People in television often talk about someone who "leaps off the screen." This is a much sought after quality and one that commands big bucks at contract time.
This weekend, Pennsylvania Republican Governor Mark Schweiker leapt off the screen and into the consciousness of Americans watching the gripping story of the miners trapped in western Pennsylvania. Schweiker, who has a Mel Gibson look in jeans and tousled hair, took charge of the situation and became the voice of optimism and clarity during the long three-and-a-half-day drama. By Sunday morning, the man who has been governor for just 10 months and is barely known even by most Pennsylvanians, was on the front page of newspapers and television sets across the country announcing the rescue of all nine of "our guys."
"He's a rarity in politics: a man who doesn't know how to be a phony," Terry Madonna, a political analyst from Millersville, Pa., told the Los Angeles Times. "What people saw was a genuinely decent person." This decent person assured the minors' families that they would find out what was happening before the media was told; he comforted them and kept his word.
What people didn't see was a candidate for governor. Schweiker served as lieutenant governor for six years to the very visible Tom Ridge; he became governor on October 5 when Ridge was named by President Bush to head the Office of Homeland Security. Almost immediately, Schweiker said he would keep his promise to his family and not run for governor himself.
Schweiker, 49, was a Bucks County commissioner and a management consultant before becoming lieutenant governor. His only prior experience at a disaster site came on September 11 in Shanksville, Pa., after the crash of United Airlines Flight 93.
There was some speculation when Ridge suddenly left office that Schweiker would change his mind and run. But he decided stay put and Democratic operatives are very happy today that he's not on the ticket. The Republican candidate, Pennsylvania Attorney General Mark Fisher, is somewhat charismatically challenged and is running behind Democratic former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell by 13 to 15 points.
Democratic media consultant Neil Oxman compared Schweiker's prominence over the last few days to former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburg's rise during the Three Mile Island crisis in the 1970s. Comparisons to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was transformed overnight from lame-duck mayor to local and national healer, were everywhere.
Being lame ducks may actually have helped both men during these crises. Last October, Schweiker's longtime adviser David Sanko predicted that this would make him a more effective governor.
"It's liberating. By virtue of not being a candidate, he gets to truly be seen as a governor," Sanko said. "If he had said he was going to run or merely kept that option open, every decision he made would have been seen through that light." There was no hint of politics or opportunism last weekend.
One local weatherman in Pennsylvania asked on the air last week, "Is there any way I can write this guy's name on the ballot?" Unlike Giuliani, who had a brief flirtation with trying to stay on after his term expired, Schweiker says he's prepared to leave, and most think he'll command a big salary in private industry.
But Democratic consultant Oxman says those three and a half days with the miners have opened up new future political possibilities for Schweiker. "Let him go and raise his family. In five years he can come back and run for anything."