Flamboyance comes naturally for Libertarian

Wednesday, October 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:30 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

According to the 2000 Census, 97.6 percent of Americans have telephone access at home.

John Swenson, the Libertarian candidate for governor, is not one of them.

A native of Kirbyville, a small town nestled in the hills northwest of Branson, Swenson said he isn’t about to pay for something he doesn’t use.

However, if the unthinkable happens this November, that may change.

“If I’m made governor, I’ll probably have to use a phone,” he said.

In September, Swenson defeated a party rival in the primary election to become the Libertarian Party’s gubernatorial nominee for the second consecutive election.

Although Swenson, 64, missed the party’s convention because of a conflicting court appearance concerning a utility bill and was listed second on the ballot to party favorite Randall Langkraehr, he still managed to win the nomination, drawing 53.7 percent of the nearly 4,000 votes cast. “That upset some people,” Libertarian Party Chairman Greg Tlapek said. “I like John, but others could have represented us better to more people.”

Tlapek said he hasn’t spoken with Swenson in more than a month.

“He’s pretty Libertarian, I think,” Tlapek said. “He’s a nice enough guy, but he’s definitely unconventional.”

When interviewed at his home, a sparsely decorated trailer set on a gravel-strewn lot between a busy state highway and a rock quarry, Swenson promised to repeal the state income tax and restore the gold standard.

“I don’t exactly know how to put it into words, but the government should stay the hell out of our business,” Swenson said. “Some things I’d like to get across. Right now, I’m not well-organized.”

Known for his flamboyant behavior at candidate forums and debates, Swenson is not afraid to speak his mind.

“I’m running so I can speak my opinions,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a big animal trainer — elephants and jackasses.”

Ticket trouble

Recently, Mike Ferguson, the Libertarian candidate for lieutenant governor, made news when he said he was voting for Republican nominee Matt Blunt instead of Swenson.

“He’s an embarrassment to our party,” Ferguson said. “He has no basic understanding of the issues, much less a working knowledge.”

Ferguson said he first met Swenson at a Missouri Press Association forum earlier this year and was disgusted by what he saw as grandstanding and a lack of respect for Blunt and Democratic nominee Claire McCaskill.

“He does not represent the party. I don’t know why he’s running for office. He seems to be more of a gadfly than anything,” Ferguson said. “Not only does he have no message, he detracts from our message.”

Swenson said he can’t understand why Ferguson would attack someone in his own party.

“That’s quite a kick in the pants,” he said, pausing to spit tobacco into an empty health-shake can. “I’m not trying to hurt the party. They’re doing their thing and I’m doing mine.”

An unconventional path

John Michael Swenson was born July 4, 1940, in Waukon, Iowa. His family moved to Missouri when he was a child and after high school, he spent four years in the Navy. Following his time in the service, he worked for 17 years in New Burling, Wis., as a traveling salesman before relocating after a divorce.

After six months in Oklahoma City working at an oil valve factory, Swenson moved back to Branson to start his own business steam-washing engines.

“Like the fellow said, I bought myself my own job,” Swenson said.

He bounced around to several other jobs and divorced for a second time. He retired and moved his trailer back to his parents’ homestead in Kirbyville after his oldest son died of a heart ailment in 1996.

“It tore my guts out,” Swenson said. He said he has good relations with his other three children, Peter, Rebecca and Mindy, who are all in their 30s.

He took his first shot at politics when he made a failed run for the Republican nomination for governor in the 1996. Four years later, he returned with a successful bid for the Libertarian nomination.Ferguson attributes Swenson’s success to the party’s inability to field a competent candidate to oppose him. Swenson isn’t so sure.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just like throwing the dice.”

A local favorite

Most days, Swenson grabs lunch at nearby Dillon’s Pub, a dimly lit pool hall and restaurant with a local crowd, friendly staff, cigarette machine, classic-rock jukebox and menu that boasts 20 varieties of hamburgers.

The staff said he comes in every day around 11 a.m. with his girlfriend, Ida, and orders the same meal: a plain, large hamburger.

“They call it ‘the Governor,’ ” Swenson said. “They like to give me the raspberries.” At a time when candidates for statewide office are out on the road every day campaigning for votes, Swenson doesn’t seem to have a clear plan for bolstering his cause before Election Day.

“I’m filling out a lot of questionnaires and going to meetings,” he said. “I’ve got a place over at Farmington, a couple of things I was going to attend, but they’ve been canceled.”

Swenson’s chances of winning this November are extremely slim. In 2000, he received only 0.5 percent of the vote.

When asked why voters should choose him when they step into the ballot boxes on Nov. 2, Swenson had no ready answer. But his neighbor and tenant, Brian Larson, said that after closely examining the two major candidates, he was convinced his landlord was the man for the job.

“He’s got to be better than the rest,” Larson said. “He’s an all-right guy.”

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