Idaho Transportation

Office of Communications
P.O. Box 7129
Boise, ID 83707
Fax: 208.334.8563


Idaho statesman Bruce Sweeney dies at age 77

From the Lewiston Tribune, Aug. 19, 2009
Longtime public servant and volunteer coach Bruce Sweeney died in Lewiston Tuesday. He was 77.

Sweeney was one of a long line of Democratic legislators who have represented Nez Perce County in Boise. He served two terms in the House, plus eight terms in the Senate, including several sessions as minority leader. He was appointed to the Idaho Transportation Board a week after his last Senate term ended in 1998. His second six-year term on the board was set to expire in January.

"I don't think people realize the high esteem in which he was held by people in government all across the state," said Sen. Joe Stegner, who ran unsuccessfully against Sweeney in 1996 and then replaced him after he retired. "Bruce was one of the few people in Idaho politics who could be deemed a statesman. He was very even-tempered, a gentleman at all times, and he wasn't petty. He rose above partisan politics time and again to try to accomplish things for the betterment of Idaho."

Former Rep. Dan Mader, a Genesee Republican who served five terms in the Legislature, including three with Sweeney, said Republicans admired him as much as Democrats.

"Across the aisle, he was better than anyone I've ever seen," Mader said. "He had so much respect on our side, we considered him one of us. He was pragmatic, very down to earth and nonpartisan. He was tuned in to his constituents. I think he felt like one of them."

In July, the Lewiston School Board renamed its high school track and field facility after Sweeney and his wife, Marilyn, in recognition of their financial support and other contributions. Besides being a volunteer track coach, he served as a track meet starter at the school for 35 years and recently donated $50,000 for landscaping and improved seating at the track.

Sweeney had been fighting bone cancer for some time. His wife, Marilyn, died in January.
"I'm not sure how long he'd been ailing, but he didn't give up. He (lived) a full life," said friend and legislative colleague Mike Mitchell.

Sweeney was born in Helena, Montana, in 1932. His father sold musical instruments and organized school bands. They moved to Lewiston in 1947, when Sweeney was a high school sophomore. He breezed his way through school, setting several school track records and quarterbacking the varsity football team his senior year. After graduating from the University of Idaho, he served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He also represented the Air Force in track competitions across the country, qualifying for the 1956 Olympic tryouts in the 400 meter hurdles and finishing eighth in the finals.

He and Marilyn returned to Lewiston in 1957. He went into business with his father at Sweeney Supply, a building supply firm in North Lewiston, and later operated a wood truss and construction company that sold pre-built homes around the Pacific Northwest.

In 1970, Mitchell and other local Democrats approached Sweeney to see if he was interested in running for the Legislature. His first response was, "Why would I want to do a dumb thing like that?"

But eventually he decided to run. He served in the House from 1971-74. After a hiatus of several years - during which he was chairman of the Nez Perce Democratic Party and served on the Lewiston School Board - he ran for the Senate in 1982, taking the seat previously held by Mitchell. He served until 1998.

"Bruce was an icon," said Marguerite McLaughlin of Orofino, who served in the Senate from 1983-2000. "The main thing is that it wasn't about politics, it was about the issue. He felt it was important to do what was right for the district."

"Bruce was the kind of person who was liked by everyone," said Moscow Sen. Gary Schroeder.
"He gave me a lot of advice when I first got there," Schroeder recalled. "He was very outgoing and always willing to talk about an issue. He worked hard and had a wealth of knowledge about the process and about legislative history. He genuinely liked helping people and solving problems."

During an interview in July, Sweeney said his greatest accomplishment in the Legislature was passing Idaho's first child restraint law, which required restraining devices for young children riding in vehicles.

The bill was being held in committee because the chairman didn't think the government should get involved. However, Sweeney knew if a majority of the committee members asked for the bill to be placed on the agenda, the chairman would be forced to do so.

"Most Republicans wanted the bill, too, but they didn't want to go against the chairman," he said. "So I asked three of them to be late for the meeting. That way we had enough votes to put it on the agenda. It was the last day the committee met, then it passed the full Senate. There were a number of bills I thought important, but that one probably saved a lot of lives."

Arrangements for Sweeney are pending with Vassar-Rawls Funeral Home in Lewiston.

Published 8-21-09