairs held the power as the Ward Chairs determined who would run for elective office. The Precinct Captains would make sure city services were delivered and the voters kept happy. Patronage was the reward and you had to deliver the vote.

    If someone in the party had a golf outing or a dinner, you were expected to buy up a certain amount of tickets. The system worked, but it was hardly Progressive in it’s politics. The extreme Left and Right at that time could not make any footholds. The selection process eliminated them.

    When I moved to Indianapolis in late 1975, I was surprised at how anemic the Democratic Party was as an opposition party. The State Senator was a Republican in my district and was a moderate. At some point in the future he fell victim to Conservative ideology and was voted out in the Republican Primary.

  6. How many Reupublicans are still loyal to the GOP and why? What do they see that I don’t? Is it just because local and national politics are only loosely connected? Or has the silo become so insular that they and I live completely disparite lives in different worlds?

  7. I well remember that blip of progressive Teddy-like politics between the Klan of the Twenties and the right wing takeover of the Republican Party later on. It was refreshing, as was the earlier era of a progressive Republican Party that did in fact mimic “The Party of Lincoln.”

    For these modern day Republicans to call themselves “The Party of Lincoln” or the “Party of Teddy Roosevelt” is a cruel joke. That party today is a Wall Street front pure and simple. It is more of a “gang” than it is a party since its obvious purpose as openly and blatantly expressed is to further private gain while pretending to be dedicated to the public good. Propaganda and lying are providing a bridge via funding from such libertarians as the Kochs and Mercers.

    This is not the respectable Republican Party of Lincoln or Teddy or Hudnut or Lugar, and its aims and goals must be resisted because, ultimately, economic injustice (wage inequality) and political injustice (gerrymandering, voter suppression techniques etc.) will undo what is left of our democracy – by far our most precious asset held in common.

  8. Back growing up politicians would say how great an honor it was to be able to serve in government and help everyday people’s lives get better.

    Now it seems it is every pol out for themselves and secondly to push their political/religious philosophy down everyone’s throat. There is no more honor among even these thieves. For instance, Whorin’ Orrin Hatch just shipped his career down the river by proudly claiming the wingnut taxcuts for the wealthy don’t help the wealthy at all.

    My Sinator Grassley, heads the Senate Judicial Commies, stated a couple days ago that a single senator should not be allowed to hold up judicial nominees. From the party that refused to seat a large part of Obama’s picks and then refused their duty to give a Scotus pick a hearing or allow an up or down vote. No honor anywhere, anymore.

  9. Bravo to Gerald E. Stinson for summing up the current state of the GOP so well. Today’s version of the Grand Old Party is a total and vile farce and is dangerous to the very existence of this country and our way of life as Americans. What this current “gang” wants to do to us needs to be fought with every fiber of our beings. While we can certainly reminisce in regard to rational and good Republicans of the past, as I do in regard to members of my own family and many others that were actual statesmen, anything that sidetracks us all from confronting what this current crop of maniacs are doing now is, I’m very sorry to say, wasted time.

  10. JoAnn & Monotonous,

    I don’t know if they teach it in government, or civics classes, or even in history classes (if there are still such quaint courses in school). The political patronage systems you describe in Indianapolis and Chicago were the norm in most states and large cities in the U.S. for a large part of the 19th and 20th Centuries. New York, Chicago, even Kansas City were run by political machines; some Republican like in Indianapolis, but many Democratic (Harry Truman got his start working for the Pendergast machine in Kansas City). Somewhat ironically, the Federal Civil Service merit system was begun in the 1880’s for most federal government workers.

    The patronage system largely came to an end in the 1970’s (although vestiges of Chicago Mayor Richard Dailey’s Democratic machine still exist to this day in Chicago). Like any other human run system, the political machines had good and bad features. Somewhat counterintuitively, they often did provide good government service (especially if you were politically connected or donated to the right party). On the other hand, overtime, most of the big city political machines fostered large amounts of graft and corruption, i.e., see Pendergast, who was sent to federal prison for racketeering.

    As you describe, any local or state government job, which was controlled by an elected politician, required political “clearance” in order to be hired. In fact, that political clearance, which meant obtaining the approval of your precinct committeeman and Ward Chairman, was often the only real qualification needed to be hired for some government jobs.

    As an example, when I graduated from law school in the early 70’s, one of the places I applied for a job was with Republican Indiana Attorney General Ted Sendak’s office. I was told in no uncertain terms that I would not be hired as a Deputy AG unless I had the written approval of my Republican precinct committeeman (which at the time, coming from a good Republican family, I could and did obtain — nonetheless, I decided to work elsewhere). Since I never worked for Sendak, I don’t know if it was still required to give a certain amount to the Party in order to keep your job. And the same was still largely true during Steve Goldsmith’s reign as Marion County Prosecutor from 1979-1991.

    And that system is why to this very day, virtually all state and local government employees get a “holiday” day off on election days as they were required to either be working at the polls or helping get out the voters — even though few now actually “volunteer” and work the elections because for most government employees their job no longer depends on it.

    The patronage system has now been largely replaced for most state and local government jobs by merit or civil service systems in most places. At least, I don’t think you still have to prove your political bona fides to get hired as a trash collector as you once did in Indianapolis.

    But, of course, that merit system is under attack by Republicans and conservatives in many states — think Scott Walker in Wisconsin — because, according to them, merit government workers get paid too much and can’t be fired at will.

    And so it goes —

  11. David F comments: >> The patronage system has now been largely replaced for most state and local government jobs by merit or civil service systems in most places. <<<

    True statement, the however is the Privatization of government services. Privatization was and is a bigger goldmine for politicians than the precinct captain, or ward chair. Outsourcing always existed, the extreme being the government does not make F-16's, but the government buys the F-16's from some company.

  12. Nice memorial Shelia. (Barb Perry here (Don’s #2) I really enjoy reading your blog — Hello to Bob, too from Tulsa, OK.

  13. John Sweezy was a titan in local and state politics. I always respected his expertise and his attention to local organizing detail. Thank you for noting his commitment to “good government IS good politics”. He was the power behind the throne – a workhorse rather than a showhorse – who generously gave of his time and talent and made a real difference in Marion County and far beyond. He has left a legacy for all of us to benefit from and copy.

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